The Parable of the Tenants
“What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (v. 9).- Mark 12:1–9
During the first century AD, the agricultural system of Galilee featured landowners who did not supervise the care of their vineyards directly. Instead, these landowners hired tenant farmers to tend their vines on their behalf. Today’s passage records a parable Jesus told based on the familiar reality of tenant farming.
Jesus’ parable also borrows imagery from the prophets that is key to understanding His teaching. Isaiah 5:1–7 describes Israel as the special vineyard God planted, so we see a correspondence in Mark 12:1–9 between the vineyard and the old covenant community and between the owner of the vineyard and the Lord. In Isaiah 5, the vineyard is judged for failing to yield the proper fruit—a strong warning to those who claim to be God’s people that they must bear the fruit of loving service to God and neighbor. But in the parable of the tenants, the tenants are condemned (Mark 12:9). Without taking away from the responsibility of individual vines in God’s vineyard to produce a good yield, the condemnation of the tenants does point to the great responsibility and accountability laid on the shoulders of those who care for God’s people. The failure of God’s people to bear His fruit is not disconnected from the failure of their leaders to teach and discipline them properly.
In any case, the tenants in our Lord’s parable are condemned for mistreating first the vineyard owner’s servants and then for killing the owner’s own son. Obviously, the servants represent the old covenant prophets, whom the leaders of the ancient covenant community frequently rejected (Amos 3:7; Zech. 1:4–6). The son of the vineyard owner is none other than Christ Himself, the “Son of the Most High God” (Mark 5:7). Essentially, then, the parable of the tenants rehearses the history of old covenant Israel. God called a people out of slavery in Egypt, planting them as a vineyard to bear fruit for Him, leaving them under the care of tenants—kings, priests, and other leaders. Periodically, the Lord sent prophets to investigate the vineyard, but as a rule the tenants le in charge rejected the prophets. Rather than destroy the nation, however, God decided to send one last emissary—His Son. But the Son would be received with even more hatred than the prophets. The tenants killed Him in an attempt to steal the owner’s inheritance (Mark 12:1–9).
The parable of the tenants was a prophecy to its original hearers of the death of Christ, but it also shows us how much unredeemed people hate God. As Dr. R.C. Sproul points out in his commentary Mark, that people had Christ—God incarnate—murdered proves that sinners would kill God if they could get away with it. Only by grace do we love God and not hate Him. Let us thank Him for giving us hearts to love Him.
Passages for Further Study