Luke 20:1-19

Text Comment

“Preaching the gospel” is an arresting description of the content of the Lord’s sermons in Jerusalem. More on that later.

This group that came to question him was a delegation, perhaps an official delegation, from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body composed of priests and elders, some of whom would also have been scribes or teachers of the law.

It may help you to get a sense of what is happening here if you think of the Lord’s encounters or public conversations with the religious leadership as his “press conferences.” The religious leaders were there, as so often reporters are today, to pose questions in such a way as to entice him into saying something damaging; in Jesus’ case, something that would either incriminate him with the Roman government or discredit him with his followers.

So they asked him by what authority he did what he did, perhaps his miracles, but perhaps especially his teaching. Who made him a teacher of the people? If he were to claim that he was the Messiah, a King, a charge of sedition could be brought against him to the Romans; if he denied that he was, the crowds would think themselves betrayed.

They replied as people in such situations frequently do today, “No comment.” It wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last that they met their match in repartee with the Lord Jesus.
Once again, the Lord might have given them an answer they could use to bring charges against him, but it was not yet time for his crucifixion. He would go the cross at precisely the right time, not before; at his time, not theirs.
Like all of the Lord’s parables, this too is a story from Palestinian life in the first century. In occupied territory like Palestine in those days, there were many large estates owned by foreigners. The landowners then leased their acreage to tenants for a proportion of the annual income of the farm.  

Clearly the story represents the Lord’s repeated appeals to his people through his prophets and finally through his Son. Israel had remained stubbornly unwilling to repent.

Jesus, of course, isn’t really talking about a landlord, he’s talking about God who reached out to his people in love when he had every right to be severe, who patiently bore his people’s sins while he urged them to repent, and who finally sent his son for their salvation. “Beloved son” is what God called Jesus at his baptism, as we read in Luke 3:22.
You will notice that the son was thrown out of the vineyard and killed. The vineyard, as you may remember from Isaiah 5, was a metaphor for Israel as the people of God. Israel was God’s vineyard. Jesus would be rejected by the Jews and it would be their rejection that would make his execution possible.  As John has it at the beginning of his Gospel, “He came to his own, but his own did not receive him…”
Given the larger context of the Lord’s teaching, he must be referring here to the Gentiles. The vineyard would be taken from Israel and given to the Gentiles.

The Lord’s listeners were tracking with him. They knew he was talking about them, as we will read in v. 19, and they gathered his meaning. The vineyard was Israel, God was the owner of the vineyard, and Jesus was the Son they wanted to kill. They got all of that and bitterly resented what Jesus was saying.

The introduction to the citation, “What then is this that is written?” indicates that these priests and elders should have known better.  In its many uses in the New Testament, this text from Ps. 118 is taken as a reference to Jesus, the Son of God, and his rejection by his own people, and his subsequent vindication as the Messiah and the Savior of the world by his resurrection from the dead. Indeed in Luke 13:35 the Lord cited another verse from this same Psalm 118 — “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” — and applied it to himself. He is the stone the builders rejected. In Acts 4:11, after the crucifixion, the resurrection, and Pentecost Sunday, Peter, speaking to the Sanhedrin – perhaps to some of the very same men who first heard Jesus tell this parable of the tenants – said that Jesus is “the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.”  Peter puts a “you” where Psalm 118 has a “the,” and by doing so he personalizes the application and makes it clear that the text applies directly to these very Jewish religious leaders who had rejected and then murdered the Lord of glory.  The stone they had rejected was now the capstone of the house of God, the stone on which the entire edifice of the House of God depends.
People may reject Jesus, but it will not be Jesus who suffers the consequence but those who rejected him. The fact is, as anyone knows who had read the Bible, God’s messengers to his people were often rejected and frequently abused or even killed, but it was invariably the people who suffered God’s judgment, for in rejecting his messengers, they were as much as rejecting God himself.
They deeply resented Jesus saying that he knew what God would do and that they were rejecting God in rejecting him. The religious leaders knew exactly what he meant and that he was accusing them of rejecting God, but they were stymied by the fact that the crowds had not yet turned on Jesus and were still enthusiastically supporting him. Perhaps they also feared the consequences of possible unrest should a riot ensue. The Romans were unpredictable in their response to public unrest.

As before with his public and triumphal entry into Jerusalem, so now with teaching like this, delivered in the face of the religious leadership, the Lord was as much as walking straight into the jaws of death. He was condemning them for unbelief, for hypocrisy, and for aligning themselves with the long, tawdry history of Israel’s rebellion against God. The Lord was offering up his life, the very thing he had come into the world to do. The leadership would not forgive him for this and he knew it.

