7 March 2011

Mark 12:1-12

"When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed." (vv. 2-3)


This story is often seen, with the benefit of hindsight, as being allegorical - the vineyard represents Israel (eg Isaiah 5:1-7); the owner is God; the tenants are the Jewish authorities; the servants are prophets (eg Luke 13:34) and the son represents Jesus. In this interpretation, Jesus is foretelling his own death and the future destruction of Jerusalem. Some biblical commentators suggest he is predicting that Christians will replace the Jews as the 'people of God'. But there may be more meaning than that for us in the passage.

Jesus tells this story during a conversation he is having in the temple court with the chief priests, scribes and elders who have been questioning his authority. They see this as a parable told against them, because of their failure to acknowledge Jesus or John the Baptist. Their angry reaction comes because Jesus is challenging their status as those in spiritual authority. They resent his criticism of the way they organise the temple sacrifices, observe the law meticulously, and so provide what they think God demands.

This parable comes shortly after the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fruitless fig tree (Mark 11:12-19). Failure to provide the wholesome fruit God wants is a recurring theme of Jesus, as is his concern that religious rules are getting in the way of people's personal response to God. Several times he has criticised those who glory in their own self-righteousness but generate feelings of unworthiness and exclusion in others (egMatthew 23:1-36). His ongoing challenge to the religious leadership is that much of their teaching is legalistic and loveless. He has repeatedly shown them that faith is about relationships not requirements, freedom not formalities, compassion not control. Yet they still want to retain the power to run things in their own way, rather than responding to the challenges that come from God.

But if this is a parable rather than just an allegory, then it has a message for us today. It cannot be simply about where some Jewish religious leaders went wrong. It contains a challenge for us, both as individuals and as a Church, about our own faith and about how transforming, responsive and committed it is.

To Ponder

What message does this parable have for you today, and for the Church?

What fruit does God want from you as an individual? How well do you provide it?

What in your own life, in your church or in our society is blocking the work of the Spirit? - and what can you do about it?

Bible notes author

Philip Sudworth

Philip has retired from a career in the education service. He is now kept busy by voluntary work with local children's charities.