Jesus and the Vineyard Tenants
Last week we considered together how a delegation of the Jewish leaders challenged Jesus as to the origin and nature of his authority. Jesus responded by directing these leaders to the ministry of John the Baptist. John’s ministry was prophetic. His task was not to make a name for himself but to identify and point to the coming Messiah. And, according to John, there was no doubt about it: Jesus was this great One, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The leaders of the nation did not want to admit this however. They rejected the testimony of John and set themselves against Jesus. Worse still they tried to influence the people against Jesus as well. And so Jesus told a further story to highlight just what they were doing and what the consequences of their behaviour would be.
As we start to think about this story that Jesus told, a story about a vineyard and the wicked tenants who cultivated it, we should note a couple of things right at the outset:
a. Jesus spoke to the people and they understood at once what the story was all about and how it was relevant to them:
v.9 "and he began to tell the people this parable..."
Their reaction shows that they knew what he was referring to:
cf. v.16 "when they heard this (Jesus’ conclusion), they said, ‘Surely not!’"
b. Jesus spoke the words against the Jewish leadership of scribes and chief priests. They knew it and did not like it one little bit. In fact they were so incensed that they wanted to arrest him there and then!
v.19 "The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them..."
Jesus’ story was evidently very clear and straightforward for his contemporaries to understand and the reason is simple: he told a story that built upon their shared knowledge. Let me explain some of the detail of that:
Firstly, the parable is all about an absentee landlord and the tenants who work the ground that they have rented from him. In the first century in the region of the upper Jordan there were plenty of large estates that were owned by foreigners. These owners did not live on site but preferred to live elsewhere while leasing their land to tenants who agreed terms in order to work it. Each year the tenants would be expected to pay their dues as it were and this would normally take the form of a share of the harvest that was produced and gathered in. It was however far from uncommon to have disputes arise from time to time between the landlord and his tenants – Jesus’ story described one such dispute that quickly spiralled into being a massive problem.
Secondly, to speak of a vineyard was not a simply a neutral agricultural story. To Jesus and his listeners the vineyard was an image charged with meaning: the vineyard was a picture that spoke about Israel, God’s people. In particular it referred to the privileged relationship that Israel enjoyed with her Maker.
Isaiah the prophet spoke most clearly about this in the words we read earlier in the service (Is.5:1-
Is.5:7 "For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!"
Now we are in a position to grasp what Jesus’ story was really all about.
Well, as we have just seen, the vineyard refers to Israel and the owner of the vineyard, the One who looks for his portion of the fruit, is the Lord.
So far so good.
But who the tenants? The tenants are presented to us as the bad guys of the story as they act unreasonably and with gratuitous violence. These are the ones who are criticised in Jesus’ parable and the Jewish leaders knew instantly that they were the ones being targeted out as Jesus told this parable "against them". In other words the tenants stand in for the leaders of the Jewish nation. Instead of leading the nation in ways that would provide God with the fruit he looked for they persistently led the nation astray.
Other significant actors in the parable are the three servants that the owner of the vineyard sent in order to collect his fruit. These servants were rejected over and over again being treated with an increasing violence. The tenants of the vineyard had no intention in sharing anything with them and sent them all away empty-
There is one final character left for us to identify and I’m sure you have already an understanding as to who it is.
When the owner of the vineyard had failed to get anywhere by sending a succession of his servants he had one more person he could send – it was his son, his beloved son. Surely they will respect my son!
Jesus is of course describing himself now in this story. He is the Son of God, his beloved son. This truth had been declared at the moment of his baptism when a voice spoke from heaven and similar words would again be spoken when Jesus was transfigured:
Mt.3:22 "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
Mt.17:5 "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."
The devil was aware of Jesus’ identity and referred to it during the temptations:
Mt.4:3,6 "If you are the Son of God..."
After Jesus walked on the water and then caused the wind to cease, those in the boat:
Mt.14:33 "worshipped him, saying ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’"
It was the substance of Peter’s confession:
Mt.16:16 "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Nor was this a claim about which the leaders were ignorant for a few days after this the High Priest would question him on this very topic showing he knew about it:
Mt.26:63 "And the high priest said to him, "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God."
His claim to be the Son of God was also known to the passers-
Mt.27:40, 43 "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross... He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’"
So the owner of the vineyard finally sends his one and only son to the tenants of the vineyard "Perhaps they will respect my son." But they don’t. Instead they kill him. They did just what the Jewish leadership had been trying to do to Jesus for months now.
If there was an implied warning in Jesus’ words to the Jewish leadership to stop before it was too late then it certainly fell on deaf ears!
