The Parable of the Tenants and Rabbinic Parallels

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.

Bunch of GrapesIn 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?

11 thoughts on “The Parable of the Tenants and Rabbinic Parallels

    • Thanks, Sami. It is a little bit different topic since Caragounis argues that the vine in John 15 ought to be vineyard, but the point is still good here. I would rather have the truth, whether that assists my Sunday School teaching adversely or not! Good exegesis ought to challenge your assumptions sometimes (most of the time?)

      Caragounis said – “They have learned them from Sunday School and they have heard them innumerable times from the pulpit, that its strikes them uncongenial to see the ‘beautiful’ image in John 15 take another form. Jesus as the Vine and they as the Branches, is so nice and cozy and warm, showing the very close fellowship they feel with Him. To make Him the Vineyard, a field planted with vines, is not sentimentally as attractive or rewarding. So, they must at all events preserve the tradition intact.”

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  1. Jesus uses the Parable of the Wicked Tenants to show His rightful authority. This parable seems to be used very strategically. The meaning of the parable is one of the things that pushed the religious leaders over the edge. They seek to arrest Jesus because they realize that He is speaking against them. They wanted to arrest Him because He was threatening their authority and putting blame on them. The telling of this parable was something that lead to Jesus’ death. It’s telling was done to “provoke Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion,” (Strauss, 189). God’s plan of salvation was being worked out through Jesus and the parable that angered the religious leaders was part of the plan.

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  2. Matthew 21:38 is one of detail of the parable which I find interesting; the text reads “this is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance”. In Matthew’s account it seems as though the Pharisees (if that is who we are assuming this parable addresses) believe that by killing Jesus they will somehow receive what belongs to him. It may be possible this language was only used in order to make the parable work, but it also made me question whether or not some of the Pharisees understood exactly who Jesus was at this point in his ministry. There is no doubt Jesus angered Jewish leadership with this parable, I just wonder whether or not the Pharisee’s believed that crucifying Jesus would result in them receiving his inheritance.

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  3. It seems like many elements of this parable are covered in the blog and the posts. But, I’m sure there are plenty of overlooked details that have significant meaning to the parable. One element I component that I noticed that if explored deeper could have important meaning is found in verse 33. “Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey” (Matthew 21:33). From my understanding, the landowner represents God and the vineyard represents Israel and the farmers/tenants represent the religious leaders of Israel. Before the landowner, God, goes on a journey he ‘rents’ the vineyard to some farmers. The greek word for rent is ekdidomi which means to lease. Therefore, if God leased Israel into the hands of the leadership of Israel, he was expecting something in return. But, who knows if the word lease meant the exact same thing in Jewish culture in the first century. The parable doesn’t exactly say why the tenants seized the landowners servants and killed them. If this ‘lease’ concept is true, then maybe it’s because the leadership of Israel was nervous because they didn’t live up to the agreement made. God was expecting something from them and they could not provide.

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  4. I think something that many people miss about this parable, is that although the Pharisees are upset they just affirm his prediction by condemning him to death. Jesus predicts his own death, and the Pharisees recognize that he is talking about; he is comparing them to the wicked tenants. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.” (Matthew 21:45-46) I think that the Pharisees knew they were in the wrong, but they were too self-righteous and prideful to admit that they were in the wrong. People hate being wrong, even if someone knows they are wrong they will argue their points until there is no argument left. The Pharisees were so angered at Jesus, that they planned to arrest him, which goes to prove their sin even further. The wicked tenants, the Pharisees, were so deep in their puffed up reputations they could stand to take the fall that they were wrong. This is something that many people fall into today including me; we have to be careful not to follow in the footsteps of the Pharisees. The people that replace the tenants in the vineyard are the disciples but also the Church of today, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” (Matthew 21:41)

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  5. According to the first thing you mentioned, Psalm 2 talks about the Messiah, the Son of God and it talks about how God spoke through David to proclaim that the Messiah is the son of God. P-Long you mentioned that Jesus puts himself in that position and claims to be the Son of God and I believe that that point is very important to today’s Christian theology. Not only was it important for the Jews and Gentiles in that time to understand Jesus as the Messiah, today we need to understand the same connection between David writing a prophecy and Jesus was fulfilling it.
    Secondly I agree with P long on how Jesus replaced them with the 12, but I believe it is more than that at the same time. I believe Jesus was referring to the Body of Christ that he was forming and instructing through His ministry. Because of the establishment of the Kingdom and how Jesus was in His final weeks of ministry, it was becoming crucial that the gospel was shared and spread across Israel.
    I believe the element that needs to be explored in this parable is whether when it talks about the vineyard and the tenants if the fruit in which they are tending is the spiritual gifts given or more of the personal relationship between us and God. This might be from out of nowhere but when I read this parable and see the scripture parallels I think about whether it is talking about us tending the fruits that were talked about (fruit of the spirit) or if it means the relationship with God that we have. And how the tenants are the 12 tribes of Israel, and then the 12 disciples (without Judas and including Paul).

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  6. One of the first things that came to my mind when reading this was the question of whether the Pharisees knew who Jesus really was. Scott Miller made a similar post in the direction I was going. I find it interesting that they killed the son of the owner, just as they killed the Son of God. And each instance was done in order to attain something that was not theirs but they wanted it…and it could have been given to them if they chose to accept it. Obviously Jesus was telling the people this parable for a specific reason and the Pharisees understood that after hearing (Matthew 21:45). To me, after reading the context and the questioning of Jesus’ authority, it is easy for me to see this parable of the tenants as a defense from Jesus. Almost as way of trying one more time for them to understand what they are doing and the He truly is the Son of God. Not that Jesus had to ever defend Himself in the way that I am thinking of it, but it kind of seems like something I would want to do if someone was questioning me about something like that.

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  7. “when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them,” (Matt. 21:45). Jesus shows such authority in this passage by speaking in a parable that although many others around Him may not have understood, He still speaks right to the hearts of the priests and the Pharisees. This causes them to be scared and seem to want to kill him even more because they know He’s on to them and might be getting nervous about it. If they knew that He was talking about them why did they not wonder if He was truly the Messiah. I think that it could have been that Jesus only revealed part of that parable to them so that He could fulfill the scriptures.

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  8. The thing about parables is that sometimes it is difficult to understand the exact meaning of them. Parables have numerous lessons and analogies/metaphors in them to learn from and use in our own lives, however parables are often open to different interpretations. Because of this, it is always important to look at all the elements of the parable. For example in this parable the most important elements are understanding who is the owner, the son, and the tenants. Looking at the parallelism between the parable and attacks on Jesus’ authority by the Jewish leaders allows us to understand how this parable can be used/interpreted by putting God, Jesus, and the Jewish leaders into these roles. Jesus has authority over the Jewish leaders and asserts this to them by showing that he is the son of God, however because of this the Jewish leaders wanted to persecute Jesus. I think this parable could also have some parallelism with the apocalypse (return of the Son of Man).

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