Commentary on Mark 12:1-12
Mark’s theology is apocalyptic: Mark believes that history is divided into two ages: (1) the present evil age that God will destroy and replace with (2) a new world in which all things manifest God’s purposes (the realm of God).
While the ministry of Jesus signals that the transition between the ages is underway, Mark believes that the complete transformation takes place only at the apocalypse at which Jesus returns.
Mark wrote about 70 CE when the Romans captured Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. As we note in connection with Mark 13 (March 25), Mark regards the destruction of the temple as a sign that the final apocalypse is near.
The Markan Jesus told the parable of the wicked servants in the temple in the presence of Jewish leadership (represented by chief priests, scribes and elders) (Mark 11:27). According to Mark 13:9-13, members of the Markan community were in tension with traditional Jewish leadership in both formal settings (e.g. synagogue actions) and within their own households (e.g. siblings betray siblings).
Mark believed that many Jewish leaders had allied themselves with Satan by resisting the notion that the ministry of Jesus signaled that the final manifestation of the Realm is underway. The temple was a symbol of the power-base of the misguided Jewish leadership; consequently, the destruction of the temple was a sign of God’s judgment.
The parable of the wicked tenants is a narrative theological explanation for why these developments took place (Mark 12:1-8). Furthermore, the text asserts that God has rejected the Jewish leadership and replaced their role in the Realm with Jesus and his followers (Mark 12:9-12).
Some interpreters argue that, for Mark, God rejects Judaism and all Jewish people. However, it seems evident that God rejects only those Jews who reject the notion that the ministry of Jesus signals the transition of the ages. All people — including Jews — who repent of their collaboration with the old age are welcome in the community awaiting the Realm.
The parable is not an explicit allegory in which Mark makes direct allegorical interpretation of the details (as in Mark 4:1-20). Rather, the parable of the wicked tenants is an implied allegory in which the allegorical elements are obvious to readers.
The parable is structured on a motif familiar among Jewish storytellers of the time: a landowner goes away for a time, leaving servants in charge of the property. The owner returns to see how the tenants have performed. In this case, the owner plants a vineyard and leaves it in their care (Mark 12:1). The language of “vineyard” had long been a symbol for the promises of Jewish covenantal community (e.g. Isaiah 5:1-7; Ezekiel 15:1-7). Mark uses vineyard language to refer to qualities of the life in the Realm (2 Baruch 36, 39). God had left these qualities in the care of Jewish leadership.
According to Mark 12:2-5, the owner sent a series of servants to collect the owner’s share of the produce. In the parable, this means that God sought to ascertain the degree of the faithfulness Israel through the prophets. However, Israel rejected the prophets. Mark recalls here a tradition from Judaism itself that many Jewish people persecuted the prophets (e.g. 2 Chronicles 24:20-22; Jeremiah 26:20-30; cf. Luke 13:34; Acts 7:52).
In Mark 12:6-8, God (the landowner) sent a “beloved son,” thinking that the tenants would certainly respect the heir, the future ruler of the vineyard. However, the tenants reveal the depth of their unfaithfulness by killing the heir, Jesus (Mark 1:11; 9:7).
According to Mark 12:9, the owner will “destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” In other words, God will destroy the Jewish leadership and give the leadership of the community of the Realm to Jesus and his followers. The language of “destroy” may imply not only that the leaders lose control of the temple and important aspects of Jewish life, but also that they are punished in the next world. In 12:10-11, Mark justifies this conclusion by appealing to Psalm 118:22-23. In the same way the builders in the psalm rejected the cornerstone, so the Jewish leadership rejected Jesus’ witness to the Realm. God has now made that witness the pivotal development, the chief cornerstone, in the movement towards the Realm.
In a time of social chaos, including conflict with other Jewish people and conflict within their own households, Mark uses the parable of the wicked servants to assure members of the congregation they have a place in the vineyard by following Jesus and being committed to the community of the Realm. From my theological perspective a preacher can embrace this position and offer similar assurance to a congregation in chaos today. The leading dimension of the sermon, like the text, could lure the congregation towards faithfulness.
Unfortunately, Mark makes the aforementioned affirmation by claiming that God has rejected significant numbers of Jewish people. To be sure, the Bible contains a tradition that God punishes those who violate covenant. But, in Jewish tradition such punishment is typically for the purpose of encouraging repentance and return to blessing. Mark, however, bypasses that tradition in favor of claiming that many Jewish people face complete destruction.
From my theological point of view, God’s love is unconditional and God’s promises are utterly trustworthy. If we agree with the text that God that can destroy the tenants, then we believe that God’s love is conditional and that God can break God’s promises. God then would not be truly faithful. God, I believe, is active in every situation to offer the community the optimum experience of love and blessing that is possible given the limits of the context.
I do think we bring collapse upon ourselves when we violate God’s purposes. The preacher, then, might critique the rejectionary aspect of the text while urging the congregation to cooperate with divine aims. God wants everyone to be in the vineyard.