We consider a specific parable this week as we begin to look towards Good Friday. We will be jumping around a bit in Mark, but all is building towards the climax of the Passion of Christ on Good Friday and the victory of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. This parable comes after the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem which will be considered in a couple of weeks time. Jesus has overturned the money changing tables and the stalls selling sacrifices.
Not surprisingly the religious leaders are angry and want to know by whose authority he has come riding into Jerusalem in clear prophetic reference, and then had the audacity to disturb the worship of the temple – because that is what happened when Jesus entered the temple courts and we will think about that in a couple of weeks time as well. Jesus doesn’t give them a direct answer, but boxes them in with a question of his own. They were afraid to answer, because they were afraid of the crowd. It is at this point that Jesus tells the parable of the tenants – and it is very pointed.
We are going to approach it in the following way:
What is the Hebrew Scripture background to the parable?
What do we learn about and from the players in the story?
How does it apply to us?
What is the Hebrew Scripture background to the parable?
The parable is very obviously about Israel. The vineyard was often a metaphor for Israel and the backdrop to this parable is Isaiah 5 and a picture of judgement. Read Isaiah 5:1-7.
This vineyard had been prepared for carefully and carefully tended, but failed to produce good grapes. More than that it produced wild grapes. The pharisees listening to the parable could not have failed to make the connection with Isaiah 5. In fact the parable could almost be seen as a summary of the way God dealt with his people: he tended his people lovingly, but they went ‘wild’. He called them back to himself through the prophets, but these they either rejected or mistreated. The end result was God coming in judgement. The end result in the parable is that the vineyard is taken away and given to others.
The prophets themselves refer to the rejection of their message and the stubbornness of the people in ignoring the covenant and their God. Jeremiah complains that
From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. 26 But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors.” 7:25-26
They killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies. 9:26
2 Chronicles 36 tells us that
The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling-place. 16 But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.
Ahab describes Elijah as the ‘troubler of Israel’ and Jezebel his wife wants to kill him. This parable is rooted in the history of Israel and the covenant, and the religious leaders know it. In fact the people listening to Jesus would have grasped this if they were versed in the Hebrew Scriptures – and they would have known that the parable was principally told against their leaders. Certainly the prophets addressed their messages to the kings and the rich and the powerful. Their message was addressed to the leaders principally because they were supposed to be the ones leading the nation in the ways of God. Instead they often paid lip service to the worship of YHWH and then did their own thing.
The response of the leaders to Jesus follows the pattern of the response to the prophets. Early on in the ministry of Jesus they have allied themselves with an unlikely group – the Herodians – with the sole purpose of bringing Jesus down. Had they been able to, they would have arrested Jesus after he told this parable, but they were constrained by fear of the crowd. This was not necessarily for their own safety, but if they caused a riot it could bring a backlash from the Roman authorities, which they didn’t want. So they waited for their opportunity. The parable ratchets up the tension leading towards Good Friday.
What do we learn about and from the players in the story?
So let’s look at the players in the story, remembering not to stretch things too far, although there are some obvious connections we can make.
The planter of the vineyard is clearly God and mirrors the passage from Isaiah 5. The owner of the vineyard is looking for fruit in due season – also mirroring Isaiah. When it is clear the tenants have ‘gone wild’, why does the owner go on sending messengers so they can be abused, beaten up and killed? It just doesn’t make sense. Perhaps we are to see the forbearance of the owner towards the tenants i.e the forbearance of God towards us.
This was demonstrated as God sent the prophets to call the people back time and again. Judgement didn’t descend without warning; there was always the opportunity to repent. It is interesting that on the one occasion a prophet induces the people to repent because of the message he brings, it was Jonah pronouncing judgment on Nineveh. The fact that they repented and he couldn’t sit back and watch fire and brimstone destroy the city and its people, really upset Jonah. However, God was genuinely offering the opportunity for repentance if the people would listen and they did. It was the same for Israel – but they didn’t respond to the prophets.
