Parable of the Tenants Revisited

And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord's doing,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away. (Mark 12:1–12)

Often, Yeshua’s Parable of the Tenants is used to show how Yeshua foretold His Father’s rejection of either the Jewish people or Judaism, or in some cases both. The summary of the parable in many churches and seminaries is that since the Jews rejected Jesus, Christians have now replaced the Jews as the people of God. According to this line of thinking, “God has taken the vineyard from those who were not worthy (the Jews) and has given it to those who are the 'faithers' in Jesus who comprise the Body of Christ, and who ARE the Church.”

However, if we take an honest look at this passage, we will see this is not the case. As we continue to stress, properly understanding the words of our Master is critical and therefore we need to be able to defend his words from misinterpretation and malicious distortions. As can be attested, they have had dire consequences throughout the centuries of church history. The preaching of this parable alone has been used to point to the Jews as “Christ-killers” and has been the catalyst of pogroms and other atrocities against the Jewish people. 

But we must ask ourselves, should any teaching of Yeshua lead us to a desire to seek vengeance on anyone? Doesn’t this oppose the heart of the bulk of his teachings? Unfortunately, however, humans do not contextualize prejudices; we justify them. And while most people who read this will be horrified at the thought of justifying violence against the Jewish people (bless God), we will at the same time justify our prejudices against them and their religion through our “superior” spirituality. Since we have the “full revelation” of Messiah and they remain “blinded,” they cannot possibly understand the Scriptures any better than we do, and therefore we have little or nothing to learn from our Jewish brethren, particularly “the rabbis.” Although we may say we are not prejudice against Jews and Judaism, the truth is revealed when we make negative remarks about “the rabbis” and “rabbinic commandments.”

Does Yeshua ever speak negatively against “the rabbis?” No. He speaks out against the corruption of the chief priests and the Herodians, who were primarily the Sadducees, and he also speaks out against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, in order to correct those whom he viewed as  co-laborers working to return the Jewish people to the Torah. He warns his disciples against the “yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” in one instance (Luke 12:1), and then specifically tells them not to follow their hypocrisy in another (Matthew 23:1-36). However, he never addresses their authority. We will examine this a little later.

The Sadducees

So to whom is Yeshua rebuking in this parable? If we turn back just a bit from our current passage, we will find the answer.

And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” (Mark 11:27–28)

Yeshua was addressing the “chief priests and the scribes and the elders.” Luke agrees, saying, “The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people” (Luke 20:19). Yeshua’s central rebuke was against the “chief priests,” who held their positions illegitimately and had no true concern over upholding the principles of the Torah. They were more concerned over the laws of purity than even human life. The Talmud tells the tragic story (b.Yoma 23a) of two priests who were competing over the duties of the daily service. As they raced up the altar one stabbed the other in the heart to keep him from winning the competition. This is the type of corruption that was rampant within the Sadducean priesthood. But it doesn’t end here. Upon seeing the victim convulsing on the ground with the knife in his chest, his father (the father of the victim) rushed to remove the knife while the young man was still alive so that it would not contract corpse contamination through his death. The Talmud concludes with “the cleanness of their vessels was of greater concern to them even than the shedding of blood.” The Tosefta on this passages describes it as a time when “purity broke out in Israel,” meaning that ritual purity took precedent over human life.

Yeshua’s castigation was undoubtedly against the corrupt Sadducean priesthood. They were the tenants over the vineyard of Israel. They treated all of the agents of Hashem with shame and contempt. They were the ones who ultimately killed “the Son” of the vineyard owner as well.

The Pharisees

In regard to the Pharisees, on the other hand, Yeshua said this: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2-3). Yeshua says that they have the authority to interpret Scripture. Never does he recognize or give this to the average Joe. He spells out the areas which needed correction and said to turn to the “scribes and Pharisees” for understanding on the rest — of course in light of and secondary to Apostolic authority, which is recorded for us in the the Apostolic Scriptures. But did the scribes and Pharisees have legal authority to render halacha (legal decisions/judgments regarding the interpretation of Torah)? The Torah gives instructions as to who the people are to follow.

And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the Lord will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left. The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again. (Deuteronomy 17:9–13)

The Torah says gives legal authority to the “Levitical priests” (remember, Annas, Caiaphas, etc. were illegitimately occupying the office of High Priest), and to the “judge who is in office in those days.” After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Pharisaic school of thought gave birth to rabbinic authority, formalized at Yavneh, being lead by Yochanan ben Zakai. The tannaim (the rabbis of the Mishnaic period - the period up to the codification of the Mishnah, around 220 C.E.) became the de facto legal authorities of Judaism. The Sadducean priesthood, even those who sat on the Sanhedrin (most likely due to coercion), was never recognized as such.  To interpret Yeshua’s parable in a way which rejects either the Jewish people or the authorized Jewish leadership, is to reject the very foundations of the Word of God as well as the teachings of our Master. This has also created a new anti-Semitism in which Torah-loving individuals have become intolerant toward Judaism and the rabbis, feeling we are more qualified to interpret the Torah than the recognized leaders and teachers of Israel.