Thanks to Stephen Carlson for mentioning Richard Rohrbaugh’s RBL review of Kloppenborg’s The Tenants in the Vineyard. I almost included this story (Mk 12:1-11/Mt 21:33-44/Lk 20:9-18/Thom 65) in my parable series from a couple years ago.
Like Kloppenborg I think the standard allegorical reading of the parable is too problematic. The original story (I don’t understand his distinction between “originating structures” and “original versions”; sounds like needless terminology play) was probably about the futility of peasant revolt, and it ended at Mk 12:9/Mt 21:41/Lk 20:16a. So says William Herzog:
“Peasant revolts followed a typical pattern. They erupted unexpectedly, perhaps spontaneously, in response to a provocation that threatened even the subsistence of peasants. Because they were unpredictable and because they were supported by the peasantry as a whole, the rebels may have survived for a time, winning a few victories. But eventually and inevitably, the sanctioned power of the state would crush them. The codification of peasant revolt ends on a similar note: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?”… In its closing question, the parable codifies the futility of violence under these circumstances.” (Parables as Subversive Speech, p 113)
Richard Horsley, on the other hand, is happy to read the parable allegorically and accept the vineyard as a metaphor for Israel. But he salvages a peasant reading by associating the “wicked tenants” with priestly aristocrats (Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp 305-306). The synoptic writers put a Christological spin on the allegory, but Jesus was simply pronouncing doom on the rich as the prophets always had:
“You elders and princes who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” (Isa 3:14)
The rich (tenants) were destroying the vineyard of Israel as always.
If we’re looking for an original version of the parable, either of the above will do. Herzog’s is non-allegorical and forces listeners to come to terms with the futility of revolt by underscoring the inevitable. The tenants are misguided good guys with whom peasants would have identified, and the landowner is a tyrant. The parable ends by asking, “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” (Mk 12:9a) The answer is obvious — “He’ll kick your ass and just get some new tenants!” (Mk 12:9b) — but like many obvious answers, it needs spelling out to those who go on heedless.
Horsley’s reading is allegorical, promising judgment on the Judean elite. The tenants are the bad guys, and the landowner is God. But ironically, the message is still the same: only God can crush the evils and injustices of the present age.