For ‘tenants’ in this parable we are clearly supposed to read ‘religious leaders’ and the Pharisees knew it. At the end of the day, it was the leaders’ responsibility to guide the people aright in the ways of God; to enable them to live out the covenant. It seems they were more concerned about preserving the status quo. Under Roman authority there was stability and they could go about their daily business and the temple worship could continue, provided they did not give cause for concern. Perhaps this is summed up in Caiphas statement to the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered in a council, following the raising of Lazarus:
‘You know nothing at all! You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’
Jesus must have seemed much like the revolutionaries of our time who lead protest movements in countries where people are seeking greater freedom. Those in authority feel threatened; they believe the stability of the country is threatened and therefore they respond with violence. The leaders are the tenants and the foolishness of the tenants in the parable is that they think that if they respond violently to the messengers and go so far as to kill the son, they will then get complete ownership. Let’s consider the son.
This is where the parable moves into the realm of being Messianic and the point would not have been lost on Jesus’ hearers. The son is clearly meant to be the Messiah; the quotation from Psalm 118 points to this:
The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvellous in our eyes.
Jesus is telling them that they will even reject God’s chosen one in their vain belief that they can take control. He is alluding to the fact that he is the stone they are rejecting, but God will make him the cornerstone. More than that, the forbearance of the owner will come to an end and then they will experience his anger and judgement – and what they have will be taken away; remember the parable from last week. This is explosive stuff and in many ways it is not surprising it led to the events of Easter week.
Those who see Jesus as a revolutionary, but lacking in the necessary political skill would interpret the outcome of Good Friday as inevitable. Those who see Jesus as an amazing teacher, a good moral teacher would say that this is what happens when people challenge the status quo. Others would just see him acting naively and it all ending in tragedy. But it is Jesus who tells this parable and knows the path it is leading down. He knows that the ultimate judgement of God will come on Easter Sunday morning in resurrection, confounding those who thought they had dealt with him once for all.
The parable doesn’t make the religious leaders stop, think and reassess. It hardens them into action against Jesus. They made their choice. But what does the parable say to us? This is where it may become a little uncomfortable, because we are asked to examine ourselves in its light. The purpose of all the parables is to teach us about the Kingdom of God and to cause us individually and collectively to ask searching questions.
Has the church fallen into the trap for which we so often criticise the Pharisees: is the church more concerned about maintaining its position and role in civil society than listening to God and following the Holy Spirit? There is not a simple answer to this, but we can see from history that the church has been guilty of being concerned more about maintaining its status and power than sharing the gospel and welcoming people into the Kingdom. We don’t want Christendom back – not that there is much chance of that – because Christendom was more concerned about worldly power, authority and status. We are concerned with following Jesus Christ, being his daily disciples, his daily learners.
So what can we learn?
• We criticise the Pharisees for making worship difficult and coming to God difficult because of the rules and regulations. We believe that Jesus has removed that need and that anyone can come to God through him and be welcome in a place of worship. Are we genuinely willing to sit next to anyone on a Sunday morning, or do we sit elsewhere or make an excuse for moving? Is our welcome conditional on those who come in conforming to our expectations?
• We criticise the Pharisees for being people who were self-righteous and lacking in forgiveness. To what extent are we a community of forgiveness, recognising that we are only there by the grace of God in Jesus Christ; enabling others to experience and grow in the forgiveness of Christ?
• When the owner of the vineyard came seeking fruit, he was looking for what was rightly his. The prophets challenged the people of Israel about the lip service they paid to the Sabbath, itching to begin business again at sundown; about not bringing the best to worship. This period of lock down has been a challenge for everyone in their Christian faith. Are we still bringing our best to God in worship, giving him the fruit he is looking for in our lives?
• When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he responded with ‘Love the Lord your God…’ To what extent does that express our lives as Christian people? How closely or broadly do we define our neighbour?
• What is the fruit that we should be producing? Well Paul helps us out here because ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.’
The overall desire of the tenants in the parable was to take control, which in their foolishness they believed they could do. This is something of which we need to be aware as we do church together, seeking to be the body of Christ on earth and making the Kingdom known. Our role is not to define, restrict, limit or take control of the Kingdom. It is to be good tenants bearing fruit and giving to God the best we can.