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.
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.”
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?
. Robert J. Miller, eds., The Complete Gospels (San Francisco: Polebridge Press, 1994), 316.
. 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.