William Cullen Bryant poetically wrote,
Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again;
the eternal years of God are hers.
But error, wounded, writhes in pain;
and dies among his worshippers.
These poetic words serve as an apt summary of the text before us. Truth shall rise; error will be wounded and will die a just and certain death.
Chief priests, scribes and elders—members of the powerful Sanhedrin—had just questioned Jesus about the source of his authority. Having witnessed his cleansing of the temple and his appeal among the people, they were rattled. The wanted to trap him in order to arrest and to kill him. He refused to answer their question. But he didn’t refuse to speak to them for he immediately told them a parable. He followed this up with a pointed question. The opposition of these religious leaders intensified. In a matter of hours, they would live out this parable. They would kill the beloved Son while seeking to steal his inheritance, his beloved vineyard. But they wouldn’t succeed.
You see, what they aimed to steal would be given to a new people: the true Israel of God. The new covenant church would become stewards of God’s vineyard. The new covenant church would become God’s vineyard. God loves his vineyard. Woe be to anyone who messes with it. We will see this as we delve into these twelve verses.
Not everyone loves God’s vineyard, including some who are tenants in that vineyard. Some who are responsible for God’s vineyard are actually traitors to God, the one who owns the vineyard. I hope that is not you. And yet, apart from the saving grace of God, that is precisely what we are. May God have mercy on us.
Let us remember as we commence: This is the word of God. Let us take heed.
The Treatment of God’s Vineyard
First, let us consider the treatment of God’s vineyard:
And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.”
Parables are stories, using symbols. Parables both reveal and conceal. Jesus used parables as a means of sifting the true from the false. Illumination and condemnation is their twofold purpose. Those submissive to Jesus’ authority will positively respond while those who rebel against his authority will further resist his authoritative word. Keep this in mind as you read, “And he began to speak to them in parables.”
No doubt these religious leaders would get the point (v. 12), but they would miss the bigger point: their need to repent. This is in keeping with Jesus’ earlier explanation for his parables (4:12).
Like so many of Jesus’ parables, this one is connected to the soil. In this case, “a man planted a vineyard.” The symbolism of God’s relationship to his people would not have been lost on his hearers (see Isaiah 5:1–7; Jeremiah 2:21–22; Psalm 80). God had a very special relationship with his chosen people, the nation of Israel. He loved them. He loved his vineyard.
I recently learned that, in one of the major doorways to Herod’s temple, there was a massive gold grapevine. Perhaps Jesus told this parable while standing by this very doorway draped in the vine. Perhaps he pointed to it. I don’t know. But I have no doubt that the vineyard symbolism would have gotten their attention.
The Preparation of the Vineyard
Jesus wanted his hearers to understand the huge investment this “man” made in the establishment of his vineyard: “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower” (v. 1).
He “planted” it “and put a fence around it” to protect it. He also “dug a pit” and made a “winepress” for it. The owner was obviously concerned for its protection because, in addition to a fence, he also built a watchtower. The owner of the vineyard did all that was necessary to establish what was intended to be a productive vineyard. You can almost picture his joy.
As we have seen, Yahweh too planted a vineyard: the nation of Israel. God did all that was necessary to plant Israel, to provide for Israel, and to protect Israel so that she could fulfil his fruitful purpose.
He chose Abraham as the initial vine and, like Joseph, the nation grew like a fruitful vine over her walls (Genesis 49:22). This came about through God transplanting her from Egypt into Canaan. God loved Israel, not because she was a beautiful vine but simply because he chose to love her. And from a one-family vine it grew into a vineyard. God loved his vineyard, as the Old Testament record reveals.