The paragraph begins with the note that Jesus was preaching the gospel, the good news, in Jerusalem those early days of the week that would end with his crucifixion and burial. We think of the good news as some form of the message “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” And, that message is certainly here in the Lord’s parable, even if in a somewhat stern and even negative form: if you do not believe in Jesus and receive him as the Messiah, you will be judged. This use of “gospel” for a message that threatens judgment is not unique however. For example, in Romans 2:16 Paul writes of “the day when according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.” And in Revelation 14 we read of an angel flying through the sky “with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth… And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come…’” [14:6-7]

Divine judgment is, obviously, part of the good news. Without it there can be no good news. Salvation is salvation from God’s judgment; if there is no judgment, there is no salvation and no good news of salvation. It was precisely because they did not fear the judgment of God that the religious leadership was so cavalier in their dismissal of Jesus. Had they realized their danger, they would have taken Jesus more seriously! And they would have rejoiced in the salvation he offers to sinners.

It is a fact of vital importance that as his ministry came to a close the Lord’s preaching was as stern and full of judgment as it was. When parents leave the house of an evening they save their most important instructions for the babysitter to the moment of their departure. “If you should need to reach us, here is the number.” Well, it is something like that in this case. The most important thing that must be heard and understood is the coming judgment of the Lord. As we learn from the four Gospels taken together and from Luke here, the Lord spoke repeatedly of coming judgment in his last public preaching: of the soon coming judgment of Jerusalem and of the last judgment. His teaching that final week was relentlessly solemn. That truth of a coming reckoning, of our exposure to divine judgment on account of our sin, is key to everything; it is the fundamental presupposition of Christ’s work and of the gospel message.

We are given a beautiful illustration of that fact in the book of Acts. Think of the men, the priests and elders, the scribes and Pharisees who heard the Lord deliver his parable of the wicked tenants that day and were so offended by it. Jesus’ parable was very stern. It is full of warning.  It sounds the note of doom.  They didn’t believe what he said, but they certainly understood what he was saying. But do you know that some of these same men to whom the Lord first told this parable would later come to understand exactly why he said what he said and how true it all was. After the Lord’s death and resurrection, and after the descent of the Holy Spirit, they not only admitted that the Lord’s parable had fit them to a “T,” but under the conviction of that truth, they had repented of their unbelief, of their wicked rejection of Jesus, and had put their faith in him, and become his followers.

They couldn’t see it at first, the Lord’s parable angered and offended them when they first hear it, but later they realized the truth of what he had said.  They were rebels, they had rejected God’s repeated offers of grace and mercy, they had cast the Son out of the vineyard, and they had crucified the Lord of Glory.  But when they realized that, and confessed it to God as their great sin, he forgave them. Some of these same men who tried to catch Jesus in a slip of the tongue must have been among those “many priests” who, we read in the early chapters of the book of Acts, became Christians in those heady days after Pentecost. I wonder if Luke himself may have interviewed some of those very men as he was collecting information for his gospel and the book of Act, some of the same men who had heard the Lord’s parable when it was first delivered and gnashed their teeth at him but who later realized that it was a perfect description of what they themselves had been and done. Can’t you hear such a man telling Luke, sitting there in his front room with his scroll on his knee and a pen in his hand, “When I first heard the Lord deliver that parable, it infuriated me; but later I realized how perfectly he had described me among the rebellious tenants of the vineyard owner!”

The message of judgment, of bad news, is the essential foundation of the good news, part of it really, and so even the parable of the wicked tenants was part of the Lord’s preaching of the gospel those days. There is much in the Bible meant to sadden us, or make us afraid. Such must be the truth very often in our sick and dying world, living as it is in rebellion against its Maker.

And lest we forget the obvious, the Lord’s warnings about the impending judgment of the Jews proved to be true! And not only did Jerusalem’s terrible destruction and the effective end of Israel as a nation happen as he said it would, but the vineyard was given to others. Very soon thereafter and increasingly the number of Gentiles who honored the covenant that God made with Abraham and with Israel at Mt. Sinai, and the covenant God made with King David, became vastly larger than the number of Jews who did so. The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, the Bible of the Jews, and the Old Testament of the Christians is now the holy book of far, far more Gentiles than it is the holy book of the Jews. So the Lord was doing a kindness, a great kindness, warning these men that day of what was to come. It was their one chance to escape the catastrophe that was approaching so swiftly.

There was a landlord who planted a vineyard.  It was his vineyard.  He bought it, planted it, and provided for it.  He gave some tenant farmers the opportunity to earn their living by working his vineyard for him.  It was a privilege to work for such an owner and in such a vineyard. They were not hired laborers; they were tenants who shared in the profit of the farm. But when the landlord sent his servants to collect what was rightfully his, they beat the first, beat still more the second, and the third after him. These tenants were thugs, pure and simple. But the point is, so are we all!

