The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
33 ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’
42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?
43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
This parable is one of the most important and profound of all the parables given by Jesus. It has divided the opinions of scholars for centuries over who or what is the vineyard, who are the tenants and who are the ‘nations’ who will be brought in to take over whatever the vineyard is from whoever the tenants were. These are of course important questions, they arguably deal with the place of Israel in the eyes of God, possible anti-Semitism or rather anti-Judaism, but these questions often lead to the Gospel message of the passage being nearly completely ignored, drowned out in an academic battle by people thousands of years removed from the event – an event some people in a appalling attempt to be PC try to insist never even happened. If you want to discuss the future of ‘Israel’, or anything else then come and speak to me later this week, but for now let us look at what the text says, what Jesus proclaims – the Good News of our salvation and a loving God.
Now it is crystal clear that Jesus in this parable is conjuring up in the minds of the religious people the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5 – infact the same Greek words and phrases are used. Isaiah 5 describes God, the gardener of all living things, planting a vineyard and giving it all it would ever need, but it brings up thorns and sour grapes not good fruits, so God goes in and destroys the vineyard. In verse 7 God proclaims that ‘Israel’ is the vineyard. But the problem is that when we hear the word Israel our minds jump to a nation state less than a hundred years old in the Middle East. In Isaiah’s time Israel usually meant the Northern Kingdom who had turned their backs on God and been destroyed, and what we would call Israel was known as Judah: you can easily see how misunderstandings begin! So we have to ask, at the essence, what is Israel – as you may recall Israel is the name given to Jacob after he wrestles all night with God Himself, God revealed as a man – sound like anyone else who is God that you know? – and is thus given the name Israel for not letting go of God – Israel means ‘The one who strives with God.’ Israel is and always has been and always will be those who cling to God and never let go, Israel is the Church, the same Church that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, David and Malachi were part of, the same Church Paul and Peter and Apollos were part of,the same Church Athanasius, Luther and Barth were part of – the kingdom of God, the people of God, the children of God justified and made so by faith and not works just as Abraham was: the same Church you are part of!
So if the vineyard is the promise of God to be the Father of all who strive to know Him and never let go, if the vineyard is a relationship with God then who are the tenants? Well in the time of Jesus God chose to make a relationship with Him come through obeying the Law He set down under Moses, it meant being part of a covenant pact that both sides promised to uphold. At that time, preparing the way for Jesus to die and change it all, God limited Israel to those who were His people, who followed His Law and were thus promised that if they followed it they would bear fruit. But the people, the religious leaders especially as they led the people, failed, they didn’t keep the Law at all, and if they thought they did they were liars and followed the Law in such a way that they made the whole thing pointless because they filled their hearts with pride. And it is those people who knew God, but then rejected Him and all He had done for them that are the tenants. It was these people who killed the prophets, who made Elijah run for his life, who mocked Jeremiah and threw him in a pit to die, who murdered Zachariah and beheaded John the Baptist.
The slaves God sent were the Prophets, the very people God placed His words in and sent to bring His people back to Him were the very ones His people killed. So what was God to do? Well imagine if you had built a house, or an office block, and filled it with top of the range fittings and furniture, even stocked all the cupboards full of food and put in some computers for people to work on. And then you rented it out to some tenants, expecting rent to be paid in due course. But when it comes to rent day, you find the cheque bounces, you find not money but a spiteful letter. So you send your lawyer to the house with the legal agreement they signed promising in return for all you gave them that they would give you rent. But when the lawyer knocks on the door, SMACK, he gets a punch in the face, blood runs down onto his nice expensive Italian suit (he was of course a professional dressed for the job, in ancient times prophets tended to wear rags, today if you look on TV at the so called modern day ‘prophets’ they all seem to wear expensive suits and horrible ties so lets stick with that image!), then they break his arm and kick him out sending him back to you. When he gets back to you obviously you are going to be angry, but you wait a while and let things cool down hoping they will come to their senses. And so you send another lawyer, this one even more expensive than the last. He rocks up to the house, but almost before he can knock at the door they attack him, rough him up good and proper and then as he turns to head back to you they stab him in the spine and he dies there and then. So in your kindness to them you send another – this one they kill using the very things you gave them in the house, the lamp stand, the TV, the coals off the fire.