The Occupation of the Vineyard
Having constructed his vineyard, the owner “leased it to tenants and went into another country” (v. 1). This was a common practice in those days. Most vineyard owners leased their land to tenant farmers. Payment could be from 30–50% of the harvest. The landowner assumed all the responsibility for the property while the tenants lived on, worked on, and lived off the land. It was a pretty good deal. The tenants made no investment and the landowner took all the risks—as with Yahweh and Israel. God did all the work to establish the people of Israel. He took all the risks, if we can put it that way, while Israel served God in exchange for all their needs to be met. It was a grand (gracious) deal! As the nation bore fruit of righteousness, God was glorified. Everyone was blessed—as long as the tenants were faithful. But, as the parable reveals, they weren’t. This brings us to the next observation.
The Expectation of the Vineyard
The owner had a particular expectation from his vineyard: “When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.” This was standard and expected practice. The owner of the vineyard sent for his portion of the harvest. Technically, by right, his portion was all of it, but he merely wanted some of it.
As we apply this parable as Jesus intended, remember that God expected a rightful and righteous return. God expected the vineyard to bear fruit for his glory.
God has always expected fruit from those he places in his garden. He expects his tenants, for whom he cares, to bring forth the fruit of righteousness. He expected this of Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:26–28; 2:15–17). He expected this of the nation of Israel (Exodus 19:5–6; Deuteronomy 4:5–8). He expects it of his new covenant church (John 15:1–11; Ephesians 5:25–27).
The Usurpation of the Vineyard
Things did not go as expected:
And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed.
As we move on in the text, we learn that those entrusted with God’s vineyard misused and abused his servants. They rejected the owner’s call for a harvest. From this point the story gets increasingly ugly. The tenants defied the mediated request of the owner. They clearly assumed that they were now the ones in charge. They had usurped the owner’s authority. We see this in their response: They “took” the servant “and beat him and sent him away empty handed.”
The landowner was determined to receive his harvest, so he sent another servant. The rejection by the tenants intensified: “They struck him on the head and treated him shamefully.”
The owner sent another, to even more malevolent response: “Him they killed.” The landowner was relentless, so he sent “many others: some they beat, and some they killed.” The landowner was tenacious and the servants were faithful. They were not confused about where their loyalties lay. He must have been quite a master to receive such selfless devotion from his servants!
Though the tenants in this story probably point to those in the nation of Israel who were faithless, it seems from v. 12 that the main usurpers of Yahweh’s authority were the religious leaders.
The servants represented the prophets under the old covenant (Jeremiah 7:25–26; 25:4; Amos 3:7ff; Zechariah 1:6). Jesus made this clear in Matthew 23:29–37. Israel had an inglorious history of mistreating and rejecting those who spoke in the name of the Lord. But the ones most guilty were the leaders. Moses, for example, may have faced opposition from many Israelites, but those who rejected him were led in their rebellion by particular leaders. It was the leaders who first doubted that God had sent him to deliver Israel from Egypt (Exodus 5:19–21) and leaders like Korah led later rebellions in the wilderness.
Kent Hughes writes that Jesus’ hearers knew what he was talking about:
They knew he was referring to the way the leadership of Israel had treated God’s prophets and that Jesus’ parable was no exaggeration. Elijah was driven into the wilderness by the monarchy (1 Kings 19:1–5). Isaiah, according to tradition, was saw asunder. Zechariah was stoned to death near the altar (2 Chronicles 24:21). John the Baptist was beheaded. The writer of Hebrews summarises: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:37–38).
God’s undying love for his vineyard—for his chosen people—was the reason that he relentlessly sent messengers offering reconciliation in response to their repentance. As Hughes observes, “God’s patient love is seen in how he allows himself to be treated in his servants.”
One thinks of the wonderful hymn, “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” God’s love for his vineyard—for his people, the church—is relentlessly enduring. It would be unbelievable if it was not revealed in the Bible.
God’s servants are still abused by tenants in the vineyard: slander, rebellion, threats, belligerence, betrayal, etc. And that is just within the church!
Many faithful servants of God are today imprisoned. They are not with their families or their congregations. They will not enjoy a family lunch. One was murdered this week in Nigeria. Many have given their lives for the owner of the vineyard. He must be quite an individual. He is. And the costs are worth it (see Acts 20:26–31; 2 Timothy 4:14–18).
