This is the second part of my commentary on Mark 12 as we look at this chapter in its original context. We are asking the question, “what did this passage of scripture mean to its original hearers?” and it is transformative to our understanding for certain. Be sure to see the other parts of this commentary too as each one builds upon the previous:
In post will cover the question “who are the ‘new tenants’ mentioned in Jesus’ parable”?
The New Tenants
In Part 1 we covered who the Sadducees were and why Jesus gave the parable of the tenants which was obviously about them. Then in this intriguing part in v.9 Jesus says:
“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
Who are the new tenants? This is a simple question with a complex answer. To come to a culturally sound answer (e.g. one the original listeners would have come up with) we need to first understand the picture. The picture in this parable is a vineyard planted by the owner. This owner is also a father of an only son. This owner is obviously God and the vineyard is a picture of his people, Israel. This is evident from scriptures such as:
“I had planted you like a choice vine
of sound and reliable stock.”
And there are many, many more passages that describe Israel as God’s vineyard. In this parable of Jesus’ he depicts tenants who are given the task of caring for the vineyard. Who are these tenants? The parable is directed at the Sadducees and so it’s safe to conclude that these tenants are the priests, the spiritual leaders of the people. Another metaphor used for the priests are the shepherds of Israel but even with this metaphor they are chastised as having abused their power and failed at their God-given jobs as caretakers of the flock.
So now we know that the original hearers of this parable would have concluded that the owner and planter of the vineyard is God, the vineyard he planted is Israel, and the tenants are the Sadducees. Jesus promises that they will be killed and the vineyard given to others. From history we can see that this promise came true in 70 A.D. when the temple was destroyed. Without their means of power or wealth the Sadducees became extinct within just a few years and we never hear from them again. So the old tenants were thrown out…who are the new ones? This is where it gets sticky.
The owner is still God, and the vineyard is still Israel. The Jewish answer would be that the new tenants of Israel became Rabbinic Judaism which has guided the Jewish people for the last two thousand years. Many Christians read this parable and instantly put “the Church” in as the new tenants, but I think that this answer by Christians is “replacement theology” and it is not only inaccurate but has led to followers of Jesus forgetting their roots and becoming arrogant of their place (the very thing Paul warns against in Rom. 11). So what are we left with?
Jesus declares that he is the “true vine” and that God is the “gardener” who cuts off unfruitful branches. Paul understood this picture, as well as the metaphor Jesus used in the Parable of the Tenants, and in Romans 11 he further defines the picture of the vineyard of Israel with Jesus being the shoot from the stump of Jesse and Gentiles being grafted into the tree that is Israel through the Messiah while God cuts off unbelieving branches. But the vineyard is still Israel, and “the Church” is merely grafted into it. Paul declares “the root is holy” and that root is Israel. So it’s clear that “the Church” is not the new tenants either, but rather just part of the vineyard. If you still think it may be “the Church”, remember that it wasn’t even set up yet nor was it even a thought in any of their minds (except Jesus’, of course) so that couldn’t have been what the original hearers thought. So who are these tenants?
It is my opinion that the original hearers of the parable would have thought Jesus was insinuating the “new tenants” would be the Pharisees (or perhaps the Essenes since they were a break-off group of the priesthood, but since the temple was destroyed I find that doubtful that Jesus was insinuating them but his original hearers may have thought it). That’s my opinion of what the original hearers would have thought.
Now onto a bit more conjecture: Who are the new tenants today? I would propose that they are the spiritual successor of the Pharisees, Rabbinic Judaism, which took the place of the Sadducees as the tenants of God’s vineyard Israel after 70 AD, with one caveat. Since Jesus is the Messiah and has declared himself the only way to the father then I see the new tenants today as Messianic Rabbis, the spiritual inheritors of the Pharisees and those who call on the name of Jesus as Messiah. Why do I think this? It seems logical based on this passage regarding the Pharisees:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”
Don’t get caught up in the rest of the chapter. Jesus condones their theology but condemns their hypocrisy in what has come to be known by scholars as “in-house criticism”, which means from one person “on the inside” to another (while Jesus was probably not a “card-carrying Pharisee”, he was extremely close to them theologically and many Pharisees believed in him as Messiah). It is from this confirmation of the Pharisees where Jesus basically says “they got it right, so listen to them” that I derive my answer as to who the new tenants are. Rabbinic Judaism was given the job by Jesus himself of tending to the vineyard but only those who are believers in the Messiah are legitimate tenants. Ask yourself: who else (humanly speaking) can tend to the entire vineyard (of Jews and Gentiles) better than a Messianic Rabbi who is thoroughly Jewish but also thoroughly Christian?
You probably disagree with me, and may even pull out some scripture to disagree. Please do it if you feel so inclined.
Continue on to “Part 3: Give to Caesar…”
Peace to you,
Footnotes (footnotes are labeled from the start of the commentary, not for individual pages):
2. Isaiah 5:1-7, 27:2-6, Jeremiah 12:10, Ezekiel 17:5-6, Hosea 10:1, Joel 1:7, Psalm 80:8-16.
3. Ezekiel 34
4. John 15:1