Today’s Gospel is an account of another parable. This parable is tragic on many levels. The parable itself tells of the tragedy of a son’s death at the hands of evil people. The meaning of the parable illustrates a horrible tragedy in Israel. Worst of all, the people who had the most to gain from this parable rejected it and as they rejected it, they were doomed to commit the very crime illustrated in the parable.
Jesus told this parable during holy week. It was probably the Tuesday after the first Palm Sunday. Jesus is no longer teaching in the Galilean countryside. Now He is teaching in the temple. The temple should be a sacred place, but it has become the headquarters of the religious corruption that plagues Israel.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey amidst the praise of the Passover Pilgrims. Then He cleansed the Court of the Gentiles of the money changers and those who sold. His teaching was bringing people back to God’s Word. In short, He was a problem for the corrupt authorities in Jerusalem.
Those authorities wanted to get rid of Jesus, but they couldn’t figure out how to do it. They had to come up with a plan that got rid of Jesus, but did not expose their corruption. For the time being, all they could do was debate with Jesus and hope that He would make a mistake. They tried every trick that they knew, but Jesus always had an answer that was solidly based on the Word of God.
Jesus told the parable in today’s Gospel to illustrate the corruption that always attacks those who remain faithful to the Word of God.
The economic arrangements in the parable are still very common today. It is not at all unusual for a farmer to rent land from a landowner in exchange for a share of the harvest. It is also not unusual for the landowner to send an agent to collect his share at harvest time. These are just about the only normal elements in this story.
Renters in the real world knew that there would be swift punishment for those who withheld a fair share and beat up the owner’s agents. There is no way that real world renters would consider themselves heirs if the son died. The thought processes of the renters in the parable illustrate incredible foolishness and utter evil.
The landowner does unusual things as well. He sent multiple servants into a dangerous situation. Then, when the tenants have thoroughly demonstrated their evil and cruelty, he sent his son? That is definitely not normal.
Jesus based this parable on a poem from the prophet Isaiah: Let me sing for my well beloved a song of my beloved about his vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a very fruitful hill. He dug it up, gathered out its stones, planted it with the choicest vine, built a tower in the middle of it, and also cut out a wine press therein. He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. “Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, please judge between me and my vineyard … For the vineyard of Yahweh of Armies is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for justice, but, behold, oppression; for righteousness, but, behold, a cry of distress.” (Isaiah 5:1–3, 7)
Since this was a well-known portion of Scripture, the hearers immediately knew that the vineyard represented the land of Israel. The LORD of hosts is the landowner. The renters represented the people of Israel. The servants who came to collect were the prophets who were looking for the fruit of repentance. The Son would therefore be the Son of God Himself.
The hearers also knew the horrible history of God’s prophets in Israel. Instead of listening to the prophets, they put the prophets in prison, tortured them, and killed them. Only a hand full of prophets died of natural causes in Israel. The rest were all murdered simply because they proclaimed the message that God gave them to proclaim. The hearers knew that the history Jesus illustrated with His parable was absolutely true and they were rightly ashamed of this history. In addition to all this, the parable told the people that they would even kill the Son of God, the promised Messiah Himself.
The judgment they earned with their treachery is severe. They will lose their land, their heritage, and worst of all, their relationship with God.
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This is one of those rare times when the meaning of a parable is immediately crystal clear to its hearers. It is crystal clear and it is terrifying. The people respond in horror, “May it never be!” (Luke 20:16)
The scribes and the chief priests couldn’t help but overhear as Jesus taught the people. They were also horrified. They were horrified that they were going to lose their positions of authority. The Gospel according to John makes this very clear. The chief priests therefore and the Pharisees gathered a council, and said, “What are we doing? For this man does many signs. If we leave him alone like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:47-48)
The renters in the parable sound like idiots when they say, “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.” (Luke 20:14) There is no way that an inheritance would ever go to the murderers of the legitimate heir. Never the less, that is exactly what the scribes and the chief priests decide to do with Jesus. In a few days, they will back Pontius Pilate into a corner and coerce him into crucifying Jesus. In this way they hope to preserve their positions of authority in Jerusalem. How foolish!
Things haven’t changed much down through the centuries. There are many true, solid, faithful pastors who are not preaching, but are making deliveries for UPS, working at Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and so forth. Why? When they taught the true Word of God to their congregations, the congregations didn’t like it. The congregations wanted pastors who would tickle their ears instead of preach the truth. These congregations lied about these pastors and destroyed their reputations. Now these fine and faithful preachers spend their days collecting shopping carts in parking lots. How sad it is that some people would rather have their church close its doors than listen to the Word of God taught in its truth and purity.
C.F.W. Walther, the first president of the Missouri Synod said, “… As soon as my word is proclaimed, people will split into two camps. Some will receive it with joy; others will be offended by it and will begin to hate and persecute those who receive it. …the church is not a kingdom that can be built up in peace. It is located within the domain of the devil, the prince of this world. Accordingly, the church has no choice but to be at war. It is the Church Militant and will remain such until the blessed end. Whenever a church appears to be not a militant church but a church at ease, that is a false church. You can rely on it.” (Law & Gospel: Thesis XIII)
Jesus ended this story of the vineyard with the father returning in anger, destroying the evil tenants, and giving the vineyard to others. There will come a day when those who abused God’s servants will have to face a very angry judge.
Fortunately, Jesus did not stop teaching at the end of the parable of the wicked tenants. He continued with a quote from the Psalms. The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. (Psalm 118:22) With these words, Jesus taught the people that He is the cornerstone … the one upon whom the church will stand. He also taught that before He can become that cornerstone, the authorities must reject Him.
Jesus will live out the meaning of these words a few days later. Just as the builders rejected the stone in the Psalm, so the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus as the Christ. They rejected Him with extreme prejudice. They tried Him, sentenced Him, and handed Him over to Pilate to carry out the execution.
Never the less, God raised Jesus from the dead and Jesus became the cornerstone of the church. Unlike the son in the parable who stayed dead, Jesus Christ, the stone, who was rejected, didn’t stay dead. Although his friends put Jesus in the grave on Friday, Jesus left the grave under His own power on Sunday. He became the cornerstone – the cornerstone upon which God builds His church.
Jesus, who was the rejected stone, conquered sin, death, and the power of the devil with His holy life, His suffering, His death on a cross, and His resurrection from the dead. He is now the living cornerstone for me, for you and for all who believe.
The parable of the wicked tenants shows us as sinners who reject the Word of God at every opportunity. It also shows us that God is a God of great patience, a God who wants all people to be saved. It shows us a God who is willing to send His own Son to a certain death in order to save us from our own sin.
The rejected stone that becomes the cornerstone shows us that all is not lost. We have a savior who suffered extreme rejection for us and is now alive and the true object of saving faith. His is the only truth that saves. Jesus, the slain son, is the cornerstone that establishes the church forever. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2013, James T. Batchelor. Used by permission.