Mark 12:1-12

Jesus Rejects the Temple (5) – Future Dispossession of the Priestly Caste

Mark 12:1-12 – The Parable of the Vineyard 

Jesus relentlessly took the assault right up to the leaders. There was nothing of the passive, misunderstood victim in his demeanour. Though Mark identified Jesus’ comment as a parable, it was more like an allegory where the various elements in the story bore fairly clear references.

1 Jesus began to talk to them in parables.
"A man planted out a vineyard.
He put a hedge round it, dug a winepress and built a tower.
He then leased it to some farmers,
and went away from home.

The Vineyard in the Hebrew Scriptures

For Isaiah, the vineyard was a symbol of Israel itself:

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it...
... For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry! (Isaiah 5:1-2,7)

The absentee landlord was a familiar figure, with whom the chief priests and elders of the people would readily have identified, even though in their case they were not absent overseas. They would easily have understood the response of the landholder. However, in this case, Jesus intended them, as those charged with the responsibility for the religious integrity of the nation, to see themselves mirrored in the tenants.

2 At harvest time he sent a slave to the farmers
to get from them the produce of the vineyard.
3 But they beat him up and sent him back with nothing.
4 He sent another slave to them.
They hit this one around the head and insulted him.
5 He sent another one, and they killed him,
and then a number of others
some of whom they beat up
and others they killed.
6 He had one more left, a beloved son,
and last of all he sent him to them,
thinking, “They will respect my son.”
7 But the farmers said to each other,
“This is the heir.
Come on, let us kill him,
and the estate will be ours.
8 So they took hold of him,
killed him
and threw him out of the vineyard.

Jesus saw the irresponsibility of the leadership as a response not simply of those he was currently addressing. It was endemic in the system itself, present in Israel’s history over a long period. 

Did Jesus intend the leaders to see him identifying himself as the son of the landowner? If they got the point, his veiled claim would have angered them even more deeply. To the Christian reader, the irony of the comment can hardly be missed. They would not respect him; they would kill him; they would throw him out of the vineyard (having him crucified and buried outside the walls of the city [15:22]).

9 What will the master of the vineyard do?
He will come and destroy those farmers,
and give the vineyard to others.
10 Have you not read the Scripture,
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
11This was the Lord’s work,
and to our eyes it is a marvel."?

Jesus quoted from Psalm 118.22-23, the same psalm from which Mark had taken the words put on the lips of the crowd as Jesus had entered Jerusalem on the donkey three days before.  (The psalm was not only popular with pilgrims coming up to the temple feasts; it became a favourite of later Christians who diligently read their Jewish Scriptures seeking words and images to interpret the meaning and person of Jesus. Jesus would be the cornerstone of the new metaphorical “temple” where God would interact with humanity. However, in Jesus’ time, the stone that the builders rejected was generally interpreted as a reference to David, or son of David, the political cornerstone of the social/religious structure of Israel.)

12 They sought to arrest him,
but were fearful of the crowd.
They recognised that he told the parable about them.

In seeking to arrest (take hold of) him, they unconsciously fulfilled the message of the allegory.

They left him and went away.

Next >> Mark 12:13-17