The landlord might well have dealt severely with those tenants when they beat the first servant he sent.  But he was patient.  He might have grown angry and violent when the tenants manhandled the other servants that he sent.  But this landlord wanted his tenants to do the right thing. He gave them every opportunity. He finally sent his own son, his only son, in hopes that the tenants would see the error of their ways and repent of what they had done and give the landlord his due. But they murdered his son.

This is not a little story with a moral that Jesus told.  The priests and Pharisees fully understood that.  That is why they hated him for telling this parable.  Jesus was giving a history of Israel. He was describing God’s love for his people and their rebellion against him. He was giving an account of God’s much-tried patience with his people and their abuse of his kindness and he was associating this particular group of religious leaders with that long, sad history of Israel’s intransigent unrepentance. This is a story that tells the tale of God’s compassion and self-giving and man’s ungrateful rebellion. Of God’s gift of his son for man’s salvation and of man’s murder of that Son.

Now much has been made of the statement of the tenants. It has been asked why they might think, why anyone would think, that if they murdered the landlord’s son the property would fall to them. Surely they would be murderers and would not only lose the property but their lives or their freedom when they were punished for their crime. Some scholars in reply have offered persuasive evidence that possession of property without payment of rent for a period of four years under the Jewish law that applied at that time constituted title of ownership. There might, in other words, have been something to their scheme. But this is a parable and Jesus isn’t interested in elaborate legal justifications. If the owner were foreign and a friend of the Romans, which might explain why he owned the vineyard in the first place, it’s unlikely that Jewish law was going to matter. What we have here is nothing but the sort of evil and utterly foolish things that people often do under the impulse of selfish desire, [France, Mark, 461] and do without much thought of possible consequences. Most of the trouble we get into is the result of doing things without much thought about the possible consequences. After all, if people didn’t think there was profit in crime, there wouldn’t be so much of it. Most people sitting in prison today didn’t plan to be there!

But for the purposes of the parable, and this is what I want to draw to your attention, there may well be more to the strategy of the tenants. In the parable, of course, the tenants’ taking and killing the son of the landlord and throwing his body out of the vineyard was a prophecy of what was about to be done to the Lord Jesus. It represents real actions about to be taken against the Lord Jesus in just a few days’ time. And if the tenants’ actions are thus seen as real events simply described in a metaphorical way, then the motivations ascribed to them here in the parable may very well be understood to be their actual motivations. Their motives, in other words, are as historical as their actions.

In other words, if humanity can dispense with God, or kill God – in this case God the son come into the world as a man – then it can have the vineyard for its own. These men can, in effect, become owners of the vineyard themselves. They can take God’s place in other words; they can unseat him. [Edwards, Mark, 359] The motives of the tenants are universal, in other words. These are the motives of unbelieving man. Here is a profound and historically satisfying explanation for the unbelief of mankind, the unbelief of your friends, neighbors, family members; the unbelief of everyone who will not confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Man desires to rid the universe of God, at least to rid it of any God that he cannot control, of any God that makes categorical moral demands of him and threatens to punish him for disobedience.

We often hear about man’s quest for God. Many people think of religion – the various religions of the world – as simply various forms of this universal quest for God. Man is trying to find God in these various ways; so many think. So say many university teachers of the philosophy of religion. But it is not so. The Bible makes it very clear that it is not so and so does the observation of life. In reality, the religions of mankind are not a way to find God but a way to escape from God, to free people from him. So are the various philosophies of man, including and perhaps especially the most secular and atheistic of these philosophies. Man may invent a high God that is far removed from him so that man has very little to do with God and can live in largest part apart from and without reference to God. He has often invented such a god. Or, as so often, laws and rituals will be devised so that man can appease or even satisfy and please God and earn rewards from him but all the while living his own life largely as he pleases. This is the way most religious people think. It’s the way most people who call themselves Christians think in our world today. Man may well bring in such a god to help him in the hour of death or in some crisis, but otherwise he stays in his place and leaves us alone. Or, in another conception, God may be brought near so that he can be worshipped as a spirit in a tree, or the sun or moon, or in some animal. Again, it is man’s way to control God; to cut him down to size. Or god may be absorbed into nature and into man himself so that man becomes God himself.

In all of these cases, God is managed; he is controlled by being cut down to size. He is forced into a shape, a nature, a character that is acceptable to man. God is not really sought, he is re-manufactured so as to be controlled and so that he will leave us alone to live the life we want to live. Man’s rebellion against God has from the very beginning taken the form of a redefinition of God.

