Readers discretion advised. – 9th Week in ordinary time- Mark 12: 1-12
This parable most certainly would get the attention of a censor board with a blazing disclaimer, ‘the following parable contains some images unsuitable for children, reader discretion advised’; for violence and murder fill sacred space.
The reading of today falls between the triumphant entry into Jerusalem in Chapter 11 and the last supper in Chapter 14. Jesus is in the temple taking on the Jewish authorities. These chapters are called the ‘interrogation passages’ as they begin with an interrogatory question from the Jewish authorities to Jesus.
The passage of today also has a historical background. The gospel of Matthew was written somewhere between 60 and 70 AD. This was the time when the Romans broke the Jewish siege, entered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple; a prediction that Jesus makes in the following Chapter. For St Mark, the temple had become a symbol of corruption led by the Jewish authorities and that is why in Chapter 11 Jesus cleanses the temple on entering Jerusalem and in Chapter 13 predicts its destruction.
The hatred of the authorities against Jesus was palpable. They question His authority in the preceding verses only to have Jesus expose their own lack of authority. Then, using a parable with clear allegorical overtones, Jesus rips into the Jewish leaders. The parable of the wicked tenants, which borrows motifs familiar to storytellers of that time, rakes up the Jewish nation’s rap sheet of infidelity with God.
The motif of the vineyard need not be explained to the Jew, for they would recall Isaiah 5:1-7; Ezekiel 15:1-7 in which God is the viticulturist and Israel is the unfruitful vine. St Mark, in using a common and familiar motif of the vineyard now makes allegorical references to Jesus the ‘beloved son’ (verse 6). By using the same word used by the Father at the Baptism of Jesus and at the transfiguration, ‘beloved son’ or in Greek, ‘ho huios mou ho agapetos’, St Mark declares that Jesus is the Son of God rejected by the Jewish authorities who want to kill Him.
The parable with allegorical implications also presents God as the loving viticulturist; compassionate, patient but finally clear in executing punishment. If our eyes were to fall only on the destruction of the wicked tenants then we would do great injustice to the patience of God.
It was God who worked hard to plant the vineyard, fence it, and build a winepress and a tower. It was His investment and yet He does not demand an immediate repayment. Scripture tells us that when ‘season came’ or as some texts have it, ‘in proper time’ God asked for the share of the produce. The ‘proper time’ may have been the fifth year (Leviticus 19:23-25). So God is not some slave driver or loan shark demanding immediate unreasonable returns. He had given them five years to enjoy the fruits of their labour before He sent someone to collect His due.
Four times the parable uses the word ‘sent’ to indicate God’s desire to ask for what was rightfully His. Each time the response escalates violently. They seize, beat over the head, insult, kill and then plot the death of the owner’s beloved son. Legally, such an action on the part of the wicked tenants would be futile. By killing the owner’s son they could not usurp the land; yet their greed and arrogance blinds them into believing so.
The parable thus stands as an indictment not only against the Jewish leaders but also against the reader in any century. God is clear; mercy is not divested of judgment especially when the warning signs have been flashing constantly. Perhaps by attitude or sheer arrogance we don’t respond to benevolent reminders of repentance; shock and awe is perhaps our style, but that’s certainly not His, unless we force His hand.
Fr Warner D’Souza