The Evil Tenants are the Heroes of the Story



Mark’s gospel offers yet another parable told by Jesus to help people understand something about God’s kingdom. In the gospel of Mark these are usually connected to the real life situation of the Jesus’ listeners. We read Mark’s version of this story today but it also appears in Matthew and Luke. Each version is a little different.

In addition to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John there are at least 16 other gospels that, for a variety of reasons, didn’t find their way into the Bible. One of these is the Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas also contains this story. It is a much simpler version and probably closer to the original.

Thomas tells the story this way:

A person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, “Perhaps he didn’t know them.” He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, “Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.” Because the farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him. Anyone here with two ears had better listen.[1]

In Mark’s version of the story, the parable is followed by a quote of Psalm 118. When placed at the end of the story, it shifts the perspective of the story so that the story is about Jesus. Jesus becomes cast as the beloved son who is killed by the evil tenants. The scholars involved in the work of the Jesus seminar (which tries to create an image of the historical Jesus) agree that the quote from the Psalm was added later. Without the quote from the Psalm we might be able to see the parable a bit more clearly.

Let’s start at the beginning of the parable and think about it through the eyes of ancient Palestine:

There’s a landowner who plants a vineyard, tends it for a few years to get it started and then goes to another country. At the time of Jesus, there was a trend toward a few big wealthy landowners owning much of the land—often foreigners and specifically Romans. These landlords were often absent from their land.

In our story, the vineyard is rented out. The renters are looking after the grapes and doing all the work but without receiving the profit. When the landowner sends someone to collect the rent, the renters attack and beat the messengers. Peasant revolts against the owners and occupiers of the land was not uncommon in Jesus’ time. The ordinary people who worked hard to make a living were getting fed up.

Finally, the landowner sends his son thinking that his son will be respected. But that isn’t how the story ends: The renters kill the son and throw his body into the street with the hope that they will inherit the land. In our culture, the death of the son wouldn’t mean the renters would inherit but there were laws regarding landownership which makes their logic sound.

Joachim Jeremias,  write that “If the landlord is living in a distant foreign country…an inheritance, may be regarded as ownerless property which may be claimed by anyone… The arrival of the son allows them to assume that the owner is dead, and that the son has come to take up his inheritance. If they kill him, the vineyard becomes ownerless property which they can claim as being first on the spot.”[2]

So basically, if the landlord is out of country and the heir arrives and then dies, whoever gets there first gets the land. There’s a sentiment that the way things are is not fair. Why should a few people have all the wealth? We might think it was a brutal world back in Jesus’ time but has the world changed that much?

This is an interview of David Suzuki at Occupy Vancouver.

There are many moments throughout history where ordinary people say that the world isn’t fair and enough is enough. It happened in Jesus’ time and it happens again in our own time. What Jesus might be to his listeners with wealth and power is that they need to pay attention because change is in the air. If they continue to live in ways that are unjust there will be violent consequences. We continue to live in a world where some are very wealthy but many, many people are very poor. I am not advocating violence but we need to ask ourselves which side of this story we want to be on. Do we want to be the wealthy absentee landlord who only cares about their own profit? Do we want to be the tenant farmers who say enough is enough and we will not tolerate the inequality any longer?

If Jesus lived in our time and place, where would he align himself? Who would Jesus stand with and advocate for—the landowners or the poor and downtrodden? Where do we choose to stand?

[1]. Robert J. Miller, eds., The Complete Gospels (San Francisco: Polebridge Press, 1994), 316.

[2]. Joachim Jeremias, “The Parables of Jesus,” 2nd ed. (New York: Scribner’s, 1972), quoted in Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988), 308.


Sell Everything and Follow Me

follow me


Many translations identify this story as the story of the Rich, Young Ruler. But it doesn’t actually say that. The titles that we find in English translations are titles that have been added for the benefit of the reader—often through many years of tradition. They are not normally titles that are in the original text. When we find this story in Matthew the man is identified as young. In Luke’s version of the story he is a ruler. Here we are told that the man had many possessions—possessions meaning that he was a land owner. He was certainly comfortable in his position. He was one of the wealthy ones.


This wealthy man runs up to Jesus and asks, “what must I do to inherit abundant life?” Jesus quotes some of the 10 Commandments back to the man and adds a new one of his own: “You shall not defraud.” The man says to Jesus, “I have done all these things.” In other words, I’ve been good. I have lived a good life following the Law of God. Jesus gives the man another commandment: “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” The man couldn’t do it. He couldn’t give up everything and follow Jesus.

