The Wicked Tenant Farmers (Mark
This is a good example of a parable which has been doctored both by
Mark and by subsequent Christian interpretation. We're fortunate to have
what seems to be an earlier version, preserved in the Gospel of Thomas
(though the Gospel is probably later than Mark's):
A certain person owned a vineyard and rented it to some
farmers so that he could collect a crop from the work they did. He sent a
slave so that the farmers could give the vineyard's crop to him. They took
hold of him, beat him up, and almost killed him. The slave came back and
reported to his owner. The owner said, "Maybe he wasn't familiar with their
ways." So he sent another slave, who was also beaten up. He then decided to
send his son, saying, "Maybe they'll show him some respect." But they seized
him and murdered him because they knew he was the heir to the vineyard.
For two thousand years, most Christians have interpreted this
parable as allegory - that is, each person and action is symbolic of
higher meaning. Thus the owner is God, the son is Jesus and we humans are the
Most Bible commentators agree that parables are stories told
by Jesus without allegorical meanings. They are meant to get us thinking about
our lives. In doing so we respond according to choices we have freely made, as
well as according to our upbringing and cultural background. In some sense we
are either liberated or judged by our responses.
We know that in Galilee during Jesus' life there would have
been a good number of tenant farmers working land owned by absentee landlords.
We also know of a form of inheritance whereby if land fell vacant through death
of the owner, and no heir could be traced, then ownership would revert to the
So as a parable-type story this looks like good history. What we should
realise is that Mark has recast it as allegory - which was a favourite way if
understanding theological points in his day. The value of the piece from the
Gospel of Thomas is that it gives us a version which many scholars agree is
probably closer to Jesus' original words.
We just have to take care not to think that this parable is a close rendering
of the original words of Jesus. It seems pretty clear that the original parable
would have been aimed at getting an intuitive, more emotional response from
those listening to him. Quite a lot has been added by Mark. So, for example,
many experts strongly suspect that verse 5b ("... many others followed ...") is
a quite crude addition.
Thus the "bare bones" parable might evoke in a modern person a response
concerning social justice and exploitation of the poor by the rich - leading on
perhaps to the thought that ownership of too much excess production isn't a good
thing for the individual's well-being.
Personally, I think that those listening to Jesus would almost certainly have
had a very similar response and that this would have been his intention. And in
that sense we have quite good history in this passage.