“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son, perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they threw them out of the vineyard and killed him.”
“Do Not Want.” On the Internet, you can find photo-shopped pictures of a dog sitting at a table being served a plate of broccoli. The dog’s face is crinkled up in a look of disgust. It has no desire for what is being given to it. That type of sentiment is what Jesus speaks about in His parable. But when He tells it, the picture is a bit different. There is more than the “Do Not Want” caption. No, the story that Jesus tells would be like having the dog knock the plate of broccoli off the table and then leaping up and mauling the server to death.
This is what Jesus describes with His parable. He speaks to the people in the Temple right after the priests, scribes, and elders had challenged His authority to do so. They would not receive John the Baptist; they will not receive Jesus. No, they want to keep any word from flowing out of Jesus’ mouth. They want to silence Him. But Jesus won’t be silent. He speaks and speaks some more. He tells a story that shows how the priests, scribes, and elders were simply repeating the actions of their forefathers and about to do even worse.
Jesus’ story about a vineyard being let out to wicked tenants is simply a retelling of Israel’s history. It begins with Israel’s planting: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while….” The planting of Israel happened millennia before Jesus. It began with the call of Abraham, continued with the birth of Jacob’s twelve sons, and was enacted when the Lord took the Hebrews out of Egypt and placed them in the Promised Land of Canaan. This was His nation, His chosen people. The Lord gave them leaders to teach and guide them in the Covenant that He had established with them.
But the history of Israel is plagued with eras and events when the appointed leaders were doing anything but teaching and guiding the people in the Covenant. Both the priesthood and the government failed. Both rebelled against the order that the Lord had established. They were to be good tenants of the Lord’s vineyard. But they brought forth anything but a good harvest—the right faith and righteous deeds meant to be found among Israel. Any of that harvest which happened to be good was not being given to the Lord.
So what was the Lord to do? He sends prophets to warn and to correct the priests and rulers. They come looking for the harvest that should be present: “When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard.” But when those prophets came, there was no handing over what was expected. No, there was the manhandling of the servants: “But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent a third. This one also they wounded and cast out.” The prophets were sent, and they were rejected. It happened to the unnamed prophets and major ones alike.
But the owner has one card left to play, one last person he can send. Not just a servant will go and visit the tenants: “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son, perhaps they will respect him.’” They would have to listen to the owner’s son, wouldn’t they? When he speaks, he carries an even greater authority than the servants did. This will solve the problem. The tenants will hear the owner’s son and change their ways.
“But when the tenants saw [the son], they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” With those words, Jesus discloses what will happen in Jerusalem. He had come at the end of the long series of prophets that began with Moses and ended with John the Baptist. But the result is the same in Israel: those whom the Lord sent are rejected by the priests and rulers. And Jesus knows it. For He had already said: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken.” And that forsakenness of the house of Jerusalem comes when the owner of the vineyard makes retribution for what the tenants did to his son: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
Jesus’ parable is a message of judgment against the scribes, priests, and elders who had rejected Him. Their failure to receive Him as the Promised Messiah would be a costly mistake, for it has effects both in time and in eternity. But Jesus’ parable also has a message of hope. Even the murder of his son is not the end. The vineyard in the story is not destroyed. The owner still has a place where his planting brings forth fruit. He will get the fruits that his good land produces. The vineyard will have others put in charge of it.
And this is where you find good news in this parable. Jesus’ citation of the Psalter shows where it is located: “But He looked directly at [the people] and said, ‘What then is this that is written: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?” The son may be rejected and killed by the tenants, but the owner’s will is still enacted. The Lord will have His kingdom established; His Son is the cornerstone on which it will be built. For what the psalm foretold is what Jesus also foretold: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” That day will be celebrated by the vineyard, as the psalm declares: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
For you who are the Lord’s vineyard, you hear and read this parable of Jesus not in a vacuum or only in the time setting of the Monday of Holy Week. No, you read it through the prism of Good Friday and Easter morning. The owner’s son was cast out of the vineyard and killed. But the Lord’s Beloved Son was also raised on the third day. Jesus’ words on Easter Evening will make that clear: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory?” The rejection and suffering must happen, but it is followed by resurrection and glory. And for you who receive Him, you have the inheritance given to you.
Note that well. The tenants thought that they could kill the heir and take the inheritance for themselves. But that pernicious plot is brought to naught. Their rejection of Jesus brings nothing but dread to them. Yet, that crucifixion of Jesus followed by resurrection opens up an inheritance for many. It is what you heard on Christmas morning in John’s famous words that were echoed again after you made your confession of sins: “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
This is the blessed fate that has been given to you, just as it has been given to others before you. Paul described it in himself, speaking of the changes that happened to him. He went from one who was a rejecter of the stone to being built on the cornerstone: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more…. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ…. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” That is what the receiving of Jesus brought to a Pharisee who had persecuted the Church. But when built on the cornerstone of Christ, Paul has his place in the vineyard. The Lord welcomes him to share in the kingdom.
And so the message of the parable is directed to you. Acting like the scribes and priests—the wicked tenants—leads to destruction and loss. That is the fate of those who beat the servants and kill the son: “When the stone falls on anyone, it will crush him.” Those who refuse to hear the prophets and reject Jesus suffer this fate, but this need not be. “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces.” And yet, the brokenness that comes from contrition, from hearing the message of repentance that the prophets and Jesus brought, will be answered by being bound up again. The tears of sorrow that you sow for your unrighteous deeds, your acting like the wicked tenants, will be changed to shouts of joy. It is so, as you receive Jesus as the Beloved Son and the benefits of His death and resurrection for you.
Even the apostle had to note: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Jesus’ work continues to be done in you, because He has made you His own. The Lord has willed you to be part of His kingdom, to be His vineyard. Hearing His prophets and His Son, now you say that this is what you want. Even the broccoli of hearing the words of law that they speak about where right faith or righteous acts have been lacking is actually desired. Your hearts and minds are set on what the rejected Son of Man brings to you through His death and resurrection. His words of gospel show you what is yours, as He establishes you on Himself, the chief cornerstone. Those words will not be silenced; they have been spoken to you. And so you see that even in the parable about wicked tenants who kill the owner’s son, the Lord has done great things for you; you are glad.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.