How many of you are renting or have rented places to live? How many of you have ever owned properties that you rented out? Have you ever had any problems? There has often been tension between landlords and tenants. I remember my father-in-law, who had a couple of rental properties, describing being yelled at or even assaulted by tenants. And some landlords clearly care only about the money that is collected and not about the living conditions of the tenant. There can often be the source of contention and disagreement between the landlord and the tenant.
Jesus tells a story about such a dispute in order to bring home a point to the Jewish leaders. This story likely reflects a setting that was very common in those days but Jesus uses it to show just how wrong the Jewish leaders are in their view of who has authority. Last week we saw that representatives of each of the Jewish leaders had come to question Jesus concerning the nature and source of his authority. Jesus had shown them in a debate that he had all authority and now tells them this parable to bring home in a vivid way who he is. Let’s read Mark 12:1-12.
I. Let’s look first at the story and the setting in verses 1-5.
This parable reflects the social and economic reality in Palestine in the first century. There were great estates which would be owned by absentee-owners and then worked on by land-hungry peasants. These peasants were basically tenant-farmers or ancient share-croppers. This kind of situation was going on from about 280 years before this time. It is a parable that presents a real life situation which invites the hearers to form their own conclusion about the Jewish leaders. This parable also served to expose the planned attempt against Jesus’ own life. But this is also is a story that would reflect a genuine situation in those days and would resonate with the common people who were listening to Jesus.
The introduction of the parable gives the specific details of the vineyard, but this is not just Jesus being a good story-teller; rather Jesus again is using the Old Testament. Specifically Jesus has Isaiah 5:1-7 in mind, where Israel is described as the vineyard. Jesus’ listeners would draw the conclusion that parable is about the Jewish leaders’ abuse of the power and position that they have over the common people. And Mark makes it clear in verse 12 that this story had found its mark!
The story is about a landowner who leased a vineyard to tenant farmers who agreed to work the land while he was living abroad. Since the whole of the upper Jordan valley and a large part of the Galilean area were in the hands of foreign landlords at this time, such a practice was common. Rent would be paid in the form of a portion of the produce given to the owner.
Verses 2-5 describe how at the proper time the owner sent his agent to collect the rent. One ancient Jewish legal document gives some clues to the “fruits of the vineyard” in that it refers to different kinds of wine that was owed to the landlord. This same document reports a dispute between the agent of the person who owned an estate and the hostile farmers who were withholding certain quantities of grapes, wine and corn. This was the type of situation which could erupt into the kind of violence Jesus described in this story.
But Jesus adds the detail in verse five: that the owner sent many others. Jesus wants his listeners see beyond this particular story to the history of Israel. In the Old Testament prophets are frequently designated “the servants” of God. In Jeremiah 7:25, God says, “From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets.” Jesus is very accurate in that in Israel’s rejection of the Old Testament prophets many were beaten and killed just as in the parable. Israel and its leaders have a history of ignoring the messengers from God.
Other times, when it is something we don’t like, we tend to dismiss the messenger. If we get a bad review in our work or our spouse tells us something about us that we don’t like, we want to dismiss it or think that they are wrong. Or if the preacher tells us that we need to do things differently, well, then the preacher didn’t interpret that passage correctly. God’s people had many prophets and messengers who told them how they were to live, but God’s people ignored them because they didn’t want to change. They wanted to keep on living the way they were living.
God gives us his Word which describes the greatest messenger of all, Jesus! Will we listen to his radical call to obedience and faithful following? We can get so wrapped up in our ways of doing things that we won’t listen to what God’s word is telling us. God sent his Son to tell us and show us. Will we listen to what he tells us in his Word?
II. Verses 6-8 describe the tragic ending.
Now the owner, realizing the seriousness of the situation, sends his son to deal with it. The words, “they will respect my son” do not reflect what God the Father’s expectation was in sending Jesus since the parable teaches that Jesus did not expect that. Still in the story, it could be expected that the son of the owner would receive the respect which had been denied to the servants who had gone before him. The murder of the son and the final indignity of throwing his body over the wall without burial provide the climax of the sin that is reflected in the story.
Yet there is another detail from the time in history that helps to understand what the story is saying. A piece of land could be lawfully possessed if it was considered to be “ownerless property.” Since it was the son who came, the tenant farmers likely assumed that the owner had died and that his sole heir had come to claim his inheritance. If the property is considered ownerless, it could be lawfully claimed by anyone. This explains why the tenants assume that if they murder the son and presumed heir, they may take possession of the vineyard.
But Jesus makes it clear that if that were to happen, the owner will come and destroy those rebellious tenants. The son’s murder emphatically shows the outrageous defiance of the tenants. The owner was clearly not dead and his property was not available for seizure. The owner would kill the mutinous tenants and then lease the vineyard to others.
Jesus wants the Jewish leaders to understand the seriousness of what they were doing. The inevitable consequence of the son’s rejection was decisive, catastrophic judgment. He wants them to know that what is involved is the rejection of the God himself. Without declaring the fact that he is the Son of God, Jesus clearly implies that the Jewish leaders have rejected God’s final messenger and that disaster will be coming. There will now be new care-takers of the new people of God.
Think of a wealthy person who has money to invest in a business. She wants to help a small business get started and so gives the owner thousands and thousands of dollars to help him. But if the wealthy person learns that instead of using the money to build the business, the new business owner is spending it on lavish houses, vacations and sports cars; she will take her money back. She will likely invest it in someone who will use her money more wisely. The Jewish leaders had been given God’s people and they were squandering this treasured resource; as a result, Jesus says that they will lose this gift from God.
III. In verses 10-12, Jesus issues a very clear warning based on Psalm 118:22.
This psalm has its own background that is important to understand. The image comes from the building of Solomon’s Temple. There is one of the building blocks gathered at the site which was rejected in the construction of the Temple and put aside. But later on this same stone proved to be the keystone to the whole temple. Jesus using this passage focuses the application of the parable to Jesus and the Jewish leaders. This confirms Jesus as the son in the parable and contrasts his despised and rejected status with the glorious exaltation that God would give to him. The text serves as a warning that God will reverse the Jewish leaders’ judgment. The Jewish leaders understood this message only too well. Only the presence of crowds of people prevented the Jewish leaders from arresting Jesus right there in the Temple.
So what is the warning for us today? God is building his temple today on the stone that those ancient builders rejected. We are that temple and God wants us above all to be building on the cornerstone of Jesus. If we are building on our own dreams and desires, the church will not survive. We must build on the solid cornerstone of Jesus with the goal of making sure Jesus is the beginning and end of all that we do.
And that means that we must constantly pray that God will keep on building that temple with Jesus being the most important component of the church. Regardless of where God may be leading Faith Church, we have to make sure that it is to the glory of God with the goal of building up his body. You have begun that process and so my challenge to each one of you is to immerse this continually in prayer that you build on Jesus.
It is tempting to base decisions on the future of the church on the past and traditions, but let’s remember that Jesus is calling us to build on him and build for him. We build on the foundation of Christ. And we plan for the future looking to glorify Christ and build his kingdom. Let’s be asking very specifically what does God want Faith Church to be and where does God want Faith Church to go as he builds his kingdom.