Sundays in Mark (39) The parable of the tenants

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark. This week Mark 12:1-12 and the parable of the (defiant) tenants.

A sense of mounting confrontation pervades this parable, located as it is within a series of conflict situations in Jerusalem. The context is absentee landlordism, a common reality in Jesus’ day. The careful description of the construction of the vineyard echoes The Song of the Vineyard in Is 5:1-7. The story of Israel is in mind here – as becomes more and more apparent with the clear allusions to Israel’s consistent rejection of God’s prophets.

The sending of the son fits within the structure of the parable. The distant owner assumes that his son will command more respect compared to the servants. Yet he is murdered and dumped outside the vineyard wall, not even given the dignity of a proper burial. It’s likely that in the story the tenants assumed the owner was dead since his son had come. So in killing him they claim rights over the ownerless land.

But their assumption is fatally wrong. The owner would use his power to forcibly subdue the rebellious tenants [the leaders] and the vineyard [Israel] would be passed on to others [the new community of the kingdom, Jesus’ new Israel].

The consequence of the tenants’ killing of the son is catastrophic judgement. And the link to Ps 118:22f and the rejected cornerstone of the Temple makes explicit the full polemical power of the parable. Jesus is the son who, like the stone, is rejected, only to be vindicated and appointed to an exalted position.

The parable is a devastating word of judgement on Israel’s leaders. Their rejection of Jesus stands in line with Israel’s resistance and unfaithfulness despite continuing divine grace. The Messiah is unveiling his true mission and identity, and the reaction of the listeners shows that they have understood the parable all too well.

Reflection: Here is God’s confrontation with violence, evil and sin, through the giving of his own innocent Son. Here is the victory of God in Jesus foreshadowed, the rejected cornerstone who would be vindicated and exalted. And here is judgement on Israel with her Messiah forming a new Israel around himself, a continuing act of redeeming grace.

The Parable of the Tenants

1 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.

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