In his book on Jesus’ parables, Kyle Snodgrass says this about the parable of the tenants in Mark 12:1-12: “This is one of the most significant, most discussed and most complicated of all the parables, and not surprisingly one about which there is enormous debate.“
It’s not just the parable that raises issues. As you look at the passage in it’s context (Mark 11:12:-12:12) you may come up with even more questions. Why does Jesus curse the fig tree? It wasn’t even fig season, what had the fig tree done to deserve that? Why does Jesus seem so angry, in this passage? Why does he overturn the tables in the temple? Why does Jesus talk about throwing a mountain into the sea, who’d want to do that? Why does the owner in the parable keep sending his servants to the tenants, even though they keep getting mistreated?
Another question this passage raises is the idea of judgment. As modern people, many of us find the idea of judgment difficult. Most of us prefer the passage just before this, where Jesus the King rides into Jerusalem humbly, on a donkey. We like the humility and gentleness of Jesus’ but we’re often less keen about the idea of his judgment. Are we missing something? Is it possible that judgment, as terrible as it is, can be good? As we look at this passage, let’s consider three things about Jesus judgment. 1 Seriousness of Jesus’ judgment, 2 Goodness of Jesus’ judgment, 3 Hope Jesus gives in the face of judgment.
1. Seriousness of Jesus’ judgment
So what is going on with this fig tree, that’s cursed, even though it’s not the season for figs? We have a small fig tree growing in our backyard. I took a couple of pictures recently, one of a green fig not ripe, and another of a fig that’s closer to ripening. If you look at v13-14 Jesus sees a fig tree with leaves on it. It’s not yet the season for figs, but fig trees in that area bud and produce edible green figs even before they produce leaves. Later in fig season these edible green figs ripen into mature summer figs. So Jesus goes to this fig tree, knowing that if it has leaves, even though it’s not yet the season for the mature figs, it should still have edible green figs. The fact that it doesn’t have anything shows it’s not a fruitful tree. It’s not doing what it should be doing, producing fruit. Jesus curses it saying: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
v20-21 tell us that the next day the disciples see the fig tree and notice that it is withered from its roots. That word withered was used in Mark 3 where Jesus encounters a man with a withered or shrivelled hand. There Jesus does an amazing miracle, he heals the man’s hand, in front of everyone. It’s a miracle only the creator could do. Here we see the reverse happening, it’s also a miracle, but it’s a destruction miracle. The one who has power to create, also has the power and the right to bring judgment and devastation.
But why does he do this, why wither a fig tree? In the Old Testament Israel is often compared to a fig tree. For example: What misery is mine! I am like one who gathers summer fruit ..yet there are none of the early figs that I crave. The faithful have been swept from the land; not one upright person remains. (Micah 7:1-2). Micah is saying Israel is like an unfruitful fig tree, there is no spiritual fruit, no faithful people trusting God and living his way. Similarly Hosea says: Ephraim is blighted…they yield no fruit….My God will reject them because they have not obeyed him; (Hosea 9:16-17)
Old Testament prophets sometimes acted out their messages, so we could ask – is that what’s happening here? Is Jesus acting out a message? Is the unfruitful fig tree a sign of unfruitful people in Israel? Is Jesus withering of the tree a sign of God’s judgment coming on unfruitful people? I think the obvious answer is yes, and that’s reinforced if you notice the way Mark has structured this passage like a sandwich. He does this a number of times, he links an event in the middle, with a related event that he splits either side of it, so here we have the first half of the fig tree event in v13-14, then the second half in v20-21 and sandwiched in between is an event related to that idea of judgment, as Jesus coming in judgment to the centre of Israel’s worship, the temple.
This picture shows a model of the temple in Jesus’ day. It was a huge structure, as it’s courts are bigger than many football fields put together. v15 says: Jesus enters the temple courts and drives out those who were buying and selling there. In the temple was a large area called, the Gentile court, and it was in that area that the buyers and sellers were set up. It was a huge business, Josephus tells us that in the Passover week around AD66, 255,600 lambs were sacrificed in the temple, and there were other sacrifices going on all year round, they needed thousands of priests to carry out this work, it was a big revenue raiser.
