Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.
So we’ve looked at this parable in terms of its place in the larger story Mark is telling and noticed that it marks the advance of tensions between Jesus and his adversaries, tensions that will culminate in Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. We’ve also wondered about the role this parable may play in helping Mark’s community make sense of their experience in relation to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Now, I’d like to look it as a story all by itself, not in relation to its larger context in the Gospel or the historical events behind it, but just as a story. So perhaps you can read it again and pay attention to the kinds of things you always pay attention to in story – the action of the plot, the development of characters, and so forth.
When I read it this way, I’m drawn first and foremost to the tenants. The seem to me not only morally suspect but also a little crazy. Why, we might wonder, did they think they could get away with their thievery? As it turns out, this kind of problem wasn’t completely uncharacteristic in the first century when dealing with an absentee landlord. Tenants might assume, if they haven’t heard from a landlord for some time, that something has happened, that perhaps the landlord died, that no one would expect him to return, and that they could keep the profits of their labors for themselves.
But then messengers do come. First one, then another servant comes. And the thieving tenants beat them, all of them, and cast them out of the vineyard. Which is where things seem to get more than a little crazy. Perhaps they believe that this landlord won’t be bothered to travel back the distance necessary to deal with them. But they are wrong, the landlord not only sends servant after servant but also sends his son, assuming they will respect his heir.
And now he is wrong. The landlord hasn’t reckoned with just how desperate, or crazy, or depraved his tenants are, and they kill the son, somehow convincing themselves that with no heir in the picture the land will pass to them when the landlord dies.
Read this way, this story is about a bunch of crazy tenants.
But it’s also about a crazy landlord. I mean, really, but who would send servant after servant only to have them beaten and cast out and, when all this happens, then send his own son? These tenants have respected nothing and no one, so what makes this landlord suspect that his son will fare any better?
In fact, read this way, the only one crazier than these tenants in this story is the landlord, who, it turns out, is crazy desperate to be in relationship with these tenants, crazy desperate like a parent who will do anything – ANYTHING – to save his or her children.
Read this way, this parable isn’t just a warning to the religious authorities or an upping of the ante of the brewing conflict or an explanation for why the Temple was destroyed. Read this way, this is a story of a God who loves us – all of us, whether confused or crazy or comfortable or somewhere in between – enough to send messenger after messenger and, when all else fails, to send God’s only Son. Read this way, this parable is not about justice or judgment only, but also and primarily about love, God’s love for each and all of us.
Prayer: Dear God, let us see in Jesus and his cross testimony of your great love for all of us and, having experienced your love, let us love one another. In Jesus’ name, Amen.