Rethinking Vinegrowers and Violence (Part One)

The Parables of JesusLuise Schottroff, in her work The Parables of Jesus (Trans. Linda M. Maloney. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.) writes that the parables of Jesus of Nazareth contain a wealth of information concerning the meaning of his proclamation and vision, information that has historically been both influential and misunderstood (1). In as much as there are as many interpretations of the parables of Jesus as there are New Testament and parable scholars, the purpose of this paper is to examine Schottroff’s feminist perspective in her examination and reinterpretation of the Parable of the Vinegrowers found in the Gospel According to Mark 12:1-12. In her interpretation, Schottroff argues that this parable speaks not to an allegorically based rejection of the people of Israel in favor of the Christian Church, but against multilayered forms of violence against the people of Israel that calls those people to endure Roman oppression and seek non-violent forms of effecting demands.

Before looking at Schottroff’s interpretation and her critique of allegorical interpretations, we must first consider her hermeneutical considerations as a feminist scholar. Schottroff undertakes her parable examination with high regard for their original contexts, theologically, intellectually, and socially, as well as a parables potential meaning for today’s context (1). By way of these contextual concerns, Schottroff rejects the typical apocalyptic eschatological hermeneutic for interpreting the parables of Jesus in favor of a “non-dualistic” parable theory (2). This theory seeks to understand the parables of Jesus as they were delivered to real people in their real contexts and experiences during the Roman occupation of Ancient Jewish Palestine. Fundamental for Schottroff in contextually interpreting parables are renewed understandings of Torah and metaphor. Schottroff argues that Jesus must be understood as a Jewish Torah teacher and prophet (13), who must not be read as rejecting or usurping Torah, but instead building upon a long Jewish biblical and postbiblical tradition of teaching (85). Likewise, she argues that potential metaphorical meanings of parables must be considered in light of their socio-historical context and how a first century Jewish audience would understand and respond to parabolic images (99, 104). Such a view undermines and rejects allegorical interpretations of parables, which may be employed to absolve an audience from necessary social and political consequences or legitimate violence (84). Thus, Schottroff approaches the biblical text with a high regard for its context, though with a high degree of suspicion toward the texts traditional interpretations.

Having briefly considered Schottroff’s hermeneutical considerations toward the biblical text, context, and interpretation, let us now examine her reinterpretation of the Parable of the Vinegrowers. To support her interpretation of this parable, Schottroff considers the socio-historical world of that the parable would have been delivered in, as well as revisiting and critiquing the typical allegorical interpretation, and visiting the parables value for today. Schottroff argues that original hearers of this parable would have immediately understood it to be referencing a potentially real violent conflict between a wealthy landowner and the tenants in his vineyard (15) and the reference to Isaiah 5 in Mark 12:1 would have suggested that the vineyard itself represented Israel (17). Thus the increasing violence of the tenants, who kill several messengers and eventual kill the heir of the wealthy landowner, do not represent the people of Israel but instead those who are doing violence to the people of Israel. This interpretation is further emphasized contextually, Schottroff argues, as debtors not being able to pay their debt was the burning issue of the parable’s day (17). In considering the land owner, Schottroff argues that it could not be understood as God, as this character acts like an opponent of the God of the Lord’s Prayer and Torah (17). While parallel versions of this parable found in Matthew and Luke change some facets of the parable, they too include an intensification of violence that Schottroff understands to indicate the destructive power of Roman dominance in Israel (18-19). Thus at the end of the parable, Schottroff’s interpretation argues that it is the people of Israel who have been attacked and dominated by Rome, who now receive the promise of the parable, that the rejected stone will become the capstone, and who are incited to consider methods other than violence that would allow for demands made against violent dominators to be effective. It thus follows that the thrust of the parable in its original context was to teach its original audience, in their context of landowners, debts, and war, of their need to recognize the God of Israel and his actions within a distorted world (21). Schottroff concludes her socio-historical analysis by arguing that this parable speaks of hatred and murder that arose from foreign economic exploitation, and that these victims should not mistreat, economically or physically, others in the same way they have been mistreated (21). Thus for Schottroff, the parables speaks to multiple experiences of violence, both as enacted upon Israel and against the perpetuation of such economic and physical injustice.

Luise Schottroff
Luise Schottroff

Next Schottroff offers a critique of the dominant allegorical framework of ecclesiology and the Christian Church regarding the Parable of the Vineyard. In looking at the ecclesiological perspective, Schottroff examines Joachim Jeremias’ interpretation as found in his work, The Parables of Jesus. The traditionally allegorical interpretive framework understood the tenants to be the leaders of Israel, the messengers to stand for the prophets, the son connotes the Messiah, the punishment of the tenants to represent God’s rejection of Israel, and the others to whom the vineyard was given to indicate the Christian Church. While Jeremias’ argues that Jesus’ original parable differs from the Gospel account, he concludes that the original meaning of the parable was not that the vineyard be given to the Church, but to the poor (23). In this interpretation, the last messenger still represents the Messiah, and the landowner (God) continues to implicitly reject Israel and the teachings of Torah through this parable (23). As this interpretation does not solve Schottroff’s concerns regarding the importance of Torah, continuity of Jesus’ Jewish context, original audience understandings, and continues to interpret the parable allegorically (albeit with a non-traditional conclusion), she argues that such an interpretation does not satisfactorily interpret the parable.

Turning toward eschatological interpretation for today, Schottroff notes the importance of the parables use of Psalm 118, namely that the stone the builder’s rejected has become central. This she argues indicates the transformation of the suffering of the people of Israel from both endured and committed violence into hopeful non-violence (23). Arguing that allegorical interpretation has long voiced anti-Jewish sentiments (24), Schottroff writes that parable originally sought to interpret the present, showing that turning from violence as a reaction to powerlessness was a necessity in order for Israel to be liberated from its suffering (24-25). Ultimately, in interpreting this parable for today’s context, Schottroff argues for a connection between the message of the parable in its first context, either the time of Jesus of the writing of the Gospels, and its second context in today’s world (27). Thus, her consideration of context, both original and current, plays a formative role in her interpretation and application of parabolic material to today (28).


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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