Some biblical texts are hard to love, and this parable (Mark 12:1-12) makes my list.
The problems are many. Jesus tells the story of a landowner, clearly a man of means, who plants a vineyard, fences it in, installs all the right equipment, hires some other people to manage it, and leaves the country. When the time comes, this distant lord expects to reap a percentage of the harvest. It’s his vineyard after all. So, he sends a slave to go and get the grapes. A slave. This is new information. It makes you wonder if it was the landowner who planted the vineyard, put a fence around it, dug the pit, and built the guard tower. Did he do all those things, or did his slaves do all the work?
In any case, it is a slave who faces the belligerent tenants, a slave who is beaten and sent on his way grape-less. What does he tell his master when he finally makes his way to the far country, limping? Whatever it was, it did not prevent the landowner from doing the exact same thing again, sending another slave, alone and, apparently, unarmed. This slave gets rewarded with a head wound and harassment, and then he too must make the long journey back to the boss.
Was anything learned from this second attempt? No. The stubborn landlord just sends another slave off, as if nothing had happened. This one doesn’t come back. How does the master find out he was killed, I wonder? Who would know what happened but the tenants, and would they really send out a newsletter with all the details? Maybe the landowner just assumed the worst.
At any rate, Jesus tells us that he just keeps on sending out canaries, one by one, “many” of them (verse 5b). They all come back with broken wings, if they come back at all. How many harvests have come and gone since the first slave was sent out? But the landowner has one gambit left, a “beloved” son. The tenants would not dare hurt him. Did the son feel the same optimism about this plan? The tenants, somehow, know this latest emissary is the heir to the vineyard. Perhaps it is his bearing; perhaps it is his clothing. Either way, they know this is their chance. They grab him, kill him, and toss his body out to the wild animals.
Somehow, that news spreads to the far country. What will the owner of the vineyard do? That is the big question Jesus asks. It appears to be rhetorical, because he answers it himself: he will (finally!) make the trip to the vineyard himself and “destroy” the tenants (with what army does he do this?) and then give the property to “others.” Does Jesus really mean “give” the vineyard, or is this a matter of finding some new, more compliant, tenants? The story is an unrelenting series of inexplicable events and violent encounters.
To complicate all of this, we must add three additional considerations. First, everyone knows that when a biblical text talks about a vineyard, it is about more than rows of grapes on a hillside. “Vineyard” comes with a whole story, a whole world attached to it. “Vineyard” means “the people of Israel.” Whatever else is going on in this parable, the storyteller makes sure you don’t miss that by practically quoting a text from Isaiah in which the connection between vineyard and Israel is explicit. So, that backdrop suggests that God is the stubborn landowner, the slaves are the prophets, the tenants are corrupt leaders, and the “beloved son” is Jesus. But after spending time in the world of the parable, this is not exactly comforting.
Second, the parable also portrays a reality of life that first-century hearers would recognize: absentee landlords who demand a hearty percentage of the harvest from the people who actually do the work. While the story has some plausibility issues (see above), it describes a power structure that would evoke a variety of reactions depending on the social status of the hearer. Do you identify with the slaves? The landowner is reckless and uncaring. Do you identify with the tenants? These sharecroppers are ruthless, but perhaps you see them as prophets themselves, fighting to overthrow an unjust system. Do you identify with the landowner and his son? You might feel indignation—how dare they?—followed by satisfaction—they will get what they deserve. Every one of these reactions is unsettling.
Third, Mark takes all of this and nests it in another story. Mark 12:1-12 falls between the account of the triumphal entry and the night Jesus was betrayed. It is one of a number of conflict stories, in which Jesus is either openly challenging or cryptically evading the religious leaders who have it in for him. This is not the Jesus who is silent before his accusers but the Jesus who is right in the thick of things, holding his own. In the story right before this, authority is the issue in question, with the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders asking him who he thinks he is. The discussion ends in a draw, and then Jesus tells this story: landowner, slaves, tenants, son, murder, revenge, new tenants.
But at the end of the parable, Jesus makes an odd leap, asking his opponents if they know the one about the stone that goes from rejection to exaltation, and how amazing that is. It is only at that point that they realize the parable is about them. But how is it about them? And what does the cornerstone have to do with it? It only makes sense if you unfurl it against an eschatological horizon. In the parable, the father is outraged, the son is dead and unburied, but the “cornerstone” interruption says the story isn’t really over. Not by a long shot.
What is a preacher to do with a messy parable like this? Let it prompt deep questions, like all the parables of Jesus do, even the ones that are hard to love.
Son of God, you spoke words to Jerusalem’s leaders that were hard to hear. Give us ears to receive your word of life so that we can follow you faithfully. Amen.
Take my life, that I may be ELW 583/685, GG 697, H82 707, NCH 448, UMH 399 Spirit of God, descend upon my heart ELW 800, GG 688, UMH 500, NCH 290
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart, Robert Buckley-Farlee