Recent studies of the parables of Jesus have indicated that some of them probably portray Jesus’ interpretation of Israel’s historic response to God’s initiatives. For example, the parable of the Four Soils (Mark 4:1-9) can be read as illustrating how Israel at various times in its history accepted or rejected God’s word as it was ‘sown’ among them by prophets, priests and kings. Of course, the Christian worldview principles expressed in the parable continue to apply truth into our contexts today. Jesus’ parable in Mark 12:1-11 probably uses the same kind of historical framework for its context of interpretation (cf. Matthew 23:29-39).
The Parable of the Tenant Farmers (Mark 12:1-11) is at one and the same time a stinging indictment of the Jewish religious leaders’ reaction to Jesus and his message, and Jesus’ strongest affirmation up to this point in Mark’s narrative that he is God’s son and his mission will succeed – the mission to include Jews and Gentiles among God’s people. As the story in the parable unfolds we learn of a series of messengers sent by the owner to receive the financial benefits from his property and the shameful treatment of those messengers by the tenants because they want to possess the vineyard themselves.
The last effort the owner makes involves "a son whom he loves" (cf. Mark 1:11; 9:7), which in Mark’s narrative is a designation reserved for Jesus as defined by God. If Jesus spoke this parable in Aramaic, then there may be a pun embedded in the story. The son (ben) is also the stone (eben) "the builders rejected" but which "has become the capstone" (vs.10). But let’s focus upon the rhetorical exclamation the owner expresses as he sends his son – "They will respect my son" (vs.6). While the tenants may dare to mistreat other messengers, the owner believes their attitude will change when the son and heir appears on the scene. Probably the original listeners expected that to happen also, but all are surprised – listener and vineyard owner – at the horrendous ambition of the tenants. They will kill the son because they want the inheritance! As France suggests, "this is instinctive piracy rather than reasoned policy".
Embedded in vs. 6 is the expectation of the owner that the tenants "will respect" his son. The sequence of failed attempts to secure the profits underline the incredible risk the owner is taking by sending his son. Mark, however, chooses to express the father’s (i.e. owner’s) hope with a verb used only here in his Gospel (entrepomai). The sense of the word in this form is "show respect for" or "have regard for" another person. Perhaps the idea essentially is a humble attitude in the presence of a person. Whereas the owner expected the tenants to demonstrate humble respect for his son, almost a repentant spirit for their previous misdemeanors, the tenants drew courage from the sequence of rebellious actions and the owner’s apparent inability or unwillingness to rein in their aggressive theft.
In the context of Jesus’ ministry it is the refusal of the Jewish religious leaders to accept Jesus and his mission as Messiah that triggers this parable. He characterizes their action as a refusal to show respect and reverence for "the owner’s" (i.e. God’s) ‘beloved son" (i.e. Jesus). Such lack of reverence should be named as blasphemy and will bring God’s appropriate response. The judgment announced mirrors Jeremiah’s warnings to the Israelite leaders six centuries earlier. God will not tolerate further rebellion by these leaders. Action is about to occur.
Many applications might arise from this parable. However, one that speaks into our context concerns our response to Jesus’ authority. In our postmodern era "authority" is not a welcome concept. Even religious leaders, i.e. Christian leaders, struggle daily to live happily under the authority of Jesus. In subtle ways we reject God’s messengers, refusing to acknowledge God’s authoritative claims upon our lives. And even when we hear the gentle footsteps of the Jesus walking through His vineyard, we are tempted to resist his ownership and eliminate His influence. We do not show Him the reverence and regard He deserves as God’s Son. Let us heed the warning implicit in the parable that God will accomplish His work, even if we oppose Him. If we want to work in God’s vineyard, then we need to respect and reverence God’s ownership and recognize our status.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today,
- consider your own personal history of response to God’s overtures. How do you compare with the Jewish religious leaders?
- identify ways in which you can show your reverence for God’s claims upon your life;
- given your role in God’s vineyard, define the process you use to discern whether the plans you have represent an ambition to take over the vineyard, or a humble desire to advance the cause of the vineyard’s owner.
- 1. Jesus builds his story with strong echoes of Isaiah’s song of the vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7).
- 2. Consider the use of the ‘love’ language in Isaiah 5 (my beloved vineyard) and also the parallels with Abraham’s offering of Isaac (Genesis 22:2 "your beloved son whom you love").
- 3. R.T. France, Gospel According To Mark. NIGNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 461.
- 4. Matthew only uses this verb in the parallel to Mark (Matt. 21:37). Luke also uses it in the parallel passage (Luke 20:13) as well as in the Parable of the Persistent Widow (18:2,4). The only other use of this middle form of the verb is in Hebrews 12:9.
- 5. The active form means "make someone ashamed" (cf. 1 Cor. 4:14).