Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
The Wicked Tenant Farmers
(Mark 12.1-8)

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 tenant farmers.

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 tenants.

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.

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