As C.S. Lewis put it,

“An impersonal god – well and good. A subjective god of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads – better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap – best of all. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband – that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God’!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing he had found us?” [Miracles, 98]

A god who does nothing and demands nothing, a god whom we can control with relatively modest investments of time and money, a god who leaves us be, who permits us to remain who and what we are: that is the god people are searching for and so, predictably, that’s the god he finds over and over again. That is the God these clerics and churchmen were happy to serve. The living God, the God who actually exists, the God to whom we owe our lives, the moral God who made us moral creatures, who gave us a conscience, who make us live in a moral world, and who promises to hold us accountable; that God men and women do not seek. The God who enters the world to encounter us, the God who appeared as a man in Jesus Christ, who makes demands, who insists upon our facing the gloomy truth about ourselves, who issues a summons, who requires that we understand our existence entirely in reference to him; that is not a God anyone is seeking. The Bible says as much. In this sense “there is no one who seeks after God,” a text from Psalm 10 that Paul quotes in Romans 3.

“In his pride the wicked does not seek [the Lord]; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.”

He means for the living God, the real God, the God who actually exists.

That is what the Lord is saying here in his parable describing the tenants who planned to kill the son of the owner of the vineyard so that they could have the vineyard for themselves. The people did not reject Jesus, nor did the religious leadership, because he failed to prove himself to them. Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say if he discovered after his death that there was an afterlife after all. He pompously replied that he would tell God, “Sir, you did not give me enough evidence.” [D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity, 261] But that is poppycock as well as blasphemy. There was evidence aplenty for the scribes and Pharisees, and there is evidence aplenty for men and women today, evidence that has proved sufficient to demonstrate the existence of the living God, the prospect of his judgment, and the reality of grace to a great company of men and women, plenty of whom were as smart and the most of whom were better human beings than Bertrand Russell. 

But to know this God, to know his love, to be received by him, one must bow the knee. One must accept that he is but a tenant in God’s vineyard. In fact, one must finally rejoice to be but a tenant in God’s vineyard and consider it the supreme privilege of his life, to be a tenant in this vineyard. This parable is a summons to acknowledge that you and I have lived constantly and profoundly and comprehensively in ways that are unworthy of God, that we must confess ourselves sinners, justly deserving God’s judgment, and that I must seek forgiveness in that way that God himself has provided for it, the way of Jesus Christ.

There is the rub. There is the reason for unbelief. To believe, really to believe, is to bow, to confess, and to obey. Pride will not bow, nor will it confess, nor will it obey. It will not no matter the cost. That is why men and women do not believe. It is not for want of evidence. It is not some courageous act of intellectual freedom. It is petulant unwillingness to surrender themselves; it is rebellion, jealousy, and defiance. And do you know how we know that? Because that same rebellion and that same jealousy for our own freedom and that same defiance we find in our own hearts all day, every day; even we who are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Face it. Half the time even we Christians don’t want the living God. We want him to be different than he is. We want to re-manufacture God so that he doesn’t care so much about how we live our lives, so that he’s not there every single moment of every single day, so that he doesn’t know everything that is in our hearts, and so that he’s not keeping score and going to hold us accountable at the last. We, who know better, who in our better selves rejoice to be tenants of the vineyard owner, still always find in our hearts the desire to cast the son out of the vineyard so that we can own it ourselves. We have so much of that same anti-God bias remaining inside us! It should be very easy for us to see how this must be the source of all unbelief in the world.

Worse still, denying God does not alter the fact of God’s existence or his absolute rule over this world and the life of human beings in this world. The Sanhedrin managed to kill Jesus at exactly the time he had planned for them them to kill him and by so doing only served, however unwittingly, to assist in the salvation of the world, to exalt Jesus to the highest place in heaven and on earth, and to secure their own judgment on the last day. They did not manage to keep him dead or to stamp out the movement that was growing around him. In fact, by their hateful acts they ignited that movement and sent it on its course of conquest throughout the world.

They had a bias against Jesus deep in their hearts. They didn’t want him to be their Lord. They wanted the vineyard for themselves. All men have such a bias. It is why it is such an extraordinary thing when somebody believes in Jesus Christ and rejoices to be a tenant in his vineyard. It means your heart must have been changed deep within you; your will must have been bent by some great power. Think of it – God himself changed you! Or can change you, and will if you ask him. By all means search for God; but refuse to be satisfied with a god of your own making. You have been made in God’s image; you know, deep down you know what the true and living God is like! He’s not going to be a God who leaves you to live your life as you please. He’s not going to be a God who doesn’t demand that you change root and branch. He’s not going to be a God who allows you to live your life without reference to him. No. You know what God is like. It is the owner of the vineyard and his Son that you are looking for.