12 Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 2 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
6 “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all,saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
7 “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
9 “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture:
“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
11 the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
12 Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.
(Mark 12:1-12 NIV)
Today’s passage is a continuation of yesterday’s passage (11:27-33). The religious leaders (the scribes, chief priests, and elders) which comprised the Sanhedrin confronted Jesus and asked Him who authorized Him to do what He was doing (cleanse the Temple, reroute traffic out of the Temple courts, etc.). Jesus answered their question with a question; they couldn’t answer Jesus, so He didn’t answer their interrogation.
Jesus then proceeds to tell a story while the crowd and the religious officials are still gathered. Jesus’ story is simultaneously reality, a parable, and an allegory.
Jesus begins His story with a section of the Song of the Vineyard found in Isaiah 5:1-7. While Isaiah’s focus is on the bad grapes (the people of Israel), Jesus’s focus is on the bad tenant farmers (the religious leaders). Tenant farming arrangements were around for centuries before Jesus’ day, and are still in use today. In a tenant farming agreement, the landowner provides the capital (land, equipment, and facilities) and the tenant provides the labor. When the harvest comes, both receive a return on their investment.
Jesus’ story depicts the typical landowner-tenant arrangement in His day and in ours – the landowner is an absentee landlord – they do not live on or near the property. The expectation is that the tenant will maintain the property, tend the crops and/or livestock, and honor the terms of their agreement when the harvest comes.
In Jesus’ story, when the harvest comes, the landowner sends his servant to obtain his agreed-upon portion of the harvest. But the tenants turn out to be thugs and murderers, and reject every attempt of the landowner to collect his portion. They abuse, reject, and even murder the people the landowner sends.
When the landowner sends his son, his only heir, the tenants think that the landowner is dead, and they can have the vineyard for themselves. So the tenants kill the son and toss his body out of the vineyard, not even caring enough to give it a proper burial (an outrage in Jewish culture, as it showed total disrespect for the value of a human life and also violated God’s word that even criminals condemned to die were to be given a burial).
Jesus, in a rare moment, then asks and answers His own question: What will the owner do? He will take back the vineyard by force, kill the current tenants, and rent the vineyard to someone else. Jesus then quotes Psalm 118:22-23, another example and a reminder from Scripture that God can take rejection and seeming defeat and turn it into overwhelming victory, triumph, and glory.
Mark wraps up the story by telling us that Jewish leaders heard the message loud and clear, and it made their blood boil. They had already vowed to kill Jesus (11:18); now we see that they were looking for a reason and a way to arrest Him. Mark also tells us that the religious leaders were afraid of inciting a riot with the crowds, so they went away. In subsequent passages, we will see them regroup and come back with more questions in order to confront and trap Jesus and find a way to arrest Him.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, Jesus’ story is simultaneously reality (verified via extra-Biblical documents), parable (so the crowds would relate and understand), and an allegory (the deeper meaning hidden to all but the religious scholars).
Since Israel was largely an agrarian society, Jesus’ story was very relatable – the crowd was likely comprised of both tenant farmers and landowners. The tension between the two groups was real, and documented in other historical documents.
As an allegory, the religious leaders felt the stinging reminders Jesus pointed out from Scriptures of their misdeeds. Here is how the allegory lines up:
- Owner of the vineyard = God
- The vineyard itself = the people of Israel
- The tenant farmers = the religious rulers
- The servants sent by the owner = the Old Testament prophets
- The owner’s son = Jesus
One Bible scholar helps us see the practical application of this passage through the characteristics of God, Jesus, and humanity (us):
The characteristics of God:
- His generosity, supplying everything needed for the tenant to be successful.
So it is with us – God gives us everything we need to be fruitful in our life.
- His trust, leaving the operations of the vineyard to the tenants.
So it is with us – God gives us tremendous freedom to choose how we live our life.
- His patience, sending multiple servants to receive what the tenants owed.
So it is with us – He patiently invites us to follow Him and waits for us to respond.
- His justice, ultimately dealing with the rebellious tenants in fair judgment.
So it is with us – if we mistreat others and do not reconcile, God will judge us.
Likewise, if we are mistreated, God will provide justice – we need not seek our own.
The characteristics of Jesus:
- Jesus saw Himself not as a servant, but the Son.
- Jesus clearly knew that He was going to die; this was not a surprise to Him.
- Jesus knew that His rejection was not the end; ultimate triumph and glory awaited.
The characteristics of humanity (us):
- In our natural state, we think we can sin and get away with it, that there are no consequences for our attitudes or actions. We think we can do life on our own, without God, and reject any and every attempt He makes to reach out to us.
- If we reject our privileges and responsibilities to Christ, they will pass on to others. The Jewish people were to be the heralds of God’s love to the nations; when they rejected Him, God used the Gentiles to take His message to the world.
(characteristics of God, Jesus, and humanity adapted from “The Gospel of Mark, Revised Edition” by William Barclay. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 1975, pp. 282 – 283)
May we be good tenants and ambassadors for God’s glory, sharing the good news of Jesus with all we meet and living not for ourselves but for Him, in humility, gratitude, and love.