Parable of the Tenants (or Taxes to Caesar)

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is traditionally called “triumphal” and deservedly so.

February 28, 2016

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Commentary on Mark 12:1-12 or Mark 12:13-17

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is traditionally called “triumphal” and deservedly so.

He is hailed as the Lord’s representative, a kingly figure whose pathway is strewn with cloaks and palm branches. But the accolades are not universal. After Jesus cleanses the temple, the chief priests and scribes begin looking for a way to kill him. This initiates a series of tense encounters between Jesus and the Jewish leadership, sometimes called interrogation stories because several of them begin with a question posed to Jesus. The texts for today cover the second and third such encounters.

Mark 12:1-12 is not strictly an interrogation story, although it does display the hostility between Jesus and the Jerusalem leadership seen in those stories. Instead, it takes the familiar form of a parable, in this case, an agrarian tale with a violent twist. A man plants a vineyard, fences it, builds a wine press and a watchtower, and leases it to tenants.

This simple, matter-of-fact description has both economic and intertextual significance. Economically, it indicates that the landowner in question has made a considerable investment. Planting, fencing, and building represent a significant financial outlay. This is not a casual endeavour; the vineyard constitutes a commitment. The landowner has put himself at risk, both in terms of the profitability of the vineyard and the integrity of the caretakers.

Intertextually, the story would call to mind for any savvy Jerusalem leader the “Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard” from Isaiah 5:1-7. In that song the vineyard personifies the farmer’s beloved, who in this case is unfaithful Israel. The love and generosity of the divine farmer is unrequited. Israel, who received every benefit and blessing, did not reciprocate with faithful devotion. She did not produce grapes.

Jesus’ version of the story is more graphic and violent, hence the actions of the tenants are even more shocking. In Jesus’ story, the fault of the tenants is not simply a failure to produce grapes, but a treacherous series of responses to the landowner’s representatives. At least five attempts are made to contact the tenants and receive what was due the landowner. (One of the attempts speaks of “many” emissaries; vs. 5.) The series culminates in “a beloved son,” wording that unmistakably evokes the heavenly voice at the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 1:11; 9:7).

There is a clear escalation of ill treatment (beating, beating on the head, killing) and an equally clear intensification of the landowner’s efforts (a slave, another slave, many others, a beloved son). The landowner’s hope is ardent and idealistic, but ultimately futile. The tenants at this point are not just evil but irrational. How do they hope to inherit the vineyard after acting so traitorously? The outcome is inevitable: judgment, retribution, and replacement.

Christian interpreters in a post-Holocaust context need not read Mark 12:9 (“he will give the vineyard to others”) in a supersessionist fashion. Jesus did not tell the parable to suggest that God was going to take the kingdom away from “Jews” and give it to “Christians.” That is not only anachronistic, but misses the point, which is about faithfulness, not ethnicity. The critical issue in the parable is not the identity of the “others” but the failure of the tenants to respond faithfully, in accordance with their tenant obligation, or — to step back from the world of the parable — in accordance with the covenant. Christians can certainly treat the cornerstone with disrespect, and Jews can (and some did and do) respond faithfully to God’s revelation.

Mark 12:13-17 is a true interrogation story: the well-known episode about paying the tribute to Caesar. Certain Pharisees and Herodians attempt to trap Jesus. They approach him and address him with a fourfold, but utterly disingenuous commendation. They are buttering him up like a croissant before posing a seemingly unanswerable query. “Is it lawful” — probably in the sense of permissible vis-à-vis Jewish law — “to pay taxes to Caesar?”

The tribute in question is a poll tax, i.e., a flat fee assessed per person. It was a loathsome reminder that Judea was subjugated to Rome. A negative response by Jesus would cast him as a seditious enemy of Rome; a positive response would undermine his popularity with the people, who generally detested the tribute. Jesus asks to see a denarius. “Jerry Maguire,” the 1996 Tom Cruise romantic comedy and sports film, spawned the catchphrase: “Show me the money!” That could be a title for this story.

The requested coin is produced, and Jesus asks, “Whose image and inscription are these?” The response is straightforward: “Caesar’s.” Jesus then replies with a simple antithesis, as pithy as it is probing: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The response is amazement because Jesus has slipped out of their trap. The questioners must be thinking, “How did he do that? We put him on horns of a dilemma, and he walked away without being skewered by either horn! He answered neither as an anti-Roman zealot nor as a pro-Roman toady.” Then came more studied reflection by all in the audience — both the hostile and the sympathetic — “What does Jesus’ answer mean?”

Some scholars have wondered if Jesus’ answer to the initial question was actually, “No, the tax is not lawful.” These interpreters would argue that all things belong to God not to Caesar, so Jesus’ reply must mean, “Give Caesar nothing!” But this removes the words from their narrative context. Jesus requests a coin; he secures the coin; he inquires about the coin’s image and inscription; and the inquisitors respond by identifying the coin with Caesar. In the context of these actions the meaning of Jesus’ statement can scarcely be, “Render nothing to Caesar.”

Jesus’ response — both words and actions — acknowledge but severely limit what is owed to Caesar. He is probably holding the denarius when he delivers the famous words. Jesus thus implies that this detestable coin with its idolatrous inscription is the sum total of “the things that are Caesar’s.” So what is to be rendered (in effect, “given back”) to Caesar is strictly circumscribed. What is owed to God, however, is a wide open question, and Jesus’ answer demands reflection on that half of the saying.

Some commentators are quick to say that no social or economic policy can be derived from this saying of Jesus, and they are right in the strict sense. But Jesus does articulate a broad principle that has continuing relevance. In harmony with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13, Jesus affirms, in principle, the basic legitimacy of human government, while insisting that one’s obligation to God is always greater and severely limits what is owed to the State. In a world of megalomaniacal regimes (e.g., North Korea) and even democratic states that sometimes overreach, that is surely relevant.

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
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart   ELW 800, UMH 500, NCH 290

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart, Robert Buckley-Farlee