The Parable of the Tenants: Luke 20.9–19
Jesus began to tell the people this parable. ‘There was a man who planted a vineyard, let it out to tenant farmers, and went abroad for a long while. 10When the time came, he sent a slave to the farmers to collect from them some of the produce of the vineyard. But the farmers beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11He then sent a further slave, and they beat him, abused him, and sent him back empty-handed. 12 Then he sent yet a third, and they beat him up and threw him out.
‘So the master of the vineyard said, “What shall I do? I’ll send my beloved son. They will certainly respect him!” 14But when the farmers saw him they said to each other, “This is the heir! Let’s kill him, and then the inheritance will belong to us!” 15And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
‘So what will the master of the vineyard do? 16He will come and wipe out those farmers, and give the vineyard to others.’
When they heard this, they said, ‘God forbid!’ 17But Jesus looked round at them and said, ‘What then does it mean in the Bible when it says,
The very stone the builders refused Now for the corner’s top is used?
‘Everyone who falls on that stone will be smashed to smithereens; but if it falls on anyone, it will crush them.’
The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on him then and there. But they were afraid of the people, because they knew that Jesus had told this parable against them.
One of the most dramatic scenes ever to take place in the British House of Commons occurred in January 1642. King Charles I went in person to the House to try to arrest five Members of Parliament who had opposed him. The Speaker of the House himself stood in his way, and prevented the king coming any further into the chamber where the Commons met. A painting of the incident hangs in the lobby of the Palace of Westminster to this day. It was something of a turning-point: another step on the road to civil war, and to the king’s eventual execution.
No self-respecting first-century monarch would ever have allowed himself to get in that position; and no land- owner would tolerate for very long the kind of behaviour described in this parable. But there are striking parallels between this story and the one Jesus told, his last explanation (in parable form) of what was going on in his com- ing to Jerusalem. The vineyard owner has sent messengers to the tenant farmers, to no effect. (No first-century Jew would have needed to be told that the owner stood for God, the farmers for Israel, and the messengers for the prophets.) Finally, having no one left to send, he sent his own beloved son. In Jesus’ own understanding, he came as the rightful king to his father’s tenants; and they were bar- ring his way, determined to keep the vineyard for themselves. Eventually they threw him out and killed him.
So far, the meaning of the story is obvious – and fits like a glove with the whole of Luke’s gospel. Jesus is the rightful heir to the ancient prophets, and has come to complete their work, challenging Israel one more time to give to the covenant God the honour and obedience that is his due. Israel was charged with bearing the fruit of justice in its own life, and showing God’s grace to the world around. But Israel has insisted on keeping the grace for itself, practising injustice in its own life, and seeking to repel and resist the world around by whatever violence might be necessary. Israel has rejected the way of peace, and will now reject its final messenger (19.41–44).
But the story doesn’t stop there. The vineyard owner will return at last (Luke has long prepared us for this too), and when he does, the judgment Israel longed to see on the pagan nations will be meted out on it. He will destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others. The present regime in Jerusalem, and the self-appointed guardians of Israel’s laws and heritage, are signing their own death war- rants. Their rejection of Jesus will be taken up by God into the rebuilding plans for his people: ‘the stone the builders refused’, in this case the Messiah sent to Israel but rejected, ‘has become the head cornerstone’.
This quotation from Psalm 118.22 uses a quite different image from that of the vineyard. Imagine a builders’ mer- chant, full of stone ready for the great task. The workers are sorting out the lumps of marble and granite into different sizes and shapes, so they can haul them up to their places on the wall. There is one stone that doesn’t belong in any of the groups; they put it over by itself, expecting to throw it out when the job is done. But when they have almost finished, they discover that they need a stone of a particular shape for the very last piece, to round off the top of the corner. There is the stone they rejected earlier. It wouldn’t fit anywhere else, but it will fit here.
To quote this verse at this point rams the message home. The workers may reject Jesus now, but they will find that he will be vindicated. He will be seen as the true Messiah. He will build the true Temple, and will himself be its chief feature, the standard by which everything and everyone else is to be judged.