As Jesus drives out sellers, and overturn tables, and prevents people carrying out business, he’s also teaching. In v17 he tells us why he’s doing this by quoting from two Old Testament passages: Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” For this is what the Lord says…Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:3-7)
You can see that Isaiah 56 is concerned with foreigners, gentiles, who trusted in God and obeyed him would be accepted, and welcomed. God’s heart was for all nations, but here we see the Gentile area, the only area non Jews could go into, being taken over by the money changers, and sellers, who cared more about money than the spiritual needs of the gentiles. The second passage is: Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” …“‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery,… and follow other gods …then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 7:4-11)
The people in Jesus day were repeating the same error as those in Jeremiah’s day, they had this well-functioning temple, they thought that gave them security, they had religion going, it was a big business, but there was no heart to it. They cared more about religion and finance than they did about loving God and honouring his name.
Jesus isn’t just clearing out the temple here, in going after the buyers and sellers, the heart of the temple commerce, he is foretelling the end of the temple. Two chapters later Jesus says: do you see all these great buildings, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down (his words were fulfilled less than 40 years later, when the Romans totally destroyed it).
By the way, when Jesus talks in v23 about throwing the mountain into the sea, I think he’s talking about the replacement of the temple. It’s very specific language, he’s right near the temple mount, and he says, you can say to this mountain (not any mountain – this one) throw yourself into the sea. Through Jesus, people won’t need to go to the temple to pray. It’s as though we can say to the temple ‘go jump in the lake’ we don’t need you, we can come directly to God by believing in Jesus.
The high priest in Jesus’ day had temple guards as security, how is Jesus’ able to walk in and drive out sellers and overturn tables and prevent people from bringing merchandise in – Why doesn’t anyone stop him, or arrest him? No one can stop Jesus from carrying out his judgment.
When the leaders confront Jesus about his actions, he tells them a parable which makes his judgment even more plain. How will the vineyard owner in this parable respond to the tenants who treat him, and his servants, and his son so badly? 12v9 says: He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.
God’s judgment is serious, even the glimpse we get here in the withering of the fig tree, the overturning of the tables, and the killing of the tenants, is enough to show us Jesus is serious about judgment. His judgment is real and terrifying, we are fools if we don’t take it seriously.
2. Goodness of Jesus’ judgment
a) Justice – Although the judgment seems strong in this passage, you couldn’t say it is unjust. The tenants in the parable will suffer a terrible punishment, yet you can’t say it’s unjust after they’ve beaten and killed some of the servants, then even killed his son. They deserve what they receive.
I think all of us long for ultimate justice. Have you ever been stuck in traffic, and you see a car illegally zip up on the shoulder of the road and push in up in front of you? How do you feel? Most of us feel a little annoyed. How would you feel if there was a policeman up just a little bit further and he got booked? You’d probably think – yes justice! Sometimes they do get booked, often they don’t. That’s obviously a pretty small example, many worse things can happen, some of you I’m sure have suffered terrible injustices, many injustices are happening all over the world, even at the moment, and so much of it never seems to be brought to justice.
The reality of judgment, by a perfectly just God satisfies the longing we see across all cultures for ultimate justice to be done.
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad…Let all creation rejoice before the Lord…. (Psalm 96:11-13a) Why all this excitement? …for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Psalm 96:13) People are longing for a good God to come and judge perfectly. Jesus is that good God.
b) Patience – It was interesting doing this passage recently with some young people, they were asking both: Why does Jesus seem to bring judgment on this fig tree so quickly? And why is the owner of vineyard so slow to bring justice, sending servants, though they are getting beaten and killed? Great questions – the answer is that both of them show us God’s patience in justice. The fig tree seems quick, but if it meant to be a parable of God’s coming judgment on unfaithful Israel, then remember that it’s coming at the end of three years of Jesus earthly ministry, where the religious leaders have been consistently hard-hearted to him and his message. They are reflecting centuries of hard-heartedness towards God. God had been incredibly patient with Israel’s leaders. Just as the owner sent out servant after servant, so God sent out prophet after prophet who were ridiculed, beaten and even killed.
