(Jesus said), “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a wine-press in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
An old woodcut of this parable.
Jesus told this parable almost 2000 years ago. Sometimes old Bible stories require much background information in order for modern day hearers to understand the setting; but that is not the case this time. The situation described is a familiar one. It has to do with the relationship between a landowner and some renters. Most people have had some experience with this kind of relationship; either as a renter of a place to live or some land to farm, or as an owner of a house or land being rented out, or both. We all know how this works; and we all know that one of the key ingredients in making such a relationship work is that the rent has to be paid. If the rent is not paid, there will be trouble. Perhaps there is a good reason for one or more missed payments, and things can be discussed and worked out. But if not, there will first be gentle reminders, then firm deadlines, then penalties, and perhaps even evictions, lawyers, and time in court.
That is all bad enough, but in this parable things get even worse. The servants who were sent to the tenants to collect the rent are not given any excuses, nor is there any discussion at all. They are beaten, and one is even beaten to death. More servants are sent, and they are treated the same way. Finally, the landowner sends his own son, quite sure that he will be treated with more respect. But he too is killed. “So now what?,” Jesus asks his hearers, “Now what will happen?” The answer is obvious. It is time to get rid of those renters, even bringing them to ‘a wretched end,’ says the crowd. After all, enough is enough.
“That is right,” said Jesus, and then he applied the parable to his listeners, saying, “Therefore, I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” How’s that? Taken from who; and given to who? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? It will be taken away from the Jews who are rejecting the ‘cornerstone,’ and given to the Christians, right? But wait. First of all, there weren’t any Christians yet. Everybody Jesus was talking to that day was Jewish. They were in the temple, it said earlier, and only Jews were allowed in the temple. And, among the crowd were opponents and supporters of Jesus, and even his own disciples. Almost all of the first believers in Jesus were Jews, so who did Jesus mean when he said ‘the kingdom of God will be taken from you?’
We have to look at who Jesus was talking to, and to do that we have to go back to verse 23 where this debate began. In that verse Jesus was being challenged by ‘the chief priests and elders of the people.’ Others were listening, but it was Jesus’ debate with these challengers that continued on into these verses. Thus, it is far too simple to say that the kingdom was taken away from the Jews and given to the Christians. That division came later in the story. But for now, what is going on is a debate within the Jewish community about who Jesus is, and whether or not he was the long awaited Messiah. Jesus was telling the leaders there that day that they were wrong. Just like the leaders in the Old Testament were so often wrong in failing to recognize God’s true prophets, those leaders who were trying to trap Jesus were wrong in failing to recognize Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. That was a problem back then, and not something we are debating anymore. Christians have, by definition, made up their minds on who Jesus is, so there is no need to go on about that point.
But there is something else in this parable that must considered. Keeping in mind what you know about owners and renters, look again at verse 38. The renters have already beaten up two sets of servants, some of whom even died. Now, the owner is sending his own son, thinking he will be respected. “But when the tenants saw the son,” says verse 38, “they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’” (continued…)
O Lord Jesus, grant us always, whatever the world may say, to content ourselves with what you will say, and to care only for your approval, which will outweigh all worlds; for Jesus sake. Amen.
–Charles George Gordon (1833-1885), British colonial administrator