In the Parable of the Tenants, God is the land owner, the vineyard is once again the world that God has created and placed his people in, or more specifically, the city of Jerusalem. It is often observed that there are several rabbinic parables that are close to what we read here in Mark. Craig Evans collects a number of these parallels in his excellent commentary on Mark (WBC).
Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai (ca. AD 140) said: “Why was Israel likened to a vineyard? In the case of a vineyard, in the beginning one must hoe it, then weed it, and then erect supports when he sees the clusters [forming]. Then he must return to pluck the grapes and press them in order to extract the wine from them. So also Israel—each and every shepherd who oversees them must tend them [as he would tend a vineyard]. Where [in Scripture] is Israel called a vineyard? In the verse, ‘For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the House of Israel, and the seedlings he lovingly tended are the men of Judah’ [Isa 5:7].” (Midr. Prov. 19:21; translation based on B. L. Visotzky, The Midrash on Proverbs, YJS 27 [New Haven, CT; London: Yale UP, 1992] 89).
What we are probably seeing here are common parabolic expansions on Isaiah 5:1-7, a prophetic passage describing Israel as God’s vineyard. Evans also comments that the idea of Israel as God’s vineyard and the leadership of the nation failing to respond to the owner of the vineyard are “stock images, drawn from what Evans calls a common Jewish religious ‘thesaurus.’” The workers in the vineyard are in fact the leadership of Israel, the elders who are in charge of the spiritual well-being of God’s people.
In the synoptic gospels, this parable is clearly aimed at the leadership of the Jews that have question Jesus authority. This is obvious even to the teachers of the Law that here the parable, since they look for a way to arrest Jesus after he is finished. They would undoubtedly be away of the Isaiah 5 parallels and perhaps even the rabbinic interpretations of the parable. There are a number of Old Testament passages that refer to the nation of Israel as a vine that has been planted by God, and a larger number that describe the judgement of the nation as a desolate (unfruitful) place! (Isa 27:2-3; Jer 2:21; Psa 44:1-4; 80:8-9)
What Jesus has done is to take a common metaphor from the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic teaching and turn it around into a prophecy of judgment. The ones who are the keeps of the vineyard are about to be replaced because the killed the Son of the Owner. Two observations are necessary about this prophetic parable.
First, Jesus puts himself into the position of the son who was killed by the tenants. If the Vineyard owner is God, then this is an explicit claim to be the “Son of God.” This is significant for later Christian theology, but he may not be claiming divinity in the parable. Rather, he is claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah, the “Son of God” in the same sense as Psalm 2.
Second, who are the replacement tenants? If the leadership of Israel are under judgment in the parable, who are they replaced with? For me, Jesus has already replaced the tenants with 12 men who will rule 12 new tribes. Jesus’ current following is a new Israel following the real Messiah. The rejection of Jesus has already happened and a new people are being formed around Jesus. Like the other parables in this final week of Jesus’ life, this parable intends to show that Jesus has already begun to establish a new Kingdom around his own Kingship.
Are there other elements of this parable which need to be explored? How does the context of the attacks on Jesus’ authority effect the way we read the parable?