The Jewish religious leadership often takes a shellacking from Jesus’ hand. Mark 12.1–12 is a good example. It is a parable about a landowner, his vineyard, and some tenant farmers who kill his son. The parable so angered “the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders” (11.27) that they “looked for a way to arrest [Jesus] because they knew the parable was about them.” What made them so mad?
Although Jesus’ parables are not usually allegories—in which each character symbolizes someone else—this one seems to be. The landowner is God; the farmers are the religious leaders; the servants are the prophets; and the “son, whom he loved” is Jesus. (“This is my Son, whom I love,” is what the voice from heaven says to the disciples on the mount of transfiguration in Mark 9.7.) The land, it seems to me, represents the covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20.1–21).
Understood as an allegory, what the parable is saying is this: God made a covenant with Israel at Sinai. However, Israel’s religious leadership failed to observe the terms of that covenant. Although God sent prophet after prophet to recall them to the love for God that they pledged at Sinai, the religious leaders persecuted and cases killed the prophets. So, God sent Jesus Christ into the world as a last chance for them to repent and honor the covenant God had made with them. But—Jesus spoke prophetically here—“they took him and killed him.” In God’s providence, this unjust execution became the “capstone” of God’s plan of salvation (Psalm 118.22, 23), for Christ’s death saves us from our sins (Acts 4.10–12). And yet, from the standpoint of justice, what do the religious leaders deserve but judgment?
No wonder the religious leaders were mad. If I were them, I’d be mad too. When we read the parables, we read them as innocents. That is to say, we read Mark 12.1–12 from Jesus’ point of view. And yet, I wonder if that’s the right perspective. I wonder if we shouldn’t read it from the leaders’ point of view. After all, whom do we have more in common with: the innocent Jesus or the guilty leaders? It is easy for us to agree with Jesus against the religious leadership. It is harder, but more truthful, to realize that we too have rejected the prophets and failed to respect God’s Beloved Son.
Do we believe that we are actual sinners who have merited divine judgment? Do we obey the terms of the covenant God made with us on Mount Calvary? Do we listen to and heed God’s often-intrusive word, which calls on us to lay aside sinful thoughts, words, feelings, and actions? Have we trusted in Jesus Christ as the sole means of our salvation? Do we respect God’s Son?
Before we express easy agreement with Jesus’ judgment of the religious leaders, let’s make sure it doesn’t apply to us as well.