The Desecration of the Vineyard
Finally, the vineyard was completely desecrated:
“He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.”
Jesus told the parable in such a way that a tension arose. The owner seems to have been contemplating whether to send the son. After all, he was his one and only, beloved son. But, “finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’”
Those who were enlightened at this point no doubt heard echoes of Genesis 22:2 where God told Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and … offer him … as a burnt offering.” Those of us who have been enlightened by the gospel of God hear the echo, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life” (John 3:16). And, “God has sent his only begotten son into the world that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). And, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be a propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
I suppose someone might ask, why would the landowner send his beloved son in view of how these tenants have treated the servants? One commentator boldly puts it, “What farmer in his right mind would surrender his son to such tenants? It is a question worth asking, for it suggests the indefatigable love of God” (Edwards).
In the parable, the assumption of the landowner is stated: “They will respect my son.”
Remember, this was a parable. Jesus was not implying that God did not know the outcome of sending his son. He fully knew. This final sending highlights the determination of the landowner to secure what is rightfully his. He was willing to send his “beloved son” to secure the harvest. He sent his beloved son because of his beloved vineyard. He was so concerned about his beloved vineyard precisely because of his beloved son. You see, the vineyard was the son’s inheritance.
A Mirror to Us All
The story at this point highlights the defiant, depraved minds and actions of the tenants, which points to the defiance and depravity of the religious leaders Jesus was addressing. And it does more: It highlights the defiance of those who desire to do away with God—even to the point of deicide. In a very real and relevant sense, it points to the depraved defiance of all humanity. We are sinfully confused about who is our owner; about who is the boss; about to whom we are accountable. The response of the tenants serves as a mirror into our own hearts: “But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’”
In those times, if the landowner died, as well as the heir, the tenants could be granted ownership of the property. In some cases, if the landowner was absent for four years or more, the tenants were granted title to it. The words indicate that perhaps the tenants assumed the death of the landowner since they spoke about the son being an “heir” (7). They saw an opportunity to keep what was not theirs!
Perhaps this part of the parable points to the conniving of the religious leaders to keep God out so they could use his property (people, place, precepts) for their own advantage. This they certainly, so perversely, did, as we see next.
“And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.” The diabolical, depraved intentions of the corrupt tenants came to fruition. When the “beloved son” arrived, they murdered him and, in an ultimate act of disrespect, they cast his body over the wall of the vineyard—the wall built by the owner of the vineyard—not affording the son even the dignity of a proper burial.
God’s Final Word
The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that, after God had sent his servants, including the prophets, his final message—his final “word”—was his Son (Hebrews 1:1–2). And even though the religious leaders—the religious elite—would oppose and kill him, this was all a part of the plan. God was not surprised. In fact, the way they treated his Son was necessary for you and me to become his “sons.”
Throughout Israel’s history, God showed intense, relentless love for Israel. She was his precious vineyard (Isaiah 5:1).
Throughout the history of Israel, the people often fell into deep sin. As they co-mingled with the nations, they began to embrace various idolatries and pagan practices. Sadly, “like priests like people” became the byword. The spiritual leadership of the people of God (priests, elders, even some prophets) became corrupt. God would then send his servants, the prophets, to rebuke to correct the people. Sadly, in far too many cases, the religious leaders led the way in persecuting these messengers from God, sometimes even to the point of death. But God kept sending them because of his relentless love for his vineyard—for his people.
But the prophets could only correct; they could only condemn. They could not save. Though they were God’s servants, they were also a part of the problem. You see, they too were sinners in God’s vineyard. The only one that could effect the needed transformation was the sinless Son of the owner of the vineyard. But for the transformation to take place, the Son would need to die. He would be God’s final word to whom the vineyard would respond, and who would bear fruit.