The reasoning that lay behind this murder of the vineyard’s owner’s son calls for a little explanation because it looks a bit odd. They see the son as the heir and act as though they believe they will inherit the estate if there is no other heir alive – they almost seem to be acting as though the owner were already himself dead!
Well there was a law that existed then that did favour the occupants of an estate where the owner died leaving no living heir – so their logic, if indeed we may call it that, did have some basis to it. Even in our day we have an expression that points in the same direction – "possession is nine tenths of the law."
But the owner was not dead and would act! Similarly God is not dead and he too will act!
Specifically the owner would come and take the vineyard away from those who held it and it would be given to others.
The Crowd is Horrified
And this was utterly unthinkable to those who stood listening to Jesus. "Surely not" -
He was speaking about those privileges of close relationship with God which would be transferred away from Israel and given to others. The nation of Israel would lose its favoured status as that status is now given to the universal church which is not made up exclusively of Jews but consists of both Jew and Gentile as they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved.
Sometimes we too can respond like the folk in the crowd: "Surely not" can be our response to news that we don’t want to hear, advice we do not want to follow, warnings we do not wish to heed.
Are any of us responding like that to the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ?
Is there only one who can save us? Surely not!
Is there only one name under heaven by which we must be saved? Surely not!
Is there only one way to the Father and that through Jesus Christ? Surely not!
Is it really only by grace and not by our own efforts that we can be saved? Surely not!
And yet my friends all those things are true. You are free to reject Jesus Christ but it will be at your own peril. Don’t put it off a moment longer: call upon the name of the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved. Every delay and every rejection makes your heart that little bit harder until perhaps it becomes totally insensitive to the voice of God. Please don’t say "Surely not!"
The crowd was shocked to hear just how serious the consequences were but Jesus did not back away from what he had declared. He wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed of what he had just said. Instead, looking them straight in the eye, he backed up his statement by referring back to Scripture.
Isn’t it interesting that the Son of God should lay such weight by the written Word of God? And what does that say have to say to us? If Jesus should turn to the Bible then shouldn’t we turn there too! Without a doubt our need of guidance in the things of God and the purposes of God is greater than his – shouldn’t that make us concerned to read the Bible and to make every effort to understand it?
Jesus quoted to his hearers words from Psalm 118. It was commonly regarded as being a messianic psalm that is it referred to the Messiah who was to come and who had now come in Jesus’ own person:
Lk.20:17 "What then is this that is written: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
He himself was that stone which the Jewish authorities were even then in the very process of rejecting! What hope could there be for those who would try to build while refusing to use the right foundations! The cornerstone was the most important stone of all as it gave the entire building its proper shape and stability.
And just in case anyone should think that it doesn’t really matter what foundations you build upon, Jesus went on to describe how completely catastrophic it would be to encounter this stone in any other way than as the foundation stone upon which to build!
Lk.20:18 "Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him."
Let the seriousness of those words sink in – will you? When a man or a woman insists on rejecting Christ it is they not Christ who is the loser. That is true now but more especially so in the Day of Judgment.
It would be possible for you to refuse to consider that as an option. You could say once again, "Surely not!" But then I must ask you: why do you think Jesus said it? Why do you think he wouldn’t back down on this word and all those other words which would bring him to the cruel cross of Calvary? Did he say such things because he was a foolish man bent on self-
Yes, there are mentally sick people with delusions and death wishes but when you look carefully at Jesus is that really what you see, a madman?
The answer lies elsewhere. He said what he did because it was true and he wanted people like you and me to hear it.
I don’t want to be broken in pieces or crushed and I don’t think you want that for yourself either.
The official Jewish rejection of Jesus led to the door to intimacy with God being thrown wide open wide to non-
As the leaders listened to Jesus’ parable they understood what he was saying.
As they listened to his explanations they understood what he meant.
But hearing and understanding are not enough.
These men heard, understood and rejected the only One who could save them. But, no, they won’t trust him they would rather arrest him, silence him, kill him, if only they could. For the moment they weren’t able to do so – the crowd was still too sympathetic towards Jesus for that to be an option for them. But they would soon have their opportunity – in just a few more days they would be able to arrest him, charge him, condemn him and arrange for him to be crucified.
But they could not finish with him!
They would find that with not the slightest desire in their hearts to please God they only succeed in forwarding the divine plan of salvation. They feared the crowd that day. A few days later they feared that his disciples might come and steal the body. They had something far greater to fear – a risen Saviour whom they had crucified and who would crush them in judgment unless they too would repent and be born again. They needed to climb down, to admit they had been wrong and done wrong. They needed to confess their sins and to ask for forgiveness.
In short they needed to do what all of us need to do. If you haven’t yet done so – seek the Lord while he may yet be found in this day of salvation.
And to God be the glory.