The Parable of the Tenants is the second in a series of seven confrontations between Jesus and Jewish leaders. Jesus had entered Jerusalem as a triumphant messianic figure, cleansed the temple, and was now walking the temple courts as a rabbi (teacher) with a large following. The temple leaders could not allow this presumption to go unchallenged as it threatened their own authority. Their first question for Jesus reflects their defensiveness: “by what authority are you doing these things?” (11:28). The issue is authority.
The Parable of the Talents is Jesus’s response to the concerns of the temple leaders. He spoke the parable “to them,” that is, to “the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders” (11:27). The parable, then, is about the authority of the Jewish leadership, that is, the temple authorities (including the Sanhedrin). This is a critical point in understanding to whom the parable applies (12:9).
Another significant element that characterizes this parable is how it echoes the parable of Isaiah 5:1-7. Like this parable, Isaiah’s parable was a judgment parable. Israel is pictured as a vineyard which God (the owner) had planted, tended and protected. However, the vineyard failed to yield the fruit of righteousness. Instead, Israel had pursued violence (5:7), unjust wealth (5:8-12) and injustice (5:7, 22-23). Isaiah’s parable, like this one in Mark 12, is directed primarily at wealthy leaders, and it judges their evil.
The parable assumes a common socio-economic arrangement in Palestine. Landowners would often rent their lands to workers for a share of the profits produced by the crop. This owner built a wall, dug a winepress and built a watchtower. The owner provided everything necessary for the production of wine from this vineyard. The renters worked the field and enjoyed the fruits of their labors. At the end of the harvest, the absentee owner, as was common in Palestine, would send a servant or steward to collect the owner’s share of the profit.
In this case, however, the servants were mistreated—some beaten, some killed. The point is clear. Yahweh sent prophet after prophet to Israel over the centuries to carry a word from the Lord. Often the prophets were rejected, mistreated and some were killed. The leaders of Israel—the kings, false prophets and the wealthy—refused to hear the word of the Lord. As a consequence, as with Isaiah 5:13, Israel experienced judgment in the form of exile. And this trend had not changed in first century Palestine. The leaders of Israel refused to recognize the authority and message of John the Baptist and John was killed by the Herod Antipas. It is important to note that the Herodians are one of the groups involved in this series of confrontations (cf. Mark 12:13).
The parable reaches its climax when the owner decides to send his beloved son. The term “beloved” is the same as we find in Mark 1:11 at the baptism of Jesus and in Mark 9:7 at the transfiguration of Jesus. Mark’s narrative clearly identifies this son with Jesus, that is, Jesus the Son of God (the owner). He is no mere prophet but a son.
It may seem difficult to imagine why the tenants would think they could kill the son and inherit the land. There was a Palestinian practice of “ownerless land.” They probably assumed the father was dead because the son appeared to collect the profits and reasoned among themselves that if the son were dead then the property would be ownerless. When land is ownerless it becomes the property of those who live on it. Consequently, while their actions are certainly unjust, their actions are nevertheless calculated.
Jesus concludes the parable with a question which is not unusual except that Jesus actually answers his own question. The owner will “come and kill” the tenants. The owner will execute a just judgment much like God did in Isaiah 5. But more is said than this.
Jesus said that the owner will “give the vineyard to others.” Who are these “others?” Some suggest Jesus is referring to how the “church” (including Gentiles) will replace “Israel” in a kind of successionism (perhaps how Matthew interprets it in Matthew 21:43). But this is foreign to Mark’s context and does not fit the backdrop of Isaiah 5. Further, the church does not replace Israel but is, according to Paul, grafted into Israel (Romans 11).
Rather, it seems more appropriate to read this as a judgment against the temple authorities and leaders in Jerusalem. God will replace them and a new leadership will emerge. God will destroy the temple, as Mark 13 predicts, and the temple authorities will be judged. The new leadership is the reign of the kingdom of God through Jesus who is the eschatological Son of Man. The royal house of David, in the person of Jesus, will reign again in Jerusalem through the church but also in the new heaven and new earth. Mark does not specify any particulars at this point, but it is clear that the present temple authorities are judged and the “others” are a new leadership which serves the Father and honors the Son.
The quotation of Psalm 118 confirms this reading. The quote functions as a hermeneutical key and Jesus calls attention to this by asking: “Haven’t you read this scripture?” When Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, the crowd hailed the coming of Jesus with the words of Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Jesus is the presence of the triumphant king celebrated in Psalm 118.
The triumphant king of Psalm 118, however, was also one who experienced distress and rejection. His enemies (nations) surrounded him, “swarmed around [him] like bees,” and he was about to die (Psalm 118:10-12, 17-18). Though rejected, the Lord chose him, gave him victory and through him saved Israel.
This is the story of Jesus as well. Rejected by the temple authorities, he will be subjected to beatings and death. But God has chosen this rejected stone to become the “capstone”—perhaps even the capstone of a new temple as Jesus becomes the foundation of a renewed Israel, the people of God. As Jesus has predicted on three different occasions in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus will be killed but God will raise him from the dead.
The “chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders” understood his point. They recognized that they were the targets of this parable. Their intentions were deepened—they wanted to arrest Jesus in order to execute him (Mark 11:18). But they were unable to do act because they were afraid of the crowd which, presumably, was sympathetic to Jesus. They would have to wait for a more private occasion to arrest Jesus (cf. Mark 14:1-2).
Just as first exchange between Jesus and the temple authorities was focused on authority, so was this one. Authority, in this context, is not simply the authority to teach or an authorized agent. The meaning is fuller than that. This is also about political authority—it is the authority to rule or reign.
Whose temple is this? To whom does authority belong? The Son has come to exercise authority over this people who belong to Yahweh. It is the authority of the kingdom of God that trumps the authority of the temple leaders. The kingdom of God, in the person of Jesus, has come to the temple. God, in the person of Jesus, has come to the temple to judge its leaders.
And the leaders—as is normal for political authorities—do not like it. They turn to their most basic solution. It is what nation-states do. They use violence. They will execute their opponent. They only have to wait for the right opportunity.
The parable raises a question for readers: to whom does your allegiance belong? Is not the kingdom of God a matter of exclusive allegiance?