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.
At this point in the story, as we’ve already seen, tensions are running high. Very high, like a string pulled too tight. Jesus has run the moneychangers out of the Temple, calling them robbers. By doing this he has challenged the integrity of the religious leaders who oversee the Temple and has disrupted the income that keeps the Temple going and pays tribute to the Romans. In short, he has become a threat to authorities of both church and state, religion and military, the sacred and the secular.
In case that wasn’t enough, he now tells a parable that pretty much anyone in his audience would have been able to interpret as a rebuke, even attack, on the religious leaders of the day. Jesus draws on the imagery of the “song of vineyard” in Isaiah (5:7), where God rebukes the people for not keeping faith, and through this story he traces the history of Israel’s mistreatment of the prophets right up to their rejection of him. And, as no doubt Jesus knew it would, this leaves his opponents riled up and ready to put him away.
Even the casual observer could probably see that things were heading toward a show down, as Jesus has stirred up the enmity of the powerful, on the one hand, but enjoys the favor – and therefore the protection – of the crowds, on the other. So there is something of a stalemate and standoff that exists in which Jesus is still free to teach and preach. But as so often is the case, this kind of balancing act can’t last for long, and in the days to come the pent up tensions and clash of visions of God’s kingdom will collide with devastating consequences.
In this light, we might read this provocative parable as one more step forward to the inevitable confrontation that awaits. Or we might read it as Jesus’ own intuition and prediction about what will soon come to pass. Or we might read it as a parable of judgment on those who reject God’s son, a judgment that Mark’s community now looks back in hindsight and sees in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
All of these are legitimate ways to read this parable. But there is another way to read it as well.
Prayer: Dear God, keep our eyes fastened on your Son as he moves toward the difficult climax of this story so that we might learn the truth both about our condition and your redeeming love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.