Have you ever helped someone in need get on his feet only to realize that the same person you helped has turned against you? How do you feel when you are kind, generous, and helpful to a person and the same person becomes your number one enemy? When that happens some of us conclude that we are no longer going to help anybody again. We want to avoid ungratefulness, abuse, and mistreatment. However, is it not the same way we sometimes treat God? The nation of Israel is a case in point. God took them from bondage and transplanted them in the Promised Land, but eventually they turned against Him. For our time together I would like to share with you on the topic: “The Owner and the Undeserving Tenants” as we continue the series on the parables of Jesus.
The words that introduce this section, “Listen to another parable” (Matt. 21:33), shows that Jesus was continuing the teaching contained in the parable of the two sons concerning the Pharisees and their relationship to His kingdom Matt 21:28-32).
I. THE PRIVILEGES GIVEN TO THE TENANTS VV. 33-36
The background of this parable is found in Isaiah 5 where the prophet describes a vineyard that has been planted “on a fertile hillside” (v. 1) and that gives every prospect of producing a bountiful harvest. The person who has planted the vineyard has carefully prepared the soil to receive the vine. He has “dug it up and cleared it of stones” (v. 2) to remove every obstacle to the growth of the vine. A watchtower for protection has been built, and the winepress has been provided in anticipation of the harvest. But when harvest time arrived, the vine yielded only “bad (literally rotten or stinking) fruit” (v. 2). This is obviously a parable, and the prophet now proceeds with the explanation. God is the one who planted the vineyard, and the nation of Israel was His choice vine (v. 3). He has brought them out of the desert and into a land flowing with milk and honey. He has protected them in the land, and He has anticipated that He would receive good fruit from them. The kind of fruit God saw is explained in verse 7: “He looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress [or rebellion].” Thus the nation of Israel has not walked righteously before God.
A landowner has a plot of land and decides to plant grapevines on it. After he has planted the tender shoots of the grapevine, he protects them from wild animals such as foxes and boars (Song of Songs. 2:15; Psalm 80:13) by putting a wall around the vineyard. He also equips the vineyard with winepress and a watchtower. In the ancient times, the watchtower was used during the harvest as a lookout against thieves, and also served as a dwelling place for the tenant.
The whole project is a financial venture for the landowner. He plants new vines on untried soil. He rents the vineyard to farmers, but would have to wait four years before the vines began to bear grapes. During this time the owner would support the farmers, buy manure and supplies for the vineyard, and hope that in the fifth year he may have a profit. A new vineyard is therefore, a venture not for immediate financial returns but rather for lasting results benefiting successive generations.
The landowner travels on a journey for an extended period of time. In his absence the tenants cultivate the vineyard, prune the branches, and raise vegetable crops between the vines during the first few years. The tenants work as sharecroppers and are thereby entitled to a portion of the produce. The rest of the income goes to the owner. The tenants have made a contract with the owner to cultivate the vineyard. For the first four years the owner will support them. After those years are past, the vineyard becomes a lucrative source of income for the owner.
When the harvest time approaches in the fifth year, the landowner sends his servants to collect the income of the vineyard. Contacts between the owner and the tenants may have become minimal during the first four years. This lack of contact may have resulted in alienation and even in hostile attitudes on the part of the tenants, as depicted in the parable. The exact reason for the bitter animosity is not stated—only the fact of its evidence. The tenants seize, beat, and send back the servant to his master. He returns with the physical evidence of a bruised body. The servant conveys to the owner that the tenants have no intention of paying the income of the grape harvest. They want to keep the total amount for themselves, perhaps in compensation for the years of toil and care given to the vineyard before it yielded a harvest. By sending the servant away beaten and empty-handed, the tenants claim possession of the total crop.
The landowner, who is a person of patience and tolerance, sends another servant to the tenants with the same request. Undoubtedly, the servant refers to the contract signed between the tenants and the landowner, which clearly spells out the terms. However, they receive him in the same manner as the first servant. They strike him on the head, treat him shamefully, and kill him. This time the tenants have become more evil and violent. However, the owner demonstrates commendable forbearance. He does not meet force with force, nor does he declare the contract null and void, as the tenants have done.
