Flashback Episode — Managing God’s Vineyard: Mark 12:1-12

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Continuing our journey into the week Jesus was crucified, we come to one of Jesus’ more challenging, controversial parables. While the parable isn’t all that challenging to us living today, at least on the surface, it spoke in a powerful way to those living in the first century who heard Jesus’ words in the temple.

Our passage is found in Mark’s gospel, chapter 12, and we will read it from the Good News Translation. Starting in verse 1, Mark tells us that:

Then Jesus spoke to them in parables: “Once there was a man who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a hole for the wine press, and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to tenants and left home on a trip. When the time came to gather the grapes, he sent a slave to the tenants to receive from them his share of the harvest. The tenants grabbed the slave, beat him, and sent him back without a thing. Then the owner sent another slave; the tenants beat him over the head and treated him shamefully. The owner sent another slave, and they killed him; and they treated many others the same way, beating some and killing others. The only one left to send was the man’s own dear son. Last of all, then, he sent his son to the tenants. ‘I am sure they will respect my son,’ he said. But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the owner’s son. Come on, let’s kill him, and his property will be ours!’ So they grabbed the son and killed him and threw his body out of the vineyard.

“What, then, will the owner of the vineyard do?” asked Jesus. “He will come and kill those tenants and turn the vineyard over to others. 10 Surely you have read this scripture?

‘The stone which the builders rejected as worthless
    turned out to be the most important of all.
11 This was done by the Lord;
    what a wonderful sight it is!’”

12 The Jewish leaders tried to arrest Jesus, because they knew that he had told this parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd, so they left him and went away.

This passage is powerful because without clearly saying so, Jesus clearly challenges the religious leaders about their leadership and their attitudes towards God. While some in the crowd listening to Jesus might miss the parallel in Jesus’ choice of describing a man building a vineyard, this detail would not have been missed by the religious leaders. While He could have described any type of farm, Jesus chose a vineyard because it referenced a key challenge towards Jerusalem and Israel in the book of Isaiah.

In Isaiah, chapter 5, we discover a powerful parallel:

Listen while I sing you this song,
    a song of my friend and his vineyard:
My friend had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.
He dug the soil and cleared it of stones;
    he planted the finest vines.
He built a tower to guard them,
    dug a pit for treading the grapes.
He waited for the grapes to ripen,
    but every grape was sour.

So now my friend says, “You people who live in Jerusalem and Judah, judge between my vineyard and me. Is there anything I failed to do for it? Then why did it produce sour grapes and not the good grapes I expected?

“Here is what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge around it, break down the wall that protects it, and let wild animals eat it and trample it down. I will let it be overgrown with weeds. I will not trim the vines or hoe the ground; instead, I will let briers and thorns cover it. I will even forbid the clouds to let rain fall on it.”

Israel is the vineyard of the Lord Almighty;
    the people of Judah are the vines he planted.
He expected them to do what was good,
    but instead they committed murder.
He expected them to do what was right,
    but their victims cried out for justice.

When we read about the religious leaders being upset about Jesus’ parable in our passage from Mark’s gospel, we clearly can see that they saw the connection with Isaiah’s passage. Isaiah’s passage leaves no room for interpretation.

This parable Jesus shared is found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke as well. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus make’s His big climactic statement a question, which the people listening respond to Jesus’ question with Isaiah’s answer. In Luke’s gospel, the people respond with shock and a little disbelief.

Seeing this minor discrepancy might make one doubt the gospel record, but these subtle differences draw our attention to the big truth that there were people present who responded in both ways. In this crowd, there were people present who made the connection to Isaiah’s prophecy before Jesus had even finished the parable, and people who were shocked to learn that there would be an eventual end to the owner’s patience.

However, this parable and Isaiah’s message point us to an interesting conclusion: While the evil tenants in Jesus’ parable are killed and the vineyard is turned over to others, Isaiah’s message describes the vineyard illustration as being equally about God and His chosen people. Isaiah’s message challenges those present by saying in verses 3 and 4: “So now my friend says, ‘You people who live in Jerusalem and Judah, judge between my vineyard and me. Is there anything I failed to do for it? Then why did it produce sour grapes and not the good grapes I expected?’

Isaiah’s passage draws our attention onto the big truth that God’s character is on trial. God gave His people every blessing and advantage He could imagine, and they still rejected Him. This then becomes a challenge to those who don’t believe in free will. While we might not understand every choice we make, and while not all choices are easy or even positive, we have been given the freedom of choice. If humanity didn’t have a choice, then God is ultimately to blame for the state of this world.

God describes how He did everything for His people, and they still rejected Him. We could transpose this idea onto the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve eating the fruit, or even earlier when Lucifer and the rest of the angels were created in Heaven.

When the angels were created in heaven, Lucifer included, everything was created perfectly. If Lucifer had been created in a way that bent him towards sin in any way, then he would not have been perfect, and his choice to hold God accountable for his own choice would be a valid argument. If Adam and Eve were created with the desire to sin, then God would be at fault.

However, just because God knows the future doesn’t mean those He creates don’t have the freedom of choice. In a similar way, just because you can re-watch a movie and the characters do the exact same things as the first times you watched doesn’t mean that the characters in the movie had no choice. In all cases, God created a perfect scenario with free will being given to those He created, and those He created chose to reject Him.

Jesus tells us in His parable that the vineyard would be given to others. However, just because this could symbolize the end of literal Israel being identified as God’s chosen people, we shouldn’t forget the big truth this parable teaches:

God gives everyone the freedom to choose Him or not. (This truth we find in Isaiah.)

And God is looking for a people who will return His portion of fruit to Him. While those in Israel may have rejected God, pushing God to look elsewhere, don’t think for a moment that means we are exempt from the same expectation. If we choose to not be fruitful towards God, we will face the same realization that the Jews did in Jesus’ time: God will seek out another group to focus on.

The challenge for us to remember is to be fruitful towards God, and to return His portion of what He has blessed us with.

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

Always seek God first and be sure to thank Him for what He has blessed you with. Be sure to return to Him His portion of what He has ultimately blessed you with. Remember that without God giving you life, you would be nothing, and this means that everything you achieve is because He gave you opportunity.

Also, be sure to always pray and study the Bible for yourself to grow closer to God and to discover what He is really like. While a pastor or podcaster can give you things to think about, only through personal prayer and study can you discover this for yourself!

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another never give up on, abandon, or stop short of where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Flashback Episode: Year of the Cross – Episode 7: When Jesus shares about some evil tenants of a vineyard who refuse to give the owner his share of the produce, we discover how this parable challenged those in Israel on a profound level, and how this parable alludes to God being judged.

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