I’ve been struggling with this passage because I recognize that by world standards I am very wealthy. I have access to credit and we have been able to purchase a house. How do I feel about selling everything and giving the money away so I can follow Jesus? Very uncomfortable. I happen to like my life the way it is and I don’t want to walk away from what I have. I don’t think I’m alone in this discomfort.

But let’s go back to the story for now: The extra commandment that Jesus gives the man holds a bit of a clue. At the time of Jesus, because of the policies of the Roman empire and the taxation system, many people had lost access to their land and had become peasant slaves or day laborers as a way to survive. The land became concentrated in the hands of a few people who essentially picked it for a deal at the expense of their neighbours. So technically this man may have legitimately bought the land but he was able to buy the land because he was OK with someone else losing their land and home. He could buy the land because he was willing to pay the taxes required by the Roman Empire: taxes which oppressed his own people. By purchasing the land this man contributed to upholding the Roman empire at the expense of his own Jewish community.

And this seems to be part of what Jesus is challenging. Jesus is asking the man, “are you OK with holding land that used to belong to your neighbour and turning your neighbour out into the street?” “Are you OK with amassing wealth while the people around you become more and more poor?” Ched Myers, writes that “as far as Mark is concerned, the man’s wealth has been gained by “defrauding” the poor—he was not “blameless” at all—for which he must make restitution. For Mark, the law is kept only through concrete acts of justice, not the façade of piety.”[1] This reminds me of a passage from Isaiah 58:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

 In the passage from Isaiah, the people are worship and doing everything correctly but they have forgotten the spirit of compassion which underlies and upholds the law. Jesus seems to be saying the same thing to this man. “Technically, you have upheld the law.” The man confirms that he has never murdered anyone, he has never stolen anything, he has never lied, he has never defrauded anyone and that he has always honoured his parents. Technically, he has obeyed the law but now what Jesus asks of him is to follow the spirit of the law. The questions underlying Jesus’ words to the man are, “Do you have concern for the poor? Do you have compassion in your heart? Have you removed injustice from your community?” And the man cannot follow Jesus because he benefits from the oppression of others. He cannot follow Jesus because he cannot find compassion within himself.

And so the man leaves without following Jesus. Earlier in Mark we see Jesus call the fisherman. These are people whose security was in boats and nets. Their boats and nets would not make them wealthy. They would probably spend their whole life fishing in order to survive and fishing was quite literally their lifeline. When Jesus called them they got up and walked away in order to follow him. The fishermen left their security but the rich man in the story could not leave behind his security. He could not leave behind his wealth. He could not leave behind his social status. He could not follow Jesus.

It is challenging for those of us with wealth to follow Jesus. Are we willing to give up our security and comfort? Are we willing to change systems of power that benefit us? Are we willing to find compassion for others who are struggling to make ends meet? Is it possible to follow Jesus and be wealthy?

Jesus responds to these questions as he speaks to the disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go pass through the Needle’s Eye Gate than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God! . . For mortals it is impossible—but not for God. With for God all things are possible.” (Mk 10:25,27 Inclusive Translation). In Jerusalem there is a gate in the old city called the Needle’s Eye. Imagine a camel trying to get through this gate— challenging but possible. The camel drivers had to remove all the baggage and then the camel would be forced to stoop down in order to pass through the gate.

In order to follow Jesus, we need to be able to let go of our burdens. We cannot find our way through a narrow gate if we keep everything. All of us have things in our lives that keep us from following the spirit of the law. Our attachment wealth and possessions might keep us from trying change systems that oppress others. Our busyness might keep us from pausing to help someone in need. Our concern for our own family and friends might keep us from seeing the stranger that is alone. Like the rich man in the story, we might feel that we are following God’s way and doing everything that is required but the spirit of compassion and concern for others needs to be within us.

What will you give up in order to follow Jesus? What security will you leave behind to follow Jesus? How will you live the compassion that Jesus requires of us?

[1]. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2006), 274.


Who Do You Say That I Am?

In this week’s passage, Jesus is continuing to travel around the countryside teaching and healing. While they are travelling, Jesus asks the disciples, “who do you say that I am?”

There are lots of answers to this question. The disciples have several answers ready for Jesus:

John the Baptist (recently beheaded), Elijah (the prophet who had the fiery showdown with the priests of Baal), the Messiah.

