Reflection for Mk. 12:1-12 (Parable of the Unfaithful Vinegrowers)
“And they tried to arrest him, but feared the multitude, for they perceived that he had told the
parable against them; so they left him and went away.” [Mk.12:12] Next, they will try to entrap Jesus with his own words, but that comes up in the next episode. Today, it seems I’m to talk about the unrealism of what Jesus said.
They are the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders – the Temple authorities – to whom Jesus was proclaiming his parable about the vineyard, who had found him walking in the Temple of Jerusalem and questioned his authority. He refused to answer their question, when they refused to answer his question about the authority of John the Baptist. (We’re still celebrating John’s baptising Jesus in the Jordan, leading to the 40 days in the desert, the temptation withstood, and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and, already, in St. Mark’s version of the Gospel, with today’s reading we’re leading up to his Passion: this is part of the preparation for the preparations for Lent, which will prepare us for Holy Week, the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.)
Anyway, that’s who “they” are, and they can tell that Jesus’ story is definitely a parable, because it’s definitely not realistic in the way a biography or an history would be. God doesn’t think the way we do, and often turns everything upside down or inside out from the ways familiar to us.
Would anyone owning a plot of land and planting a vineyard rent it to tenants to care for it, and send to collect part of the fruit of their labor? Of course; he provided the land, the hedge, the wine pit and the tower, and rented it to them exactly for that purpose, and they’d agreed! But would such a land owner send a servant to collect his share? Of course! It’s among the things one would have servants for in the first place. So far, it’s all very realistic, and draws his audience in to hear the rest.
But after they tenants had beat up his servant and sent him back without the share, what owner would continue sending another servant; and after some servants are beaten, others wounded, others killed, who with a right mind would keep on sending many servants, one by one, to be abused, wounded, beaten, and killed? That would be insane, in our familiar world! It’s obviously a parable, and will have a pointed point to it!
At that point, it goes ballistic in unrealism, for the land owner has one servant left – oh, only one, imagine! And it’s his own son! And he actually dares to sent him to collect the share! Surely the saying should not apply in this case, “If at first you don’t succeed: try, try again!” But “They will respect my son,” says the owner, oblivious to all the deaths, woundings, and beatings. Can the son take anyone along with him, for support, not to mention defense? No; he’s the only one left for sending: the others have all been killed or incapacitated! And of course, he gets killed, too! Clearly unrealistic.
Any landowner in a right mind would have sent an army, or asked the authorities for help, long before it reached such a point as this. But now, commenting, Jesus asks his audience what the owner will now do? And gives his own answer: “He will come and destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others,” and then punches home his pointed point by quoting Psalm 117(118) vv.22-23.
You know very well that the owner can’t really come and destroy the tenants, when all the owner’s servants and even his son are out of action; that’s totally unreal. It’s blatantly a parable, and clearly told against those who had questioned the authority of Jesus. They got the point. They left, retreating, and will send more clever people to trick Jesus into tripping himself up. The vineyard is Israel, Jesus the son whom these authorities reject and are plotting to kill, and our Father in Heaven, God Almighty, is the land owner, the owner of the vineyard. “The stone which the builders rejected / has become the corner stone. This is the work of the Lord, a marvel in our eyes.” [Ps.117:23-4; p.206, the Grail’s Singing Version of The Psalms, Paulist Press 1983].
The chief priests, scribes, and elders had asked by what authority Jesus was doing things – things like entering the city on a donky’s colt, as would a ruler coming in peace, and things like cleansing the temple as a house of prayer by kicking out the merchants and money-changers. He had already publicly worked more miracles than one could shake a stick at, and they didn’t believe he had divine authority. They were afraid to admit that John the Baptist was a prophet speaking for God. They feared Rome more than they feared God. And Jesus indeed is answering their question, in fact, if not spelling it out plainly, by masterfully deflecting their attempts to master him, and by propounding this parable aimed at them, and quoting the psalm against them. He’s the rejected one, who becomes the cornerstone. And so, now, thanks to our scriptures, traditions, and Church teachings, we know pretty well who Jesus really is. It’s our turn to do something with this knowledge.