After time has elapsed, perhaps the next harvest time, the owner sends other servants to the tenants. This time the servants are more than the previous groups. Again the tenants refuse to yield to the owner’s request, and resort to violence by killing the servants. The tenants might have reasoned that since they were the ones who have made the vineyard productive, they were the ones who were entitled to the produce and even to the vineyard itself.
It suddenly dawns on the owner that the tenants are posing as the rightful possessors of his property.
II. THE PROBLEMS THE TENANTS ENCOUNTER VV. 37-41
As a last resort the landowner sends his son, telling himself that the tenants will recognize his authority when his son confronts them. “They will respect my son,” he said. Servants were not accorded the same respect a son received in those days. This son is the only heir to the vineyard. Nevertheless, the tenants are in no mood to surrender the vineyard. When they see the son approaching, they may have thought that the owner has died and the son has taken his place. Therefore, they hatch a conspiracy to get rid of the son so that they would become the full possessors of the vineyard. Therefore, they decide to kill the son and take the inheritance. They carry out their plan and kill the son and throw him outside the vineyard. When Jesus speaks of the son of the vineyard owner being killed by the tenants, He is speaking prophetically about His own impending death. Jesus knew that He was born to die to save you and me from our sins.
When Jesus has finished painting this vivid picture of the wickedness of the tenants, He then poses the question to the religious leaders, “Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” Jesus words are directed against the religious leaders. In the Old Testament, the Jewish religious and political leaders became wayward, selfish, unscrupulous, and turned against the prophets because of the way the ministry of God-ordained prophets disturbed their conscience and robbed them of the respect of the people. Tradition says that the prophet Isaiah was sawn asunder; Jeremiah was confined to a pit and finally stoned; the prophet Amos was murdered with a club; John the Baptist was beheaded at the instruction of King Herod Antipas; and Stephen was stoned to death by a religious mob. James the brother of John was killed by Herod Agrippa I with a sword (see 1 Kings 18:13; 22:24; 2 Kings 6:31; Jer. 20:1-2; Matt. 23:29-37; Acts 7:5; 12: 2; Heb. 11:36-38). The treatment of the servants proves that the most highly privileged are those who perpetrate the worst crimes against the servants of God. “It cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.” Those who want to maintain the religious status quo continue to contribute to the persecution and the killing of the servants of God.
In our present text, the religious leaders rejected the message of John the Baptist, and they questioned the authority of Jesus to the point of openly defying Him. In effect, they rejected God’s own Son.
Their answer to Jesus’ question is that a swift retribution would be meted out to the murderous tenants. The owner would have them killed and rent the vineyard to other tenants.
III. THE PUNGENT INDICTMENT AGAINST
THE RELIGIOUS LEADERS VV. 42-46
Having implicated themselves by their answer, Jesus draws their attention to what the Psalmist says in Psalm 118:22-23. Jesus’ statement in verse 42 is a rebuke to the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, because they are the interpreters of Scripture and yet they do not understand the essence of His parable. Psalm 118 refers to a situation in the life of the nation of Israel where enemies have them cornered. From the human point of view triumph seems impossible, but through divine intervention God delivers them and the enemies are defeated. In the life of David, many people rejected him, (including Samuel the prophet who was to anoint him, and also his own family, including his father) but God chose him to be the King of Israel. In His earthly ministry, many people rejected Jesus as the Messiah, including some members of His own family. When the religious leaders conspire against Him and deliver Him to be crucified, it appears that the people have rejected and defeated Jesus. Nevertheless, God the Father would raise Him from the dead and seat Him at His own right hand. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). Jesus would be vindicated and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Do you grasp the meaning of Jesus’ parable? The landowner symbolizes God, the vineyard is the nation of Israel, the tenants of the vineyard represent the teachers of the Law and other religious leaders, the servants represent the prophets, and the son is the personification of Jesus, the Son of God. Therefore, Jesus is speaking of His imminent death and impending exaltation (Phil. 2:5-11).
In verse 45, the chief priests and the Pharisees finally grasp the meaning of Jesus’ parable. In my sanctified imagination, I can see them fuming with rage, but for the sake of the multitude they cannot touch Jesus, because the multitude consider Jesus to be a prophet. I also believe that they cannot touch Jesus because His hour has not come.
