Jesus’ parables tend to fall into three categories: parables about the kingdom of God, parables about divine grace, and parables about divine judgment. I’ll give you one guess what this parable (the so-called ‘parable of the wicked tenants’) is about. As you might guess, it’s a parable of judgment. Despite the best efforts of the tenants to usurp the vineyard and keep it for themselves, the field does have a rightful owner, whose imminent return will mete out justice and set things right.
The church has long struggled with parables of judgment, and indeed this parable in particular. We proclaim a God of grace and mercy, but this story seems to emphasize sin, and God’s anger about it, instead. Furthermore, parables about divine judgment are all too easy to turn into a story about insiders (like us) and outsiders (like ‘them,’ whoever they may be). It’s easy to read this story as one in which I, and my community, am on the side of the landowner, not a wicked tenant to who needs to repent.
But the reality is that, as uncomfortable as they can make us, the church needs parables like this one. We need them, among other things, to keep us grounded, to keep our faith from becoming maudlin and sentimental. Sadly, ‘don’t kill the messenger’ isn’t just a figure of speech: people really do resist and reject God, and they still have a tendency to kill the prophets, to violently reject those who dare to pass on God’s dissatisfaction with injustice, exclusion, and sin. Just ask Martin Luther King—or Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, Oscar Romero in El Salvador, or Jalani Luwum in Uganda.
Is there some good news for us in this passage? I think so: you find it in Mark’s quotation from Psalm 118: “the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” The early church quoted this passage all the time as a way of talking about Christ’s death and resurrection, and that provides a valuable clue to read this passage in a hopeful way. The wicked tenants (you and me) did indeed have their way with the owner’s son, Jesus himself. We crucified and murdered him. But where Mark’s parable ends with the destruction of the wicked tenants, Mark’s gospel (and the other gospels) end differently: with resurrection. The risen Jesus appears, not to mete out judgment, but to forgive his friends, and to show that even death cannot defeat him. There’s a second chance for the disciples and all the other wicked tenants, too. We can take from this passage not only a sober realism about the depth of human sin, but also a humble conviction that the death and resurrection of Jesus means that the power of even the deepest sin has been broken in Jesus Christ.
Lord, thank you for this parable, and for the many martyrs and prophets who have proclaimed your word even when it meant their lives. Help us also to proclaim your word faithfully, and to never lose hope for reject it. We ask this in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.