Barry Newman's Blog

January 13, 2013

The Parable of the Tenants (part VIII)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The Parable of the Tenants — barrynewman @ 10:14 pm

The cultural background

Wealthy farmers often lived away from their farms and left the management of their holdings in the hands of others.  Jeremias suggests that the most likely backdrop to the parable is that of a foreign farmer living in another country. He claims that “the whole of the upper Jordan valley, and probably the north and north-west shores of the Lake of Gennesaret but also a large part of the Galilean uplands, at that time bore the character of latifundia, and were in the hands of foreign landlords.”[1]  He concludes that because these landlords were living abroad, their absence from their holdings enabled any tenants to take considerable liberties and furthermore, if the landlords were foreigners the tenants would most likely treat them in an aggressive manner.  However, in the parable that Jesus told there is no mention of the owner of the vineyard being a foreigner.  The owner simply plants the vineyard, protects it, and prepares it for the production of wine, and then goes abroad, as Luke puts it, “for a long time”.  None the less, if, foreign ownership of farms was common, there would be no need to mention in the parable that the landlord was a foreigner.  However, whether or not the landlord is a foreigner, may not be all that important for understanding the parable and perceiving its significance. But see below.

Carson points out that the landowner shows his care for the vineyard in his setting up of the fence and the building of the tower. “He builds a wall to keep out animals, a watchtower to guard against thieves and fire, and digs a winepress to squeeze the grapes right there.”[2]

Kistemaker has a lengthy section on the background to the parable. He comments as follows:  “The watchtower was used during the harvest as a lookout against thieves, and might also serve as a dwelling place for the tenant.  The whole project was a financial venture for the landowner.  He planted new vines on untried soul. He rented the vineyard to farmers, but would have to wait for four years before the vines began to bear grapes.  During this time he would support the farmers, buy manure and supplies for the vineyard and hope that in the fifth year he might have a profit. … (In the absence of the landlord), “the tenants would cultivate the vineyard, prune the branches, and raise vegetable crops between the vines during the first few years.  The tenants worked as sharecroppers and were thereby entitled to a portion of the produce.  The rest of the income would go to the owner. … For the first four years the owner would have to support (the tenants). … When the harvest time approached in the fifth year, the landowner would send his servant to collect the income of the vineyard. Contacts between the owner and the tenants may have been minimal during the first four years.  This lack of contact may have resulted in alienation and even hostile attitudes on the part of the tenants, as depicted in the parable.”[3]

Upon the landlord’s servant being beaten, Kistemaker continues, “The message which the owner received was that the tenants had no intention of paying the requested income of the grape harvest.  By sending the servant away beaten and empty-handed, the tenants claimed possession of the total crop … the tenants by beating and killing (other servants) made it known that the vineyard remained in their hands.  They were the ones who had made it productive; therefore, they reasoned, they were entitled to the produce of the vineyard and even to the vineyard itself  … when they saw the son approaching, they may have thought that the owner had died and that the son had taken his place.  That being the case little would stand in the way of full possession of the vineyard if the son were removed. The tenants then could claim that they had faithfully tended the vineyard, that they had not paid any rent for a number of years, and that the legitimate owner of the property had died. .. (the tenants initially admitted the son) to the vineyard, but in order not to defile the vines with blood, they killed him outside of the vineyard … assuming that accompanying servants would take care of the burial.” [4] Recognising that there are some differences among the Gospels, for example, that Mark, contrary to Matthew and Luke records the son being killed in the vineyard and then cast out, the scenario painted by Kistemaker admirably fits the parable.

However, Jeremias and Bailey, neither of whom goes into the detail provided by Kistemaker, have slightly different perspectives.  Jeremias believes that given the assumption that the owner is dead, upon the killing of the son, the land becomes ownerless property with the first claimants to the ownership being given that right. In commenting on the phrase, “the inheritance will be ours,” Bailey appeals to “a ruling in the Mishnah regarding ‘squatters rights” that reads: ‘Title by usucaption (sic) to houses, cisterns, trenches, vaults, dovecots, bath-houses, olive presses, irrigated fields, and slaves, and aught that brings constant gain, is secured by occupation during three completed years.’” and claims that this ruling “sheds light on the mentality of the renters in the story, who believe that if they can maintain physical possession for three years, they can secure ownership of the vineyard.”[5]

Of perhaps greater importance is the significance that Bailey gives to the notions of “insult”, “shame”, “anger” and “nobility” in his understanding of the parable. In referring to Luke only, he comments on the shameful treatment of the second servant and rhetorically asks the question, “How much violence and insult against his servants will the owner of the vineyard tolerate? … The owner has the right to contact authorities, who at his request will send a heavily armed company of trained men to storm the vineyard, arrest the violent men who have mistreated his servants and bring them to justice.  The abusing of his servants is an insult to his person, and he is expected, indeed honour bound, to deal with the matter. No anger is mentioned but it is assumed. The question is, what will he do with the anger generated by the injustice he and his servants have suffered?  … “Will he allow his enemies to dictate the nature of his response?  He is in a position of power.  Retaliation is possible and expected.  But is further violence the only answer?”  Bailey continues, “We sense a painful pause … where the master says, ‘What can I do? (The owner experiences anger, frustration, pain, anguish, rejection, desire for retributive justice and finally a costly peace out of which he chooses to act.)  I will send my son.” [6] It is not surprising that Bailey believe that the title to the parable should be “The Parable of the Noble Vineyard Owner and His Son”. In fact the structure he proposes for the parable as recorded in Luke has as its central pivotal feature, the decision of the owner of the vineyard to send his beloved son.

The background provided by Jeremias, Kistemaker and Bailey is unfortunately not in all respects congruent, yet together they provide sufficient material for us to have a general understanding of the setting of the parable.

What exactly did Jesus have in the background of his mind as he told the parable? We cannot know.  What exactly were the overwhelming features of the story that were consistent with how the majority of hearers would have understood the backdrop to the parable?  We cannot answer that with confidence either. It is possible that as different hearers heard the parable, the background they brought to their understanding of the raw elements of the parable, differed anyway.  It may have even been the case that for many hearers, if not most or all, some aspects of the parable did not even ring true to life.  I will refer to that matter again later.

[1] Jeremias, op. cit., pp. 74, 75.

[2] Carson, op. cit., p. 452.

[3] Kistemaker, op. cit., pp. 90, 91.

[4] Ibid., pp. 91 – 93.

[5] Bailey, op. cit., p. 420.

[6] Ibid., pp. 415 – 417.


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