Parable of the Evil Farmers 1 Then Jesus began teaching them with stories: "A man planted a vineyard. He built a wall around it, dug a pit for pressing out the grape juice, and built a lookout tower. Then he leased the vineyard to tenant farmers and moved to another country. 2 At the time of the grape harvest, he sent one of his servants to collect his share of the crop. 3 But the farmers grabbed the servant, beat him up, and sent him back empty-handed. 4 The owner then sent another servant, but they insulted him and beat him over the head. 5 The next servant he sent was killed. Others he sent were either beaten or killed, 6 until there was only one left - his son
7 "But the tenant farmers said to one another, 'Here comes the heir to this estate. Let's kill him and get the estate for ourselves!' 8 So they grabbed him and murdered him and threw his body out of the vineyard.
9 "What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do?" Jesus asked. "I'll tell you - he will come and kill those farmers and lease the vineyard to others. 10 Didn't you ever read this in the Scriptures? 'The stone that the builders rejected
has now become the cornerstone.
11 This is the LORD's doing,
and it is wonderful to see.'" 12 The religious leaders wanted to arrest Jesus because they realized he was telling the story against them - they were the wicked farmers. But they were afraid of the crowd, so they left him and went away.
Once again Jesus is in the Temple, teaching the truths of God. Using a common everyday situation to teach a profound spiritual truth, Jesus describes the nation of Israel as a vineyard owned and leased out by God. Its tenants, the nation's religious leaders, refuse to give God his due. Instead, they kill first the owner's messengers and then his son. They themselves will be killed, says Jesus, and the vineyard will be given to other tenants. Jesus ends by predicting that he, the one rejected by the religious leaders, will become the chief cornerstone of God's new building.
A vineyard (Mark 12:1)
Jesus' story, or parable, describes an everyday situation in the Palestine of his day. "Wealthy foreign landlords owned large land estates which they leased to tenant farmers. The tenants agreed to cultivate the land and care for the vineyards when the landlords were away."1212 At harvest time the tenant farmers would pay the owner's agents, sent by him to collect a set percentage of the crop. "Generally this amounted to a quarter to a half of the crop, probably in the form of wine, not grapes."1213 It was during this time that "[t]ensions often arose; records exist of bitter disputes between landowners and their tenants."1214 In order for the landowner to retain his legal rights to the land, he had to receive some produce from the tenants.1215 Thus a deliberate failure to pay the landowner actually represented a calculated effort on the part of the tenants to undermine his legal rights to the property.
His son (Mark 12:6)
While the landowner convinced himself that the tenants would respect his son, they took the son's presence to indicate that the owner was no longer alive. "In Palestine at the time, a piece of land could be possessed lawfully by whoever claimed it first if it was 'ownerless property,' unclaimed by an heir within a certain time period (cf. Mishnah Baba Bathra 3.3). The tenant farmers assumed that if they killed the son they could acquire the vineyard."1216 Get rid of the son and the land would be up for grabs.1217 Hence it is not a matter of impulse. "On the contrary, it is 'malice aforethought,' the result of wicked deliberation, of corrupt, selfish scheming. It is premeditated murder."1218
The cornerstone (Mark 12:10)
Jesus quoted from Psalm 118:22-23 to sound a note of hope. ("Psalm 118 was a key part of the Passover service, and all the pilgrims coming to Passover would recite 118:25-26 as they came to Jerusalem."1219) "A slain son cannot be revived but a rejected stone can be retrieved and used."1220Thus the rejection of Jesus will spell not the end but the beginning as Jesus himself becomes the chief cornerstone - "considered the most important stone of a building,"1221 "used as the standard to make sure the other stones of the building were straight and level"1222 - of the Church "international, gathered from both Jews and Gentiles."1223 (Of course there is also a sense in which Israel, rejected by all other nations, was/is the cornerstone in God's plan of redemption.1224)
Teaching (Mark 12:1)
One source outlines the main elements of this parable:
the man who planted the vineyard = God
the vineyard = Israel
the tenant farmers = the Jewish religious leaders
the landowner's servants (12:2) = the prophets and priests who remained faithful to God and preached to Israel
the son = Jesus (12:6), and
the others to whom the vineyard was given (12:9) = the Gentiles1225
As one source rightly points out: "A vineyard is naturally planted for the sake of the fruit it will yield. But this parable does not center our attention on the productivity or the unproductivity of the vineyard or of its vines ... but on the vicious action of these vine-growers to whom the vineyard is leased, and who were to meet the terms of that lease."1226
A number of additional points are worth noting:
Isaiah 5:1-7. This parable "builds upon the imagery of Isaiah 5:1–7, the Song of the Vineyard, which portrays the coming destruction of those who fail to bear fruit for God."1227