The Rescue of God’s Vineyard
The parable concludes with the rescue of the vineyard:
What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvellous in our eyes’?”
And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.
An Announcement of Destruction and Continuation
The parable, having been spoken, perhaps with eyes fixed intently on the leaders and with a voice revealing sorrow, Jesus asked the rhetorical question: “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” Thank God he did not do what we might do. He did not give in to defiant tenants. Rather, he rescued the vineyard.
The word “owner” can be translated “lord.” This is the point. God owns the vineyard. How will God respond to these defiant tenants?
Jesus, it would seem, immediately answered, “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Uncomfortable silence no doubt followed, broken only by the shuffling of feet, as these leaders simmered with deep hostility. The parable had had no positive effect upon them. The only thing keeping them back from immediately incarcerating him was their fear of the crowds, with whom Jesus was wildly popular. In fact, for the third time in as many days, we read that these leaders “feared the people” (cf. 11:18, 32).
Doubtless, the crowds were pouring in from Galilee. It was there where Jesus spent the majority of his time. Those in Galilee had been eyewitnesses to his authority; they had been the beneficiaries of his amazingly compassionate, even at times miraculous, ministry. They had been moved by his defiance of ethnocentric, prejudicial barriers. They had observed his boldness against the corrupt powers that be. There was no way they would allow Jesus to be arrested. Not in their presence anyway, which is why he was arrested in a secluded place on the next day (see John 18:19–21).
I would, in fact, argue that it was many of these whom Jesus had in mind when he said “and give the vineyard to others.” For it was not these who cried out, “Crucify him!” Rather, it was the religious elite in Jerusalem, led by the corrupt Sanhedrin.
This is a sobering scene. A sobering conclusion. A sobering contemplation.
Jesus was predicting the destruction of corrupt Judaism. He was predicting the beginning of a new Israel, a new vineyard. The context of the cursing of the fig tree and cleaning out the temple provides contextual support for this conclusion.
An Announcement of Vindication and Reconstruction
Having asked and answered his own question, Jesus immediately asked a piercing question accompanied by a pointed quotation: “Have you not read this Scripture?” Ouch!
These proudly puffed up Doctors of the Law were ironically being challenged whether or not they had reached Psalm 118 in their Bible study. If they had, had they not understood its message?
The Lord quoted Psalm 118:22–23 (one of the Hallel Psalms sung at Passover time): “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.”
The Lord was bold to quote from this psalm. He asserted his victory over their devious plans. And he asserted that he would complete God’s building. In fact, he would be the capstone of God’s dwelling place. Though they aimed for his destruction, he would succeed in a whole new construction.
The “cornerstone” or “capstone” was the last stone put in place, which held the structure together. Jesus was making a very strong point. He was claiming to be the key element in God’s dwelling place. He was claiming to be the new temple. He was claiming to be, as it were, the one who would ensure that God’s vineyard remains God’s vineyard. Jesus, the beloved Son, was sent to secure what belonged to the father. And even though these defiant, politically connected and perversely powerful leaders would kill him, he would be victorious in the end.
You see, God’s love for his vineyard is inseparable from his love for his Son. The vineyard exists for the Son. It is the Father’s gift to his Son (John 6:37; John 17). Kill him they would; disinherit him they would not (see Isaiah 53:11–12).
Yes, he would be rejected (as he still is). He would be killed and cast outside the vineyard of Jerusalem, but in doing so, God would do something marvellous and amazing: He would bring together his planned dwelling place.
We should pause to note that Psalm 118 was originally referring to the Gentiles’ treatment of Israel and God’s promise to vindicate his people. By his quotation, Jesus was claiming to be Israel while at the same time identifying the Jewish religious leaders as the Gentiles who were opposed to God and his people. What a stinging indictment.
Robertson aptly says that this is “a most telling quotation. These experts in building God’s Temple had rejected the cornerstone chosen by God for his own house. But God has the last word and sets aside the building experts and puts his Son as the Head of the corner. It was a withering indictment.”
