This is the thirty-fourth installment, comprising Act 5, Scene 5, chapter 12: 1-12 in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the thirty-third installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 5: 12:1-12
1 Then he began to speak to them in parables. "A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 2 When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4 And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5 Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, "They will respect my son.' 7 But those tenants said to one another, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' 8 So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this scripture: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'?" 12 When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away. (NRSV)
The issue of authority was left unsettled in Act 5, Scene 4 and anytime there is a void in power, a challenge to authority, or unsettled leadership, conflict is certain to occur. In many ways, from this point forward in the dramatic narrative, it is Jesus who now presses the issue and forces the scribes, Chief Priests, Pharisees, all of the religious authorities, to decide for or against him: Who am I? Who sent me? What is my mission? How will it be fulfilled? Now is not Jesus’ time to fall into the background, but to press his point publicly. Even as Jesus speaks openly amidst the crowds, though, his words can remain a riddle for those who do not want to hear. The parable spoken here, however, whether understood entirely by the Temple and religious authorities is clearly enough understood to be spoken against them and to indicate their lack of authority according to Jesus. More significantly, it is understood by Mark to demonstrate Jesus' divine authority.
The parable shares many things in common with other of Jesus’ parables, especially in that it takes place in an agricultural context. The precise context, though, draws upon the reality of agricultural estates common in the Greco-Roman world, owned by wealthy landowners who generally did not live on their own land. These landowners lived in the city and had workers and slaves run the operation for them. The man in charge, in fact, was often a slave, though he had a wide range of authority and freedom. In Greek, he was called the oikonomos, in Latin, the vilicus, the “manager” or “steward.” (For an ancient view of how these agricultural estates were to run and who was to run them, see Columella and his writings.) Often parts of the estate were leased to tenant farmers, who were then to supply the owner with an agreed upon percentage of their crops, and it was often a high percentage. Jesus, therefore, has set a common, ancient scene, with which all would be familiar from rich to poor to slave. The parable is familiar to other of Jesus’ parables, too, because the cast of characters comprise so many of his regular troupe: a rich man; his slaves; tenant farmers; his son.
In the parable “a man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed” (12:1-3). This is the core of the parable, the basic premise upon which all is based. It would be a parable, I think, that people would be fascinated to hear in an ancient context, Jewish or not, because it is all out of order. Social order and hierarchy mattered more in the ancient world than in our own and the fact that the tenants defy so boldly and with such violence the representative of the master would challenge every listener, regardless of social station. All hearers, let me suggest, would see the tenants as out of order. They are crazy! What do they hope to gain by their effrontery? It would also be a parable that would be seen, at least initially, as humorous: who are these tenants -hardscrabble, dirt farmers - to defy their master, the Lord of the manor? Their defiance is so bold it is unbelievable!
The parable continues, though, with acts of violence that get worse and worse. First, one slave is beaten and sent back without any of the produce owed (11:3)! Then another slave is sent, and he was “beat over the head and insulted” (11:4) and then another was sent and he was killed (11:5). This is already high farce! A master has sent three official representatives to receive the master’s due and not only is it not provided, but two of his slaves are beaten and another is killed? This is a joke! Who would be so patient and forgiving with these rogue anarchic tenant farmers? They might be crazy, but how can the master be so forgiving and understanding about what is rightfully his. But that is only the beginning of the absurdity, for Jesus tells us in his parable that “so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed” (11:5). The travesty continued without the master taking any sort of punishment out on the impudent, violent and out of control tenants. He keeps giving them another chance and they keep killing people. Who is this fool?
Finally, the owner of the vineyard sends someone else, “a beloved son” and he says to himself that “they will respect my son” (11:6). This cannot be a comedy any longer; it must be a tragedy. Why would he possibly think that the tenants would respect his son? Because they only killed some of the slaves he sent to them? The owner cannot stop himself from his kindness and forbearance and the tenants cannot stop themselves from their foolishness, due at least one must think to his very patience and forbearance. They believe that if they kill the heir “‘the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard” (12:7-8). The limit of the vineyard owner has been reached and, again, the fact that it has taken this long is intended to be ridiculous, farcical, yes, a joke.
His limit has been reached. The death of his “beloved son” is the point of no return. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (11:9). The end of the parable cites Psalm 118:22-23 to interpret the parable: the vineyard parable gives way to a key early Christian motif of the “rejected stone.” The son that the tenants killed is interpreted as the rejected stone of the builders, which is now the cornerstone, that on which everything else is built (12:10-11) Moreover, Psalm 118 understands this rejection and subsequent exaltation as “the Lord’s doing” (12:11).
A reader of Mark’s Gospel would understand this as a type of the Passion Predictions. Once the “beloved son” appears in 12:6, the parable all falls into place. Jesus has been noted as the “beloved son” at the beginning of the Gospel and at the Transfiguration. If Jesus is the “beloved son” in the parable, then the owner of the vineyard is God. The vineyard must be Israel and the tenants are the leaders of Israel (or less likely, all the people of Israel). The “slaves” who are sent to pick up the produce owed to God must be various prophets, who have come to take the “fruit” owed to God. This motif of fruitfulness also connects us to the fig tree and Temple scenes of Act 5, Scenes 2 and 3. The leaders are not producing what they should have produced, or they are not offering their fruitfulness to God. Instead of paying their just wages and dues, they have sent away God’s messengers and workers, including, finally, his son.They have been given so many opportunities to "pay up" it is a joke.
The manner in which Mark has constructed this parable makes it clear that it has been reworked in light of Jesus’ death and rejection amongst his own people, for apart from the focus on the numerous opportunities God has given the tenants to repent and accept his rule and the numerous times he has forgiven them for their folly, the point of the parable finally rests on Jesus as the rejected son who is placed in a position of authority by God (see the previous scene, Act 5, Scene 4) and fact that God “will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (12:9). This does not necessarily indicate that the parable has been constructed in light of the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, for I think it is likely that Jesus did tell this parable, when it became clear that the Jewish leaders were not accepting him, and placed himself and his mission in the context of the rejected prophets. Mark’s editorial function here has been to place the parable in light of the Psalm 118 passage, so significant for early Christian understanding of why Jesus was rejected and then exalted, and especially in the context of Gentile acceptance of Jesus, which has been building since the Gerasene demoniac, the Syrophoenician woman, and the second feeding miracle as an underground motif. Why did the Jewish leadership reject him and was this a failing on the part of Jesus or a part of God’s plan? This parable makes it clear that God’s plan included all of his people, but they have turned from his son, who represents God’s own authority, and countless other representatives from God. So many times have they turned from the Vineyard owner in the parable, that God seems like a doddering old man, too scared to act. Instead, it is love for the tenants that has motivated him and hope that they would repent from their rejection of God. Mark stresses that the inclusion of the Gentiles is in some way linked to this rejection. Indeed, this parable makes one think that the Gentile inclusion is based only upon rejection by the Jewish leadership, which cannot be so, as other Markan passages (cited above) indicate that it is a part of Jesus' intention from early in his mission.
Only one editorial comment is offered by Mark, apart from the parable itself, and that is that “when they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away” (12:12). “They” are the leaders of the people who we saw in the previous scene and once again their desire to arrest Jesus, to assert their own authority is present. Interestingly, it is only the crowds, those who are under the authority of the "tenants" of the parable, whose presence protects Jesus, but how long can that last?According to the parable, not for long.
John W. Martens
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