457: THE PARABLE OF THE WICKED TENANTS

“A warm welcome to Zingcreed where we look at things in a different manner. Today’s Post analyses one of the more puzzling parables from the viewpoint of  Professor William Herzog. (Reference below.) He favour’s Mark’s version of this story as Mark was the earliest canonical gospel, i.e. it was written closer in time to the events it purports to describe, and thus is more likely to be accurate. Matthew and Luke have somewhat embroidered versions of the same story. This parable appears to show a class based analysis of an unjust economic system. Jesus’s listeners would have been left in no doubt that he stood in solidarity with the oppressed people he describes.
I hope you find the reasoning convincing;
In solidarity,
Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”

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Here is the text (translation is the Scholars’ Version from the Jesus Seminar),

(verse 1) Someone planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a winepress, built a tower, leased it out to some farmers, and went abroad.
(v.2) In due time he sent a slave to the farmers to collect his share of the vineyard’s crop from them.
(3) But they grabbed him, beat him, and sent him away empty handed.
(4) So once again he sent another slave to them, but they attacked him and abused him.
(5) Then he sent another one and this one they killed; many others followed, some of whom they beat, others of whom they killed.

(6) He still had one more, a son who was the apple of his eye. This one he finally sent to them, with the thought, “They will show this son of mine some respect.”
(7) But those farmers said  to one another,”This fellow’s the heir! Come on, let’s kill him and the inheritance will be ours!”
(8) So they grabbed him, and killed him, and threw him outside the vineyard.
(9) What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come in person, and do away with those farmers, and give the vineyard to someone else.

(Mark 12:1-9)

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Here, I hope, is an adequate summary of Herzog’s case:

This is a deliberately shocking tale of a successful murder. It is a simple plot of an opportunistic and bold attempt to seize a vineyard, and with murderous speed get rid of the only heir.
It challenges its hearers to act decisively, even immorally and impiously in light of the advent of the Kingdom of God.
Let us examine each component of the parable:

The vineyard:
It takes 4 years from the moment of planting until you can get a crop from this plant, so only a very rich person could invest in such a long term project. During this time paid labour is needed to nurture the plants. They would be allowed to grow their own vegetables between the rows of vines, and that is what the owner would claim part of, until he could get a cut of the grapes themselves, when vegetable growing would cease. The vineyard is a commercial export enclave in the midst of a large subsistence population. Its mere existence is  going to cause class conflict.

The owner of the vineyard:
How did he get the land to plant his vineyard? The land of Galilee was full. Peasant farmers had worked the land since time immemorial and passed it down to their sons throughout the generations. The only way an outsider, an absentee landlord in this case, could come and grab some land was as follows: if there was a bad harvest for some reason, the farmer/peasant would borrow money, and if he could not pay it back, he would forfeit his patch of soil, his collateral on the loan. Speculative investment could only occur after foreclosure on such a loan. It was the prerogative of the rich elite who grew such luxury export crops as wine. Like capitalists today they ‘needed’ to maximise their profits and they believed there were two ways to do this: (i) plundering the peasants through tribute and forced obligation, a practise called ‘corvee’, or (ii) expropriating their land, which is the context of this parable. In Latin America, where such practices occur today, this is known as ‘latifundialisation’. Only through constant expansion of their land holdings could they acquire the status, prestige and political power they desired.

The owner/landlord/speculator may have been Jewish or Gentile, even Roman; it doesn’t really matter. The reference to him going abroad might mean just to a neighbouring province or to Jerusalem.

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The farmers/’wicked tenants’:
These employees of the vineyard owner would have been peasants displaced from their land and hired back in some share-cropping arrangement. They could even have been working on land which had formerly belonged to them. Class conflict is implied in the very existence of vineyards. The peasants were powerless to do anything about it. If they protested about the unfairness of the situation, or revolted, they would be treated mercilessly. This parable describes one such revolt. The tenants were constantly losing such rearguard actions. Revolt often simmered just under the surface. Such brushfire revolts kept breaking out in Galilee and Judaea  but never became a full-fledged revolution.