We learn from this parable, if we have ears to hear, that God’s sovereignty ensures God’s harvest. God’s people may at times look like victims—as the Nigerian pastor who was recently executed by Boko Haram for refusing to deny Christ—but ultimately, we are victors because Jesus was.
We must observe that all of the opposition to the owner would ultimately fail, for the vineyard would be given to “others.” God loves his vineyard. God loves his chosen people. God loves his church. No number of defiant obstructers can defeat the Lord!
I recently spoke to a man from America who is thinking of moving to South Africa and had been referred to our church. He asked what I thought of the South African church’s prospects and I honestly answered that I am encouraged. I am optimistic, for God loves his vineyard and will allow it to flourish.
Christian, God’s love for you means that we can persevere, like his servants of old. Non-Christian, listen carefully: Repent and become a member of his vineyard. You do not want to be on the wrong side of this parable.
The Defiance in God’s Vineyard
The religious leaders understood the point of the parable. But, in keeping with its purpose, they left as ignorant as they came. “They left him and went away.”
Rather than repenting and bowing the knee to Jesus Christ, they, like the wicked tenants, remained defiant against the rightful owner of the vineyard. How foolish. They would pay a heavy price.
Like so many truces, they were simply using the time to re-arm for another battle. They were merely waiting for a more opportune time to carry out their despicable deed.
So, what is the point?
We have touched on several matters already but let me conclude by helping us to see that this parable serves as a relevant commentary on the history, not only of Israel, but of all who enter this world. That is, we resist God’s ownership, we seek our own autonomy, and so we do what we can to keep the owner away. Like these defiant tenants, we seek to kill God.
At heart, we are thieves (glory thieves) and murderers (we seek to kill the biblical God). This puts us on the wrong side of history. It will put us on the wrong side of eternity.
Again, this man did all the work. He established the vineyard, nurtured it, and built the winepress and tower. He then leased it to others. Motivating their murderous behaviour was their desire to take what was rightfully his.
But God would not give up on his plan for this world and for his people in it. Yes, the nation of Israel was full of false because unfaithful “church members” who were being led by hordes of wicked elders, scribes, priests, and other diabolical Jewish leaders. But God has always been determined to have fruit from his vineyard. God has always determined that his true people would be a light to the nations. Hence his persistent and relentless pursuit when the people went “bad.” Hence God persistently sending his servants to confront in order to convert the nation back to himself.
You have perhaps heard the phrase, “Don’t shoot me, I’m only the messenger.” The prophets could have owned that line. So could many faithful ministers of God’s word throughout history: Athanasius; Wycliffe; Luther; Calvin; Edwards; Simeon; Spurgeon; etc. And so it remains in many parts of the world, including our own, as God’s messengers seek to faithfully proclaim God’s message.
Why do they do it? Because God loves his vineyard and will see it bear fruit, even at the cost of the mistreatment of his servants. As Hughes writes, “God’s patient love is seen in how he allows himself to be treated in his servants.”
How these despicable tenants treated the servants was an extension of their view of the one who sent them. It has always been that way. As the Lord once said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).
We should take comfort that God will have his fruit and will therefore continue to send the likes of you and me to bring in that harvest. There will be huge costs, but God’s relentless pursuit of his own will bear fruit. We may at times will go forth weeping, but we will come forth bring in the sheaves.
When you read Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard, it ends with the destruction of the vineyard (vv. 5–6). But in Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, it ends with promise. It ends with the assurance of perseverance. It ends, not with judgement but with grace.
But how will the story of your life end?
You are not the owner and you are not the Son. You have come into this world as a defiant tenant. You can become a faithful servant if you will repent of your sin and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ who died for the sins of all who will trust him for their rescue. He can do this because, as Psalm 118 promises, and as Mark will conclude in chapter 16, he rose from the dead.
So, embrace the crucified, risen Saviour and be a part of the vineyard that God loves.