Mark 12:4

A second time the owner sent a servant to them; this man, too, the tenants struck on the head, and insulted.

if at first you don’t succeed
engage patience
practice steadiness
give a generous second chance

if at first you don’t succeed
up the ante
justify your past
double down on harm done

if at first you don’t succeed
reassert your claim
reassert your claim
rely on attrition of any other side

For the landowner to continue expecting the contract with the tenants to be honored is admirable, generous even. There is no knowing what went wrong with the ask and why the first courier returning, limping.

In accord with good practice to keep things at the lowest level of upset, another is sent from landowner to tenant to receive the landowner’s due.

A wrinkle in this tale is the reality on the ground regarding actual wealthy landowners and those who were one bad harvest away from being evicted from their tenant role to become beggars. Being a tenant farmer in any day is probably problematic. It is sustenance level employment. This background further grounds the idea that this should be called a Parable of the Tenants rather than the Isaian starting point of a Vineyard.

Waetjan8 describes the situation:

The temple, therefore, was the central institution in Judaism that controlled the Jewish “tributary mode of production,” the system that extracted the economic surplus from its primary producers, the peasant cultivators and shepherds, and redistributed it among the upper class, specifically to the members of the ruling aristocracy, the priesthood and the administrative apparatus of the government.

Rebellions by tenants can not only be understood, but expected. When the tenants in the parable come to be understood as those who are taking advantage of the real life, current, tenants on the ground, there is a double take that reveals Jewish temple and Roman government to be cheating on a standard landowner/tenant relationship where both gain benefits.

This makes the tenancy of the religious leaders and occupying forces to be outside the usual social bonds of a landowner/tenant relationship that appreciates one another and, therefore, illegitimate.

Mark 12:3

but they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed.

what do we want
the result of our labor
when do we want it

to be robbed before
putting enough away
to last until next season

we turn you away
as though you had visited
a barren fig tree or vine
you never knew what hit you

there is no time of day
much less quarter given
for playing proprietary games
by an absent partner

The “servant” is categorized as a δοῦλος (doulos, slave). These servants have some characteristics of a διάκονος or deacon—remember Peter’s mother-in-law. The doulos have even more of the characteristics of a slave totally at the discretion and direction of a master.

One way of distinguishing the differences is noted by LaVerdiere173:

Being diakonos describes the servant’s relationship to those who are served. Being doulos describes the servant’s relationship to the kurios in whose name he serves. Translating doulos as “slave” would consequently be more accurate, except for the term’s historical associations with the horrors of the African slave trade.

If it is known that the landowner is away, their slave is of no account and under the old dictum of those-that-have-will-receive-more, a sound dismissal of said slave promises more reward than loss.

As a result this slave who had come with hands ready to be filled went away “holding his own hands” [Bratcher365].

A beating and a dismissal is also a common way the prophets have been treated down through the ages. This also comes with a warning that increasing levels of violent response will be forthcoming should they try this again.

Both Swanson238–241 and Wright158–160 see this parable as one that flows opposite the parable of the seed in Chapter 4:1–9. “The Sower expects a good outcome, no matter what the obstacle. The parable of the Vineyard sees disaster erupt out of disaster as things go from improbably bad to inexplicably worse.” [Swanson] Early in Mark it is easy to project a victory bringing good news. Now, things are getting worse and will get far worse. Each Reader’s experience will surface a different tipping point from seed to vineyard. Where is yours?

Mark 12:2

At the proper time he sent a servant to the tenants, to receive from them a share of the produce of the grape harvest;

for six days
all went according to plan

but that day apart
investigating a new investment
set free-will loose

on a proverbial eighth day
when the rent was due
renters liked their chance
to become owners

no one likes to be a cog
in someone else’s financial scheme
reparation time is here

all went according to plan
for six days

Whereas a fig tree was not in the right season for fruiting (καιρός οὐκ ἦν — kairós oúk ęn, not the time), this vineyard was τῷ καιρῷ (tō kairō, the right season). This is part of Mark’s reflexive or reflective palin pattern.

We have heard kairos back in 1:15, at the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean presence; 10:30, a new family; 11:13, fig tree out of season; and 12:2, vineyard in season—we will hear it again in 13:33, a time to watch and pray. Kairotic time is a time for decisions. Will you claim a new family, affirm that this is always the right time for clarity and mercy, and keep on your toes to respond faithfully to your best intention even when stressed?

These are not easy ways of being. Peter, the Rock, is emblematic of how difficult it is in the moment to live what he desires to have learned.

We are just now having a wider circle to talk about white privilege. This is something long overdue. In a sense Whites are still seeing the world around them, not as humble tenants, but as rightful owners of anyone not able to pass as White. This story about a fruitful and abundant vineyard world and how privilege has taken over so that a minority of people, White Americans, can claim the majority of resources.

This is a parable about economics and how they can get unbalanced whether we are talking about feudal times or a capitalist market whose “invisible” hand is capable of giving everyone a very tangible finger in the eye. Just as we can analyze a fairy tale by identifying with every character in it, we need to be clear and not shy away from seeing ourselves, the Readers, as the tenants.

Mark 12:1

Jesus began to speak to them in parables, “A man once planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine-press, built a tower, and then let it out to tenants and went abroad.

to speak authoritatively
there is not much better
than an apt illustration
that will clarify
who stands where
and to what effect

name the place
protect it
productize it
protect it yet again
profit from it
vacation from the place

all the work of one
is for the benefit of one
a seven-point business plan
is to assure retirement
ideally in seven weeks
or seventy years

This is a parable that is also told in the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. While there is a sense of an allegory in the synoptics, Thomas (65:1–8) seems to simply be the story that begins in Isaiah 5:1-2 and goes on without an absent landowner, judgment, and punishment.

The discovery of Thomas has led to a revision of thinking about this parable. Until then an allegory was assumed and Jesus was the “son”. It now appears that Thomas was closer to what might be considered an original saying of Jesus and the “son” reference may well be about Baptizer John. This needs to be remembered as the parable progresses. [See 5G510–511 and Mann458–464.]

Technically it is interesting to note there are eight new words to Mark, half of which are unique in Mark. They all relate to what amounts to an appropriation of Isaiah for the first half of this verse.

The second half changes Isaiah’s focus on a vineyard (Israel) that has devolved into wild fruit to a fruitful vineyard (Israel) co-opted by wild tenants. Merriam-Webster online defines a tenant as “one who has the occupation or temporary possession of lands or tenements of another”. It can be proposed that it is the tenants that have taken a vacation from their responsibilities as tenants.

The commercial nature of tenants who have a financial stake in the vineyard suggests both Rome who is occupying Palestine and the chief priests who had sold out to Rome. This continues the critique begun with the disruption of moneychangers in the temple area. It also sharpens it from middle management doing the transactions to those who are responsible for the whole system.