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
God is incredibly patient, he wants us to turn to him, and trust in him, yet in the end his judgment will come.
c) Frees us from our slavery to fear – I was watching the movie, the Princess Bride yesterday, with one of my children, and there’s a line in there, where Buttercup, says to Prince Humperdinck the bad guy: you are nothing but a coward with a heart full of fear. Of course, that’s just a movie, but even in real life, rulers, can often be driven by fear. Three times here, we see the Jewish leaders, being driven by fear: v18 says they’re afraid of Jesus, not for of any good reason, like they think he’s God, but because of the crowd’s reaction to him, it’s the crowds they are really afraid of. We see that in the next section when they ask Jesus what authority he has to clear the temple. Jesus responds by asking them a question. They refuse to give him an honest answer. Why? v32 says because they feared the people. Finally, after Jesus tells the parable, 12v12 says they looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, so they left him.
These are the most powerful Jewish religious and political leaders of the day, yet as we see their hearts exposed here, we see how often they are driven by fear. That doesn’t just expose their hearts does, it? We’re all often driven by fear. The reason we often choose to do or not do certain things, is because we’re far too concerned about what others think of us. I’ve used this quote from Spurgeon before, but I think it still challenges us: The wrath of God is far more to be dreaded than the anger of man, yet sometimes a frown or a rebuke from a fellow creature will have more effect upon our minds than the thought of the anger of God. (CH Spurgeon)
We often care too much, what other people think of us. Jesus says: I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. (Luke 12:4-5)
I remember one time snorkelling in shallow water, when I saw a sting ray very close by. I could feel my heart start to beat faster as soon as I saw him, I felt a level of fear, and that’s good, there is such a thing as healthy fear, it made me avoid danger.
It’s good for us to be thinking together about Jesus’ judgment this morning. It’s good for us to have a healthy sense of fear of God’s judgment. If we don’t fear God’s judgment we’ll waste so much of our life being driven by fear of things that don’t really matter.
d) Loving warning – We should read this passage as a loving warning to all of us. Jesus gives a similar warning when he says:
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:19-23)
The chief priests and teachers of the law were busy doing religious things, running the temple, but they weren’t producing spiritual fruit, there was no real heart in it. Listen to the warning of the passage: do you go to church, but just go through the motions, or are you really engaging with God? Do you really know Jesus? Are really living for him? Or do you just talk about him, and sing about him?
3. Hope Jesus gives in the face of judgment
It would be easy to read this passage, and be left in despair. You might think rightly, I deserve God’s righteous judgment on me. My life hasn’t shown the sort of spiritual fruit it should have. If I’m honest my life has been about me, it hasn’t been about God. I’m like the tenants in this parable, I treat the good things God gives me, as though I’m the owner, and I haven’t listened to God’s messengers like I should have, I’ve often resisted them.
The climax of the parable is in v6 when the owner of the vineyard sends his son whom he loved. In ancient landlord-tenant disputes like this, being in possession of something for a long time was a big factor in your favour, so the tenants thought if they killed the son, they would have a good chance of getting the land. The owner thought they would respect his son, but they killed him. It’s not hard to see in this verse an echo of the words we’ve heard twice in Mark already as God has spoken. Firstly at Jesus baptism, when he said, You are my son whom I loved, then again at the transfiguration he reaffirmed it: this is my Son whom I love.
God sent his son whom he loved to a world that had rejected him, unlike the owner of the vineyard, he didn’t have any illusion that his son would be respected, he knew he would suffer. In fact he sent him for that very reason, to suffer and die.
Jesus comes as the judge, but he also comes as the son. Unlike the fig tree, Jesus was fruitful, he lived a life that perfectly obeyed God, yet he suffered more than the fig tree did when he died on the cross. Jesus cry My God, my God why have you forsaken me, together with the supernatural darkness at that moment show us Jesus is taking God’s judgment on himself. Take the judgment we deserve.
Michael Card, captures well the hope that Christ’s death brings, in his song Jubilee, when he says:To be so completely guilty, Given over to despair To look into your judges face, And see your Saviour there
Jesus is the Judge, but he’s also the Saviour, for all who are trusting him. It’s trusting in what he’s done, that enables us to bear fruit.
 Kyle Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 276.