Now I don’t know about you, but if I were the landowner, the last thing I would ever, ever, ever do is send my one and only beloved Son to them. It would be complete folly to do so. And ironically this is the very thing that some academics claim proves this is not a real parable of Jesus because it is ridiculous that the land owner would send His son – well, that just makes them the tenants thrown out of the vineyard because as Paul says “the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to those being saved it is the power of God.” The POWER of GOD. I love that phrase, the POWER of God. The power to do what? The power to save everyone who ever lived from their sin and shame and suffering and nakedness. God did send His Son, He sent Jesus, the very person telling this parable the very person who named Jacob Israel because he wouldn’t let go of Him, He sent Jesus and when He came they threw him outside of the house, and they insulted Him and mocked Him and scourged Him and beat Him and then they nailed Him hands and feet to a wooden cross and there He died saying aloud ‘Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ It looks like the tenants have won. Game over.
So Jesus, the Son who in a few days would be crucified, asks the Religious folk what they would do – their answer is obvious, the Lord would send in the army and utterly massacre the whole lot of them and give the vineyard to people more worthy. And to be honest, it is what I would do. I can get and understand completely a God who after the killing of His Son would in wrath send down the Armies of Heaven and turn the planet into a bloodbath of vengeance. The God who would send people to Hell for killing His Son, that I get. ... But God didn’t do that, God did something that just blows your mind, He had set up from before all ages the Lamb that was Slain to come and die for our sin and filth and rejection of God. Jesus dying on the Cross was not plan B, or plan C, it was and always was plan A. Because God is a God of love – and He gives it all that we might be saved and live with Him.
Then Jesus quotes a psalm to the religious leaders and proclaims that the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Now the corner stone was the foundation stone up which everything rested, the most important one to get right, the one which had to be perfect – and as we know only Jesus could be the cornerstone because only He is perfect. The cornerstone is the one on which everything else rests; it is the beginning and foundation of the whole house. And listen to this verse again “The stone", that is Jesus, "which the builders", that is the people who crucified Him, "rejected has become the cornerstone, THIS WAS THE LORDS DOING, and it is amazing in our eyes.” Jesus dying on the Cross was the Lord’s doing, not the Pharisees, not the peoples, not the Romans, it was the Lord’s doing, it was going to happen before God even made the heavens and the earth. And yes, it is amazing in our sight, what could be more amazing than a God who comes and dies to save us! What could be more amazing and beyond rational imagination than a God who doesn’t just send sinners to Hell but in His Son offers them a place in His Kingdom, a God who says: "if you accept Him and repent and let the forgiveness I offer cleanse you, then I will make you not only citizens of my kingdom but very my sons and heirs."
Here is the thing, here is why this is so relevant to us: you killed the Son. I killed the Son. The blood of Jesus is on our hands. For every time we sin we nailed Him to the Cross, every time we sin we give the reason He had to die. His blood is on our hands – and it is like Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare trying to wash the blood from her hands crying out as she scourges her skin ‘out damned spot out’ but nothing she does can remove it. Nothing we do can wash away the blood of God from our hands. Only God can do that, and that is why He died and rose again. We have two choices, we can fall on Jesus and be broken, or we can wait and at the throne of judgement have Him come crashing down on us and grind us up like wheat into chaff and throw us into the fire. Or, like I said, we can fall on Him now and be broken, we can offer to God the one thing He doesn’t despise – a broken and contrite heart – we can say to Him, Lord I have messed up please tidy up what I have done and unmess me. We can accept it and say ‘King Jesus there is nothing I can do to make you love me more, I give you my life, all of it, I dismantle it all and start again with you as the cornerstone, I build my decisions, my choices, my actions, my hopes, my dreams, my desires, my loves, on you as the foundation, not on the sand where my life will at the end come crashing down but on the Rock of Ages my Redeemer who came and died for me.’
We can say ‘Not I but Christ’ and have Him rule our lives as we live constantly broken before the Cross that He might use us. Or we can remain stiff necked and upright standing before the judgement seat of God. If you want to inherit the Vineyard, all you have to do is recognise you are a sinner, recognise you can’t remove your sin, recognise Jesus is God crucified for you, and present your lives constantly in repentance before the Cross that you might be washed clean, ironically, in the Blood of the Lamb we killed, and rejoice in the amazing things He has done!