OT imagery. The parable includes imagery found throughout the OT: the idea of "fruit-producing growths" intended to yield a full and useful crop, in particular "the olive tree, the fig tree, and the grapevine"1228; "the vineyard representing God's possession Israel (ISAIAH 5:1–7); the harvest as judgment time (Jeremiah 51:33; Hosea 6:11a; Joel 3:13); and the servants as spiritual leaders (Exodus 14:31; Judges 2:8; 1 Samuel 3:9; 2 Samuel 3:18)."1229 (Later rabbinic literature explicitly equates the watch tower with the temple and altar.1230)
Judgment. This is "a juridical parable, that is, a parable that induces the hearers to pass judgment on themselves. The vineyard is Israel, its owner is God, and the fruit is the behavior of Israel."1231 It foretells the harsh judgment awaiting them after they've committed the ultimate atrocity of killing God's Son. ("Throwing the heir's body out of the vineyard [v.8] pictures Jesus' death outside of Jerusalem."1232) "God's love and patience exceed absolutely everything that men have ever heard of here on earth. Yet let us not overlook the other point, how Jesus here pictures the corresponding guilt of all those who abused these messengers and finally killed also the son. If God's love and patience exceed all bounds, so also does this guilt."1233
The prophets ... the Son. This parable recounts the shameful treatment rendered God's spokesmen, the prophets, at the hands of the nation's religious and political rulers, who will thus lose their stewardship.1234 "Throughout Israel's history, the leadership constantly rejected the prophets God sent to them, refusing to turn away from idols or to follow God's guidance. Many of God's prophets were beaten; others were killed."1235 Moreover, "[e]ach generation of the Jewish leaders allowed the deeds of their fathers by repeating them. They made all the previous murders their own by adding to them; and the climax was reached by the last generation of these leaders in killing Jesus. They put into final practice the lessons in killing taught them by all former persecutors of the prophets by killing God's own Son."1236 ("'Beloved' occurs elsewhere in Mark only at Jesus' baptism and transfiguration (1:11; 9:7). Both are allusions to Ps. 2, wherein in the face of insurrection God affirms his messianic son's inheritance, which is the focus of the parable in Mark."1237)
Perverted thinking. "Jesus came to call Israel back to God. But the religious leaders, caught up in their positions, wanted to hold on to their power and prestige with the people. Jesus threatened to take that away; they couldn't match his teaching, his miracles, or his popularity. They thought that killing Jesus was the only way to gain back the respect of the people that seemed to be slipping from their grasp."1238
God's patience. God's miraculous long-suffering can be depicted only by the most unlikely human situation, as no landowner in his right mind would subject his servants to such severe mistreatment, capped off by the sending of his own son. As one source puts it: "The patience of God toward Israel's religious rulers is without parallel in human history - an illustration must be invented to picture it, and the illustration will have to be unreal."1239
Rejecting God. The parable teaches the hard truth that "God's long-suffering love ... turns to judgment when we reject God's message. ... For the Christian, failure to follow Christ leads to loss of spiritual gifts and a loss of a sense of God's presence and power. Will God give our responsibilities to others who will use them appropriately? To the person who is not yet a Christian, putting God off leads to spiritual deafness or hardening. Soon that person can't hear God's Word at all. At all times, we must embrace God's truth eagerly, follow his lead faithfully, and respect the importance of his message daily."1240
A Gangster Christian
Billy Graham has shared the Gospel with an enormous number of people. He has spoken to everyone from ordinary individuals to vast crowds, from presidents to kings. Once he even shared the Gospel with a notorious gangster named Mickey Cohen.
Cohen seemed interested in the message but did not make a profession of faith. Until, that is, a friend shared the Gospel and included Revelation 3:20: "'Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me'" (NASB).
The gangster made a profession of faith, but there was no subsequent evidence of genuine repentance. He continued his life of crime, just as before. And he even rebuked the believer who had shared the Gospel with him, complaining that he was never told he would have to give up his "work" (his rackets) and his "friends" (his gangster associates).
Cohen had heard that there were Christian actors and Christian politicians. And so he really thought he could be a Christian gangster!1241 Like the gangster Mickey Cohen, Israel's religious leaders refused to understand what it meant to represent God. They thought they could take the privileges without the responsibilities. But, warned Jesus, that kind of attitude leads only to hard, selfish, sinful hearts that refuse to listen to God. People possessing such hearts will do anything to silence God's voice. But, said Jesus, there reaches a point where God leaves them alone to face the full consequences of their sin.
??? "We are shocked that these renters killed the owner's son with such disregard, ungratefulness, and violence. Yet we do violence to Jesus and his messengers when we think they disrupt our security, leisure plans, or pleasure. How are we 'killing' God's claim on our time and treasure? Are we possessive and murderously resentful when our leisure or pleasure gets bumped for Christian responsibilities? Would [Jesus'] return be unwelcome because of the plans that we have made?"1242