Text: Luke 20:9-19
Famous last words: “I’m looking for a loop-hole,” (W.C. Fields, when asked why he was reading the Bible). “I think I’m going to make it,” (Murderer Richard Loeb after he had been stabbed 56 times by a fellow convict). “The best of all is, God is with us,” (John Wesley).
We have before us some of the last words of Jesus. Spoken on the Tuesday of Holy Week. The die had been cast, the net was tightening, the wood, the hammer and the nails awaited their victim. Any words spoken at such a time are bound to have particular weight and significance. Consider then, with me, the Parable of the Tenants.
The scene described was familiar enough to Jesus’ first hearers. The upper Jordan valley had many large estates that were owned by absentee landlords. These landlords would rent out their vineyards to local tenants. Naturally, the owners expected to receive their share of the produce, and for this they depended on the trustworthiness of the tenants.
In Jesus’ story, the tenants are far from trustworthy. The owner of the vineyard sends a servant to collect the rent. The servant is beaten up, and sent away empty-handed. Another servant is sent, and then another. Each is treated more cruelly than the one before. Finally, the landlord sends his own son. “Surely they will respect him,” he reasons. But no: the tenants conspire to kill the son, and take over ownership of the vineyard. They probably assumed that the father had died, and that was why the son had come. But they were gravely mistaken. The landlord is alive and kicking. In fact, he’s hopping mad. His patience has finally run out. He kills the tenants and gives the vineyard into the care of others, who can be trusted to manage it properly.
Notice the reaction of the people in v16: “May this never be!” They have clearly understood the import of this story.
Notice too the reaction of the teachers of the law and the chief priests in v19 – ‘they knew that he had spoken this parable against them.’
The parable, then, was well understood by those who first heard it. The owner of the vineyard is God, and the vineyard itself represents the special privileges enjoyed by Israel, God’s chosen people. The tenants are the leaders of the Jewish nation. The servants are the prophets, so cruelly treated by those to whom they were sent. The son is the Lord Jesus Christ himself, the crucifixion of whom was the climax of the nation’s folly, as a result of which the kingdom of God would be taken from it, and given to the Gentiles.
Here, then, in one short parable, is a remarkable bird’s-eye view of the key events in the Bible’s story-line, from the establishment of Israel as a chosen people in the days of Abraham and Moses; to the ministry of the prophets – Elijah, Elishah, Isaiah. Jeremiah and others; right through to the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, God’s beloved Son. History, as recorded in Holy Scripture, is not a series of random events; nor it is not merely a record of men and women’s groping after God. It is an account of what God has done to woo and to win a people for himself. And it is an record of what men and woman have done with all the privileges and opportunities that God has given them.
Notice what is taught here about the character of God. The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, once explained why he became an atheist. He said that as a young man he walked into a cafe, ordered a drink, and sat down. There was a man sitting opposite him. And this man just stared at him. A cold, compassionless stare, as though he was gazing into his soul and stripping him of all value and dignity. The man didn’t say anything. He just stared. And Sartre said that it suddenly occurred to him that God looked at him like that. And he hated that, and he decided that he would hate God for the rest of his life. But the Bible, Jesus, this parable, all say, “No! God isn’t like that!” He is a God who longs to gather his people under his wing, he longs for them to be wisely led and taught, he is a God of wonderful compassion and kindness and patience.
What are we doing with the privileges God has given us? The kingdom privileges, removed from Israel as a nation, have now been offered to people of every nation, including our own. What are we doing with these privileges? We have opportunity. We have freedom. We have places to meet. We have the Scriptures. We have pastors and teachers. We have minds to think with. We have books and other media to help us. We have the Holy Spirit. We have Jesus.
What we do not have is unlimited time. Strange, isn’t it, that these days you tend to find more prophets of doom in the scientific community than in the religious community. Prof Martyn Rees, the Astronomer Royal, has recently written a book entitled, ‘Our Final Century’, in which he predicts that humankind has no more that a 50/50 chance of surviving the present century. And Bill McGuire, Professor of Geophysical Hazards at University College London, has provided a helpful compendium of ways in which global disaster might strike, reassuringly entitled, ‘A Guide to the End of the World: Everything You Never Wanted to Know.” But God too has spoken: Rom 11:22. ‘Consider the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.’ God’s patience is lasting, but it is not everlasting
Notice too what is taught here about the person and work of Christ. In our parable, the son – representing Jesus himself – is thrown out of the vineyard and killed. This chillingly anticipates the crucifixion. But the Lord does not leave it there. There is a change of scene in v17. We more from a vineyard to a building site. Quoting again from the OT – this time from Psa 118 – Jesus speaks of a stone, a large building block that has been rejected by the builders. But there is a place for that discarded stone after all – it’s destined to become the the cornerstone – most important building block in the whole building. It’s going to be the foundation of everything else, supporting and giving shape to the whole building.
The stone is, of course, Jesus himself. He who was once despised and rejected, mocked and beaten, dead and buried, is now risen, ascended, and glorifed. God has made him the foundation. And ‘no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.’ ‘He who became obedient to death, even death on a cross, has been exalted by God to the highest place and given the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
One way or another, you have to reckon with this stone. Jesus is a rock. If you don’t build on this solid foundation, then sooner or later you will feel its destructive power. There is no neutral ground.
How did Jesus’ first hearers respond to this teaching? Although these words were originally spoken of the Jewish leaders, they were spoken to the people. Who were these people? They had been attracted by Jesus’ teaching. They had been amazed by his miracles. They held him to be a prophet. They had even tried to make him their king. Two days earlier, many of them had cried ‘Hosanna!’. I think that Jesus spoke these words to urge them to make up their minds, to persuade them to build on a solid foundation. But, in just three days time, many of them would be shouting, ‘Crucify him!’
How fickle people are, when they lack a solid foundation!
So, what is your response? Contemplate the kind and patient character of God. Consider the person and achievement of Jesus Christ. Ponder the privileges and opportunities you have been given. Think of the need to have a solid foundation in your life. Reflect on the shortness of time. And, Give your burden over to him. And let him give his life to you. For love has come down to earth, and made his home with us. What joy, what peace, has come to us! What hope, what help, what love!