Two or three times in as many years, I have had conversations about Jesus’ parable in Mark 12 of the vine growers. The argument posited to me ran like this, “Doesn’t this parable prove that in Messiah, God was taking His Kingdom from Israel and giving it to the gentiles? Look at what Jesus says, “What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vine growers and will give the vineyard to others.” Doesn’t that mean that Israel is rejected, and the gentile church will be the new Israel?”This reading misses the context and content of Jesus’ story.
The near context is that Jesus is proclaiming a judgement particularly on Jewish religious leaders, Temple leadership, present at that time, who were largely Sadducees and of or connected to the corrupt house of Annas. This group had turned the priesthood into a political arena in pursuit of power. At the same time, they refused to accept the legitimacy of the prophetic writings of Israel. As they had rejected the voice of God’s prophets, they were now in turn rejecting the voice of God’s Son.
There is a far context for this as well. Jesus is recasting a story from Isaiah 5. A story that was well known to everyone present. A story what was disparaged by the group in the crowd that Jesus is exposing. In Isaiah’s earlier, more familiar telling, the problem was the grapes. Despite God’s generosity, Israel had resisted producing good fruit and the LORD left them open to the judgment of the nations. This message was given before 600bce and was fulfilled by 586bce and everyone knew about it. Jesus was talking to those who had returned from the Exile.
But Jesus’ recasting of the story does not say the problem of that days was the “grapes”- “Israel” but with the vine-growers, those put in charge of the vineyard- the Sadducees religious leadership. This warning is not one of a change of persons, but a change in who is tending the persons. Even the “you” in the telling in Matthew21:43 is to the religious leaders.
The Sadducees, and all religious leaders care for God’s people as a trust from the LORD. The Sadducees, as many of us, had led for the sake of self aggrandizement. Now finally the Son has come. As the Heir, he will ultimately own the vineyard and is the greatest threat to them. They will seek to kill the heir to secure the vineyard for themselves. They do not foresee that the LORD Himself will fight for the Heir. It is Messiah Himself who will be the Vineyard owner and chief vine grower, and He will raise up those who will continue to nurture His people.
Not only does this framing of the events of the parable do justice to the context and the details, it also is in keeping with way those to whom Jesus spoke understood it. The Chief Priests, the Scribes, and the Elders “were seeking to seize Him, but they feared the people, for they understood that He spoke the parable against them.”
The context says the people agree with Jesus. The parable is not spoken against the Jewish people. Even the Chief Priests in the account could hear He had spoken against them. How then is so commonly used to insist that the church, particularly the gentile church has replaced Israel? If those who opposed Jesus can understand what He was saying, how can we who claim to follow Him and believe Him display such misunderstanding of Him?