Who do you say that I am? An important question for all of us and one that should shape our lives—our thoughts and our actions. I’ve had many opportunities to reflect on who Jesus is for me. At different points in my life I haves struggled to make sense of who he was and is. I have wondered what the point of his life was. There are certain names and images of Jesus that make me very uncomfortable. There are other names and images with strengthen and encourage me in my faith. You can see many of these names and images on in this picture:


Each of these images tells us something about Jesus: His character and life, his connection to God, his role in the world and in our lives.

I want to walk you through some of my own creed about who Jesus is for me and why these particular images and descriptions are important in my own faith. I’d also like you to reflect on the images and names of Jesus you hold dear and how these images shape and influence your own faith.

In Jesus, the Creator was and is made known. Jesus is a reflection of God. His life gives us a glimpse into who God is. In Jesus we are reminded that God was present at the beginning of creation and called creation into being. That creation and presence was not something that happened once at the beginning of time. It was not something that only occurred in Jesus. The Creator continues to be at work and continues to be revealed in human life.

He was fully human and fully known by God as all of us are. Jesus was fully human. His humanity is important to me. I believe Jesus was conceived in the same way you or I were conceived. Human life is always a miracle and we are all children of God. Jesus was deeply grounded in his faith as a Jew. He knew the scriptures and took the practice of his faith seriously. In doing so he opened himself to God’s spirit and allowed God to work through him. God lived in Jesus because he was so deeply rooted in his faith and committed to following God’s way. Our own rootedness in faith creates space for God to be at work through us.He cared about each person individually and knew that all must be free for one to be free. Jesus took time to build relationships with individual people. He spoke to individuals. He healed. He taught. Jesus was also clear that we are all connected. Whenever Jesus healed individuals, they were reconnected to their community which in turn changed the dynamic within the community. Jesus was able to and continues to change individual lives and restore people to wholeness and connectedness.

As Political Lord, he challenged structural violence and empowered people for transformation. There was also a very political component to Jesus’ ministry. He challenged the structures within his religion—as well as the Roman Empire—which harmed people’s ability to live fully. We need the connection between the personal and political. Our faith does not allow us to choose between Jesus as personal savior and Jesus as political Lord. We need to understand the power of Jesus message for us as individuals. We need to understand that if Jesus is Lord then when there is conflict between the values of a political system and our faith, Jesus is the authority we choose to follow.

Jesus is known as prophet, guide, protestor, activist, healer, teacher, witness. These are important images for me. As a prophet, Jesus could see how the culture had lost sight of God’s message and his role was to remind people who they are called to be and help get them back on God’s path. Jesus is the guide to God’s path. He is the one who leads and directs our lives and points us on the path towards God. Jesus was a protestor and activist. He challenged all the thing things that were wrong with the world and tried to change them for the better. Jesus was a healer and a teacher. Jesus was a witness to God’s love and presence in the world.

Jesus died because there is sin in the world which separates us from each other and from God. Jesus challenges that separateness. There is sin in the brokenness of our lives and relationships. Sin simply means that we have missed the mark. We’ve made mistakes. We all miss the mark and make mistakes in our lives. But sin is also collective. It is all the little choices we make on a daily basis that add up to structures that prevent fullness of life or harm individuals. In those places where there is hurt and suffering, we find Jesus bringing healing. We find Jesus mending relationships. We find Jesus caring for people. We find Jesus welcoming people into community. I am reminded that we are the body of Christ and that when one person suffers we all suffer.

There is witness to his life, his death and his resurrection. It is because of this witness that he is known to us today. In scripture we find a witness to Jesus’ life and death. The women who stood at the foot of the cross and wept and watched while he died confirm that death. But they also affirm that something miraculous occurred on Easter morning. It is because they watched him die and yet found the tomb empty that there is a religion called Christianity. They saw something they couldn’t explain in any rational way and yet knew to be true.

Jesus calls us to continue the witness that points to a God of justice, love and compassion. I see something of God in the person of Jesus. Through the stories of Jesus’ life, I see a God who cares for the most vulnerable, who loves the most unlovable and who touches everyone around him with compassion. When I see people living with grace and compassion and love I am reoriented back to the God of love. I continue to see the witness of God’s love through Jesus around me.

Who is Jesus? I’ve shared some of who Jesus is for me. These images shape and influence the way in which I see the world and, hopefully, the way I live and yet my understanding and experience is incomplete and limited.

Why does it matter whether Jesus is the Lamb of God or the Prince of Peace or the Great Healer? It matters because Jesus is a reflection of God and shapes whether we see God as concerned with this life or the next life only. It matters because these images shape whether we believe is a magical God who will come and save us from ourselves at some future point or God who is around us at every moment and transforming lives in the present.

Jesus asks each of us: “Who do you say that I am?”