Commentary on Mark 12:1-12
This will be our last week of readings from Mark’s gospel. We are now in chapter 12 and fast approaching the climax of Jesus’ life and mission. This chapter is marked by a growing conflict between Jesus and the religious and political leaders of his own people. The chapter begins today with a parable (or, more accurately, allegory) directed towards that leadership. Its meaning was very clear to those who heard it.
It tells the story of a man who planted a vineyard, fitted it out with all that was necessary and then let it out to tenants to cultivate. It is clear that the owner is God, the vineyard is Israel and the tenants the people of Israel. The words of Jesus echo very closely a similar image in a poem by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 5:1ff). In Isaiah’s image the vines only produce sour grapes.
In Jesus’ story there are evidently good harvests. The problem arises when the master sends his servants to collect what belongs to him of the harvests. One after the other, the servants are driven away or beaten up or even killed. It is a clear reference to the way that God’s people treated the many prophets which God had sent to them.
In exasperation, the owner decides to send his only son, expecting that they will at least respect him. But no. The tenants argue that by killing the only heir, the vineyard will inevitably become their property. When the son (Jesus) arrives, they seize him, kill him and throw him out of the vineyard (a reference to Jesus being crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem).
What will the owner do now? “He will make an end of the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this text of scripture: ‘It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the keystone’?” Jesus is rejected by the leaders and by many (but not all) of his own people. The Gentiles will be invited to take their place and will be more than happy to fill it.
The words quoted from Psalm 118 can apply either to Jesus or the Gentiles. Jesus, the rejected and crucified one, becomes the cornerstone. Or, the despised Gentiles become the recipients of God’s love and grace and the cornerstone of the new Christian communities.
Clearly, this story did nothing to endear Jesus to the leaders. They would have (as foretold by the story they had just heard) seized him but they were afraid of the crowd (also Jews) who stood in awe of Jesus, his words and works.
This is one of these stories where we can be tempted to sit in judgement on those who rejected Jesus. But we are not reading it today for that purpose. Rather we are being asked whether we are listening to the word of God as it comes to us in the various people that God sends into our lives. How much better are we than the Scribes and Pharisees? How often do we rationalise ourselves out of doing what God clearly wants us to do?
What welcome do we give to God’s messengers? Do we even recognise them when they come? Maybe today, now, would be a good time to listen more carefully than we normally do.