Forming Faith Blog

Who Owns What? (Mark 12)

Are your things—property and person—yours or someone else’s? We, as represented by the tenants and taxpayers in Mark 12, believe that what we have is ours. Jesus teaches us that everything is God’s, and we are temporary stewards of it.

Several bunch of grapes
Photo by Luiz M. Santos on
Lent and the Call to Serve

In our Narrative Lectionary resources, we use the theme “The Call to Serve” for the first four weeks of Lent and focus on service in the assigned Bible passages. On the first Sunday of Lent, we heard Jesus’ call for the rich man to serve those in need with his money. Last week, we got a triple story of Jesus’ third “passion prediction,” the importance of service in God’s kingdom, and Jesus’ service in healing a man of his blindness. This week, we have two different stories, the second of which being optional, and the call to serve is a bit less obvious.

Allegory against the Leaders

The first, and most officially assigned, reading is the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. This parable has two main “teams:” Team Tenant and Team Owner. And while a lot of parables don’t set themselves up to be clear allegories, this one does. The audience for this parable is a group of religious leaders who are challenging Jesus’ authority (Mark 11:27-33). Even they were able to figure out that the tenants were themselves.

  • Owner = God
  • Vineyard = Israel
  • Tenants = Israel’s leaders
  • Slaves/Servants = The prophets
  • The Son = Jesus

Within the parable itself, the tenants’ behavior is beyond bizarre. What tenant in their right mind would assault the owner’s representative when they come to collect the rent (even ignoring the whole “assault is illegal” part)? And then, later, the tenants think “Oh, we’ve murdered the owner’s heir. That means the vineyard is ours.” Um, huh?

Tenants versus the Owner

The parable makes a whole lot more sense when you focus on the allegory rather than the plot. In Israel’s history, God set up (political and religious) leaders to care for God’s people, to be God’s representatives. But over and over again, the leaders started thinking that Israel—and their power—was theirs to do whatever they wanted. They forgot that they were tenants and not the owners. Since the leaders and the people were turning away from God and their God-given responsibilities, God sent prophets to bring the leaders back to representing God and serving others—their “rent.” The leaders didn’t want to give up their power, so they ignored and mistreated the prophets. (And this is not the only time Jesus complains about this.)

The Son and Heir

Then Jesus gets to a part that his audience wouldn’t understand (I don’t think): the murder of the heir. It is abundantly clear to us, on our side of the cross, that Jesus is referring to himself. Jesus, the Son of God, was sent to God’s people and executed for challenging the leaders and their fear of his messianic identity. I can think of three possibilities, two Watsonian (explanation within the narrative) and one Doyalist (explanation involving the author):

  1. Jesus was making another “passion prediction,” as this sounds quite a lot like the three primary ones (Mark 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:32-34).
  2. Jesus knew that the religious leaders were trying to get rid of him, so he added that future into the parable.
  3. The Gospel writer added this “conclusion” to the parable for the readers, who would know that the crucifixion was coming.
Taxes Trap

The religious leaders were hopping mad at being called out and accused like this. However, Jesus was a very popular figure by then, so a direct move against him would cause a riot. The leaders were clever. What they needed was for Jesus to slip up and make enemies, either of the people or the Romans. So, they devised the taxes trap.

For everyone to understand what’s going on here, you need to make sure that they have the most basic background information. The Roman Empire had conquered the territory of Palestine and have been occupying it for around 90 years. The Romans did whatever they wanted, oppressing the people, and—to make matters worse—charged the people exorbitant taxes to pay for their own oppression. (You can see why tax collectors weren’t popular.)

Taxes versus the Owner

The leaders tried to take advantage of their context. On one side, the people (Jesus’ fan club) hated the Romans and resented paying taxes. On the other side, the Romans were a bit touchy about popular local leaders refusing to obey them and starting an insurrection. If the people turned against Jesus, they wouldn’t care if the religious leaders “took care” of him. If Jesus angered the Romans, then the Roman government would do the dirty work for them.

But the leaders were making an assumption—the same assumption most of us have. They assumed that their money was theirs to do with as they pleased. They assumed that they were owners.

Jesus’ response was sort of both and neither. On the one hand, Roman coins were graven images (a big no-no in the Ten Commandments) of rulers who thought themselves to be gods. Pious Jews would certainly want as little to do with the money as possible. So, give the emperor back his cursed stuff. Jesus didn’t stop there. Okay, so Roman coins belonged to (and with) the Roman government. But everything in all creation belongs to the Creator, always and forever. We are all caretakers—tenants—not owners. And like the wicked tenants in the parable, we are responsible for giving God our “rent:” loving God and loving others.

Faith Formation Connections

The religious leaders knew right away that Jesus was talking against them with his parable. How? They shared context with Jesus and would have known:

  • A vineyard is a common image for Israel, with God as the owner
  • It was pretty common for wealthy people to own land and have tenant farmers who would have had to give over a large part of their produce to the owner.
  • The verses from Psalm 118 that Jesus quotes in verses 10-11.

But faith formation participants might not understand all (or any) of that. As the Ethiopian official says in Acts 8:31: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Your work, as a faith formation leader, is to be that guide.

In peace and justice,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 10 to May 19), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download the “What Does It Take?” activity from our Living the Word: Kids (3rd-6th, NL) curriculum. This activity can also be done in intergenerational groups, youth, adults, and even at home!

Order Faith Formation Resources

We are now in Lent! Have you ordered faith formation resource for the Spring quarter (which has begun)? Purchase and immediately download the Spring quarters for the Narrative Lectionary, the Revised Common Lectionary, or even a classic Sunday school Classroom curriculum for PK-2nd and 3rd-6th. Our faith formation resources are easy-to-use, theologically sound, and inclusive.

Introducing our newest Learning Together unit: Created to Care! Wonder at God’s creation and learn about what we can do to protect and heal it in these five lessons, intended for children and intergenerational groups, family or churchwide events, a Lenten series, or Vacation Bible School. We also have six other topics, one of which is FREE!

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