What is the point in Jesus’ parable? Jesus teaches that seemingly endless patience of God is extended toward those who oppose Him. However, when this patience ends at the rejection of His Son, God’s swift judgment is sure to follow (2 Pet. 3:9). Even today some of you continue to reject Jesus as the Son of God. You say if I reject Jesus as the Son of God, why would I come to church? The religious leaders made the temple of God their second home and yet they were the ones who opposed Jesus. The way you live your life determines whether you love Jesus or oppose Him. What you say and do for Jesus speaks volumes about whether or not you love Him. Jesus is both cornerstone and capstone. Jesus’ role gives shape to all of history. His presence defines the church. Although those who should have known better rejected Jesus, His heavenly Father has placed Him in honored position. Make Jesus the cornerstone of your life so that your life will not fall apart. When you build your life on Christ the storms will come but they cannot overwhelm you.
In verses 43-44, Jesus utters a prophetic message. Now the Gentiles are the recipients of the gospel of Jesus Christ because He came to His own and His own did not receive Him. Due to their animosity, pride, and power drunkenness, the religious leaders rejected the Messiah and sealed that rejection with their own doom. When the religious leaders rejected Jesus and masterminded His crucifixion, they were bringing judgment on themselves. In A.D. 70, Titus and his army marched from Rome to Jerusalem and killed all the religious leaders and others who had rebelled against the Roman Emperor. They set the city of Jerusalem on fire and burned the temple down. Since then, the temple has never been restored. Therefore, if you reject Jesus Christ, who is the cornerstone, the very stone you have rejected will eventually break you. Some people say, well, I do not openly reject or oppose Jesus Christ, but the truth of the matter is that anything less than genuine discipleship will lead to judgment. In other words, the stone will fall on and crush you to pieces.
Ladies and gentlemen, today is the day of grace, the day of salvation. Jesus offers mercy and forgiveness now and you have to make Him your Lord and Savior now, because His judgment is on its way. When the Day of Judgment arrives it will be too late for you to repent and be saved. Those of you who are just being religious you have to receive Christ and become a genuine disciple before it is too late. Jesus is saying that the religious leaders who are a privileged people who should have welcome the coming of God’s kingdom will be denied its privileges, and the people who were unlikely to succeed spiritually will find it. When Jesus was telling this parable to the people, He had you and me in mind. He was talking about the inclusion of Gentiles in the Kingdom of God. He was talking about the role of the Gentiles in the church.
If you are spiritually satisfied, religiously proud, and think you know the Bible better than anyone else you should take note. Jesus Christ is the center, and no amount of smartness or position in your local church will amount to anything, if such a position pushes away Christ from the center of your faith and life. Beware of some stunning reversals ahead.
When the religious leaders heard of Jesus’ parables, they concluded that He was speaking about them. Instead for them to think about what He was telling them, they were enraged and wanted to arrest Him. Nevertheless, they were afraid of the crowds because they regarded Jesus as a prophet. Today, some of you react just like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. When a pastor or an evangelist tells you the truth about yourself, instead of examining your life and changing your ways you become angry and some of you even change churches. You begin to attend a church where the pastor does not talk about sin and repentance. He/she tells you tantalizing messages that says you are okay, I am okay and we are all okay. Meanwhile, you are on your way to hell but you do not know. You have become just like the religious leaders in this parable of Jesus. Am I speaking to somebody today? Does the Lord have a message for you to change your direction in life today? The Christian life is not about how you carry yourself externally. The Christian life is all about internal transformation that is produced by the person of the Holy Spirit that enable you to live graciously, peacefully, and victoriously for Jesus Christ. The Christian life is not about reformation; it is about regeneration and renewal of the mind. The Christian life is not about pretending or putting on façade; it is about repentance towards Jesus Christ.
Are you using self-effort to get to heaven? Jesus came to seek and to save those that are lost. Are you personally related to Jesus Christ and other believers in your community? Can it be that you are opposing Jesus Christ by the way you relate to some people in the church? As Christians, we must love sinners for Christ’s sake. The fallen, the homeless, the outcasts, the frivolous, the captious, the indifferent, and even the malicious must share our love. We must love them to Jesus Christ. Let the church become a hospital where those who are sick spiritually are all welcome. Jesus said, "I did not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners." If you are righteous in your own eyes, you do not need Jesus Christ; you do not need the church.