In the three synoptic gospels, the parable of the Wicked Tenants is an allegory of judgment against the Jerusalem leadership:
“A man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a pit for the wine press, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. 2 When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 And they took him and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Again he sent to them another servant, and they wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully. 5 And he sent another, and him they killed; and so with many others, some they beat and some they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son; finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 And they took him and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard. 9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this scripture: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; 11 this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Mk 12:1-11; cf. Mt 21:33-43/Lk 20:9-18)
The man who planted the vineyard is God; the vineyard is Israel; the tenants are Jerusalem authorities; the servants are God’s prophets, some rejected and others killed by those authorities; and the son is the final prophet Jesus, who is also killed and then (as the “stone”) resurrected. Matthew and Luke follow Mark in this scheme.
In the gospel of Thomas, the parable is a gnostic (or quasi-gnostic) allegory about the failure to grasp knowledge or wisdom:
“There was a good man who owned a vineyard. He leased it to tenant farmers so that they might work it and he might collect the produce from them. He sent his servant so that the tenants might give him the produce of the vineyard. They seized his servant and beat him, all but killing him. The servant went back and told his master. The master said, ‘Perhaps he did not recognize them.’ He sent another servant. The tenants beat this one as well. Then the owner sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they will show respect to my son.’ Because the tenants knew that it was he who was the heir to the vineyard, they seized him and killed him. Let him who has ears hear.” (Thom 65)
The master (God) sends servants who are rejected, and he laments that the tenants do not “recognize” or “know” the servants, especially the son. Thomas knew the synoptic gospels, and in this parable he conflated the versions of Matthew and Luke while giving it an entirely new meaning that squared with his quasi-gnostic agenda.
The question is what the parable meant from Jesus, assuming it originated with him.
The parable as a martyr prophecy (Meier)
John Meier thinks Jesus spoke the parable much as it stands in the synoptics, but without the end consolations in verses 9-11. It was indeed an allegory recapitulating the cycle of rejection and martyrdom of Israel’s prophets. This was the story of Israel’s life — told in Jer 7:24-28, II Chron 36:13-21, Neh 9:26-37, and other places. After the execution of his mentor John the Baptist, Jesus mulled over his own fate and placed himself in this dark cycle. He would soon face off the Judean authorities. They would kill him and dishonor his corpse. The consolations came later in the Christian movement, first in the punishment of those leaders (verse 9), then in Jesus’ vindication by making him the “cornerstone” or keystone of the new state of affairs (verses 10-11, which refers to the resurrection). “It’s nigh impossible,” says Meier, “that the primitive form of the parable in Mk 12:1-8 was composed by some believer in Christ in the early post-Easter period of the church”. But from Jesus it made perfect sense. He was saying he knew full well what awaited him if he pursued his confrontation with the Jerusalem elite. He knew the connection between a prophetic career and danger zones like Jerusalem where prophets were often rejected and/or killed. As an Elijah-like prophet he accepted his destiny of martyrdom.
The parable as a critique of violence (Herzog, Kloppenborg)
William Herzog believes there was originally no allegory. Jesus was codifying a spiral of violence by describing a local peasant revolt on a great estate. (He takes Mk 12:1-9a as the original story.) Rebellions like this were small and seldom made the news of historical record, but seem to have been typical of the brushfires that kept breaking out in the harsh economic landscapes of Galilee and Judea. Violence erupted when peasants were threatened with loss of subsistence, and in Herzog’s view, the parable exposes the futility of such peasant revolts. Vigilantism is the point of the parable’s critique. The thrill of revolt is satisfying but always short lived. As the story’s narrative gains momentum, Jesus stops it dead in its tracks with the question, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?” The answer is obvious. He will crush the revolt. Revolts never led to revolutions in the ancient world. Vigilantism simply called forth worse forms of oppression. With his closing question in v 9a, Jesus points to the futility of peasant rebellions.
John Kloppenborg also dispenses with allegory. Jesus critiqued vigilantism (as Herzog claims), but also the elitist coercion that ignites it. (He takes Thom 65 as the original story.) The papyrological evidence on Palestinian viticulture depicts clear patterns of rich absentee landlords who pursue wealth and bully others with status displays. In cases where tenants ignored the owner’s deputies, the typical strategy was to send agents of increasing social status, as portrayed in the parable. In the story they are all rejected and/or killed, but the twist is that there is not a hint of the landowner using any violence to take the vineyard back (in Thomas’ version). He does nothing, according to Kloppenborg, and is thus honorable. This concurs with Jesus’ view of honor found everywhere else in the gospels: that one should not retaliate with violence or vindictiveness (Mt 5:39-40/Lk 6:29; Mt 5:49/Lk 6:30; Mt 5:44/Lk 6:27; the Parable of the Great Supper, in which the host is grievously insulted but simply responds by inviting outcasts and low-lives to his banquet; the Unmerciful Servant, in which the king refrains from violence and writes off an immense debt, while the forgiven slave refuses to do the same, which is the point of the parable’s critique; and so forth).
Which is it?
I’m divided in mind, frankly. Either interpretation is plausible. As an apocalyptic, Jesus more than likely had a martyr’s complex, and as a social prophet, he had acute concerns about violence. When it comes to the parables, I doubt we can pin him to a single genre. One person’s allegory is another’s allergy, but that’s our problem. Jesus could use allegory and metaphor like anyone. But he also told literal stories that were later made into allegories, and it’s not always easy to figure out which is which.
On this Good Friday, I’m prepared to entertain both. The prophet who thought he was about to be crushed with no hope of vindication. And the same prophet who opposed vigilante-violence — indeed any retaliative violence — and precisely for that reason resigned himself to the worst violence known in his world.
Herzog, William: Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, Westminster John Knox, 1994.
Kloppenborg, John: The Tenants in the Vineyard: Ideology, Economics, and Agrarian Conflict in Jewish Palestine, Mohr/Siebeck, 2006.
Meier, John: A Marginal Jew, Vol 5: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, Yale University, 2016.