Farmers were particularly indignant at losing their land because, according to the scriptures, Jahweh allotted the land to all 12 tribes of Israel and even to each family in perpetuity; so the thieving vineyard owners were challenging a divinely ordained system of land ownership. (Josh 24:28, 32; Num 27:5-11)

The average peasant, before his land was expropriated, just wanted a quiet life. He, and it would have been a ‘he’, wanted only to maintain their status  relative to their peers. They were not acquisitive because if they got richer it could only be at the expense of other villagers, and honourable  peasants did not wish to disadvantage their neighbours. Their income was split 3 ways (i) maintaining a subsistence level of living, (ii) maintaining status, (iii) set aside for community ceremonies.

After loss of their land, their whole world collapsed. They have lost status as honourable villagers and can’t remain a part of the collective to which they belonged. The head of the household has lost the ability to maintain that household and of course he can no longer contribute to the ceremonial needs of the village. Most shamefully he has disrupted a delicate balance of mutual subsistence needs in the community. As this downwardly mobile peasant crosses the threshold between smallholder and tenant, his bitterness knows no bounds and he may feel that only violence can restore justice.

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The slaves/servants:
These are the retainers in the landowners house. They are the functionaries and the bureaucrats who carry out the master’s decisions. They do his bidding and take the anger hostility and violence which is meant for him. The tenants on the vineyard can’t get at the protected elite so they turn their aggressive impulses on the vineyard owner’s agents.

Violence:
Violence erupts when dispossessed farmers are pushed to the limit: they can’t support their dependants any more, they are ashamed and bitter at the hand fate has dealt them, and they’ve got nothing left to lose. Latin American Archbishop Helder Camara described the 3 stages of the spiral of violence which we see here:-

(i) (Mk 12: 1b-2) daily oppression;

(ii)( v3-8), revolt;

(iii) (v9) repressive force.

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In the parable the escalating sequence of violent acts is:-
(i) beating and denying the first servant any payment,
(ii) humiliating and shaming the next retainer,
(iii) killing the next servant who came,
(iv) killing the son and heir.
The tenants resort to violence not to bring in an ideal order of justice but to restore what they had recently lost. The parable’s implication is that they rebelled to restore their patrimonial holdings, i.e. their actions and motives were perfectly clear. Jesus ask rhetorically “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” His listeners knew perfectly well that the revolt would be violently crushed. The tenants had no weapons, and no political influence. The Galilee elite had a monopoly on weapons and armies, and all forms of resistance to them were futile. The story reflects a clash of 2 incompatible world views. The selfish capitalist view of the entrepreneur versus the non-acquisitive egalitarian view of the subsistence farmer. The dispossessed farmers are reasserting their honourable status as heirs to the land. This is akin to Joshua violently wresting land back from the Canaanites. The ruling elites put a spin on this, like all elites do. They portrayed themselves as Joshua’s rightful heirs and the rebellious peasants as outlaws. They interpreted the Torah to justify their greed, and as heirs to this reading of history to reap its benefits.

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Conclusion:
Jesus explores the themes of ownership, and inheritance. He calls into question the accepted elitist version of how society is meant to be organised, and he undermines the credibility of the elite themselves. He points out the futility of armed rebellion, and leaves his hearers asking themselves ‘are there other ways for peasants to assert their claims?’ Some modern commentators claim Jesus was a proponent of Non Violent Direct Action. Such people as Martin Luther King , Tolstoy and Gandhi built on these flimsy biblical foundations and helped bring about earth-shaking political changes without firing a shot. Myers (p. 308) calls this the Central Political Parable, and he cleverly weaves the political reading with an allegorical one which enriches and complicates the tale. By allegorically putting the elite into the role of tenants and having God as the vineyard owner, Myers is able to claim that Jesus’ words in verse 9 (above) are “the hardest, and most revolutionary, words in the Gospel.” (p. 426)

Sources:
Herzog, William R. “Parable as subversive speech” John Knox Press (1994) (p.98-113)
Funk, R.W. et al “The five gospels. What did Jesus really say?” HarperCollins (1993)
Myers, Ched “Binding the strong man. A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus” Orbis (1983)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Parables are subversive (Herzog)
The parable of the vineyard labourers (Herzog)
Jesus’s 14 authentic parables
Spiral of violence
Red Christians #18: Helder Camara
Jesus the subversive (Myers)
Myers Mission Statement

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[london graffiti 2015]

[457,i]

 

 

 

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