Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?”

When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away. (Mark 12:1-12)

There was a time in my life when I was desperately in need of help. I didn’t see it, of course, but everyone else did. Family, friends, acquaintances — you name it — I was down and out in a bad way. Of course, I thought I was doing just fine, thank you very much. So when these offers for help came, I rebuffed them at every turn. Help looked like judgment, which of course it was, and I recoiled at its presence.

This is the situation of the tenant farmers in the parable. Well, it’s not quite their situation, but it’s close enough. The owner sends his representatives to the workers of the farm for his allotted share of the crops, and the farmers will have none of it. They are perfectly fine without the owner, thank you very much. They’d rather be on their own, and the owner is a burden they’d rather not have to deal with. So they beat, abuse, and kill to keep what’s theirs.

Perhaps the tenant farmers were well enough on their own. Maybe they had the capital to make the needed improvements to the farm? Probably not. But in either case, the hearers of the parable, the ones who understood that Jesus spoke about them — they desperately needed help. They had forgotten about God’s mercy for sinners. They were religious snobs and had deceived themselves into thinking they were perfectly fine. Or in Robert Capon’s words, “they try to stop the coming of the paradoxical Power that alone can keep them in business, and they take refuge in a lot of prudential nonsense that only insures their going out of it” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 454). Who needs a doctor when you’re healthy (Mk. 2:17)?

The more God tried to help, the more viciously they rebuked him. They dug in repeatedly: with the prophets of yore, John the Baptist, and ultimately Jesus himself. Their Deliverer had come and the Pharisees and scribes saw judgment. Jesus shined a light on the established system of thought and his aid was viewed as a threat. Jesus just wouldn’t give up on them and so his death was the only way to shut him up.

There is a fine line between help and threat, between diagnosis and judgment, salvation and damnation. The Parable of the Tenants is a parable judgment, but it is simultaneously a parable of deliverance. Holding these two together is essential for understanding Christ and the gospels that speak of him. Jesus did not come to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, dividing people according to felt need or worldly distinctions and presumptions. All are afflicted and find misplaced comfort in the world, clinging to our religiosity, financial security, reputations, careers, or misplaced loyalties. Instead, Jesus was an indiscriminate socialite, dining with both Pharisees and tax collectors in equal parts. His word was and is the same to all. To everyone he preached freedom from that which is killing us. The light of the world came to save the world and all must leave everything behind to follow him. We cannot bear such a word, and it comes to both kill and make alive.

The advent of Jesus (both then and now) is a two-edged sword, whose “‘yes’…in its own way hides the uncompromising apocalyptic ‘no’ to all human religious aspiration” (Gerhard Forde, A More Radical Gospel, p. 31). The proclamation “Christ died for sinners” is a declaration of good news. Yet it contains the not-so-subtle implication that we are not doing OK, that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. As Rudolf Bultmann recognized, “Man’s sin is the point of contact for the contradicting Word of grace” (Essays P.&T., p. 137). We are sinners. We are dead. This is bad news, for sure, but for most of us it’s old news. Some know this more than others, finding that wisdom that is only learned through failure, death, loneliness, and getting knocked off your high horse (so to speak). In either case, the struggles we face, both within ourselves and within the world, repeatedly remind us of our infirmity.

The Physician we need is always right in front of us, staring us in the face. He speaks words of life, comfort, and peace to the dead, afflicted, and weary. Whether we know it or not, we need help and Christ always comes to our rescue.