Parable of the Tenants (Taxes to Caesar)
- Main text: Mark 12:1-12 [13-17]
- Accompanying text: Psalm 86:8-13
What this passage means to us
This was one of the most pointed of Jesus’ parables, and the religious leaders “knew he had spoken the parable against them” (Mark 12:12).
The point was that, even though they (the tenants, those responsible for the duties of the watchtower, those responsible for the pressing of the grapes to make the quality wine) made a show of caring for and looking after the people (Israel, humanity, the vineyard), a task to which the owner of the vineyard (God) had appointed them, in effect they only cared for and looked after themselves and their own interests. God sent his servants to them, but they were beaten, treated shamefully and sometimes killed for the message they brought. Those who were listening may have thought of Isaiah or of Jeremiah, who, according to well-known tradition, were respectively sawn asunder and stoned to death. Eventually, the owner sent his son, the one who represented him fully, and “they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard” (Mark 8:8). The owner “opts to turn his anger into grace by sending his son, alone and unnamed, in the hope that they will be ashamed before the total vulnerability exhibited in such an action” . In the parable Jesus identifies himself clearly as the Son of God who fulfils Psalm 118:22, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”. The religious leaders thought that they, their teachings and the Law (the hedge) comprised the chief cornerstone and the foundation of the people’s faith, but here Jesus explains that this was not so, just as he had said similarly that his words, not theirs, constituted the rock on which a spiritual life should be built (Matthew 7:24). “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
As the scribes, elders and Pharisees listened to Jesus’ story, they would have in all likelihood linked it to the famous Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7, but Jesus re-imagines this passage in different ways. They are shocked at what Jesus recounted: “Surely not!”, they protested (feignedly) according to Luke 20:16, even though they knew Jesus was actually describing them with their public and private hypocrisies. Christ had already warned his disciples to be “on (their) guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). In Matthew 23:2-4 Jesus told the crowds to be careful to listen to what the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees may say, but “do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see”. Jesus preached against the legalism that was the front for their hypocritical ways. “There is nothing that raised Christ’s ire more than legalism. He turned over the tables in the temple and beat off sellers of religious wares and services with a whip. His words to the legalists were beyond harsh; they were outright contemptuous and (like Paul) often sarcastic and biting” . When faced with the question of whether a good rabbi like him should pay tax to the foreign power that was Rome, Jesus immediately “knew their hypocrisy” (Mark 12:15). The Herodians were partisans of the Herod dynasty and they supported the Roman occupation of Judea. In reality the Pharisees themselves resented Roman rule, and would have had some sympathy with the Zealots, who claimed that Israel was a theocracy with God as the only rightful King, and therefore it would be unlawful to pay tax to a foreign ruler. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is that they would have at heart agreed with or at least admired the Zealots, and yet they were plotting to get Jesus arrested and put to death on a charge of supporting the Zealot view.
We believers need to consider carefully the dangers and negative impact of hypocrisy. Sometimes, like the Rabbit in the eponymous anonymous poem, we put on a “charming face” and yet our “private life is a disgrace” . We can get confused about it. What if we know something is the right thing to do but we don’t feel like doing it, and yet we force ourselves to do it? Is this hypocrisy because we don’t feel like it? No, it’s not. James, the half-brother of Jesus, proposes a different view: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:17). Let’s pray the prayer of David in Psalm 86:11: “give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name”. Christian leaders must examine themselves to see whether they have fallen into the trap of hypocrisy. Peter, who witnessed these events and who at one point gave into hypocrisy in his own life (Galatians 2:13), gives us this instruction: “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (I Peter 2:1).
Storyline and Context
The setting of the parable of the tenants is against the dramatic background of the mounting hostility by the religious élite towards Jesus. It is a key moment in the chronology of the last days of the life of Christ, “who through the eternal Spirit” would offer “himself unblemished” to “the God of peace”, who would bring “back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 9:14, 13:20). Of course, the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians did not recognize him as the great Shepherd. They thought they were the rightful shepherds, the keepers on the watchtower so to speak, and they resented Christ’s popularity with the people. They had watched on in horror when Jesus was welcomed triumphantly by the crowds into Jerusalem, and they witnessed his driving the merchants from the Temple. These events happened about a week before the Passover, a crucial time in the Jewish calendar when the authority of the religious leaders was at its highest — was Jesus about to challenge that authority even then, and would the people flock to him instead giving due respect to them? Therefore, they looked “for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching” (Mark 11:18).
The chief priests, scribes and elders had tried to challenge Jesus’ own authority in front of the people, but Jesus outwitted and embarrassed them in his reply, when he turned the tables on them figuratively, just as he done physically with the tables of the moneychangers the day before (see Mark 11:27-33).
After listening to the parable, they felt unable to move against Jesus because they “feared the people”, and so later “they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words” (Mark 12:12-13). If only they could get Jesus to speak against Caesar, then they’d have him and there would be grounds for his arrest by the Romans, but Jesus thwarted their plans once again. Maybe the Sadducees, in seeking some excuse to excommunicate him publicly, could catch him out by asking a question about marriage in the coming resurrection (which concept the Sadducees did not accept anyway). But they too failed. “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?”, Jesus asked them, “…You are badly mistaken!” (Mark 12:25,27). This was infuriating. Try as they did, they could not entrap him.
The Passover was approaching, and the conspiracy against Jesus continued at an increased pace. “…the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. ‘But not during the festival,’ they said, ‘or the people may riot’” (Mark: 14:1-2). Something had to be done with this upstart Jesus of Nazareth. But what?
• Matthew 21:33-46
• Luke 20:9-26
• Hebrews 1:1-3
Other GCI resources:
• For more information on parables in general go to https://lectionary.church/2019/01/25/february-16-17-sermon-resource/
Footnotes and References
- Kenneth E Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (London UK: SPCK, 2008). 46.
- Neil Cole, Organic Leadership: Leading Naturally Right Where You Are (Michigan, USA: BakerBooks, 2009). 71.