#87. Parable of the Tenants and the Vineyard (Luke 20:9-19)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Luke 20:9-19

[9] He went on to tell the people this parable: "A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. [10] At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. [11] He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. [12] He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.

[13] "Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.'

[14] "But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. 'This is the heir,' they said. 'Let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' [15] So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

"What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? [16] He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others."

When the people heard this, they said, "May this never be!"

[17] Jesus looked directly at them and asked, "Then what is the meaning of that which is written:

" 'The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone'?
[18] Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces,
but he on whom it falls will be crushed."

[19] The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people.


Exposition

If you've lived very long and are blessed with just a bit of self-perception, then you know how possible it is to rebel against God. You can love God on the one hand, but stand adamantly against his will on the other. Your reasoning and justification can rise to heights of presumption and convolution. You can even fool yourself (mostly) into believing your own rationale. But in the end you are a rebel, and more -- a rebellious unbeliever -- who loves God, or purports to. Crazy? Yes. But possible. Quite possible.

So as we study Jesus' Parable of the Tenants and the Vineyard it is valuable to be reflective and thankful -- there, but for the grace of God, go I.

Planting a Vineyard (20:9)

Jesus begins his story -- for that is what a parable is -- with a very familiar hallmark of the Middle Eastern agriculture, a vineyard.

"He went on to tell the people this parable: 'A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time.'" (20:9)

The vineyard, along with the fig tree, is almost proverbial for abundant blessing. "Each man under his own vine and fig tree" is repeated over and over in the Old Testament (1 Kings 4:25; 2 Kings 18:31; Isaiah 34:4; 36:16; Joel 1:12; 2:22; Micah 4:4; Haggai 2:19; Zechariah 3:10). The vineyard sometimes refers metaphorically to Israel: "The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel...." (Isaiah 5:1-7. See also Isaiah 27:2; Jeremiah 12:10; and Micah 7:1).

But Jesus' parable of the vineyard is unique. It is not just a story, but an allegory, with each part representing something else. A man (who represents God in the parable) plants the vineyard and then rents it to tenants. "Rented" is Greek ekdidomi, "let out for hire, lease."[1]

Seeking Fruit from the Tenants (20:10-12)

Like today, tenant farmers are usually paid by allowing them to keep a portion of the harvest, with a fixed percentage going to the owner. But these tenants didn't want to share.

"At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out." (20:10-12)

"Tenant" (NIV) or "husbandman" (KJV) is Greek georgos, which can refer either to the owner of a farm, or, in this case, to one who does agricultural work on a contractual basis, "vine-dresser, tenant farmer."[2] When the owner's representatives come to claim the owner's share, the tenants beat and mistreat them. In our passage we see three words that describe this violence:

  • "Beat" is Greek dero, "to beat, whip."[3]
  • "Treat shamefully" is Greek atimazo, "to dishonor, shame," perhaps subject to public ridicule. It is an especially grievous offence in the honor-shame oriented Semitic society.[4]
  • "Wound" is Greek traumatizo, from which we get our word "traumatize."

 It's pretty clear to the disciples who have heard Jesus' teaching who he is referring to. Recall these verses in Luke:

"Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.' Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world." (Luke 11:47-50)
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!" (Luke 13:34)

He sees the current rulers doing the same as their ancestors -- killing the prophets who were sent to Israel to correct them and turn their hearts and praises to God as his fruit from his vineyard. So in Jesus' parable, the tenants represent the unbelieving rulers, while the vineyard is nation of Israel itself.

Sending His Son to the Tenants (20:13-15a)

But in Jesus' parable this rebelliousness does not only to killing the prophets.

"Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.'
"But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. 'This is the heir,' they said. 'Let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him." (20:13-15a)

The owner's son should be offered respect. "Respect" (NIV) or "reverence" (KJV) is the Greek verb entrepo, "have regard for, respect," show deference to a person in recognition of special status.[5] Instead the son meets death. Of course, in this thinly-veiled allegory, the son is the Son of God whose death takes place outside the city on Golgotha. "Kill" is Greek apokteino, literally, "kill," to deprive of life.[6] "Throw out" (NIV) or "cast out" (KJV) is the same Greek verb ekballo that is used when Jesus casts out a demon. 

The Tenants' Punishment (20:15b-16)

How will the owner respond? With continued patience? Not at all!

"What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others."
When the people heard this, they said, "May this never be!" (20:15b-16)

In verse 16, the verb "kill" (NIV) or "destroy" (KJV) is a different verb, apollumi, "ruin, destroy," to cause destruction especially, "put to death."[7] We've just studied Jesus' prediction of the fall of Jerusalem (19:43-44) which took place in 70 AD. This crushing destruction was terrible evidence of the wrath of God upon this rebellious land.

Notice how the listeners respond: "May this never be!" (20:16). They must understand something of what Jesus means in this parable. The key idea of vineyard may have tipped them that Israel was the subject. Perhaps the plots swirling around Jesus and the people's belief that he was the Messiah contributed to their understanding. Even Jesus' enemies "knew he had spoken this parable against them" (20:19).

But Jesus, amazingly, rejects the people's spur-of-the-moment merciful impulse:

"Jesus looked directly at them and asked, 'Then what is the meaning of that which is written:
"The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone"? (20:17)

Jesus is clear that scripture must be fulfilled with the destruction of God's enemies. Let's examine this thoroughly, since the passage is quoted several times in the New Testament. Track with me, and what I am getting at will be clear in a moment.

Messianic Understanding of the Old Testament "Stone" Passages

There are several Old Testament passages that the Jews identified with the Messiah. Daniel's vision is most striking, and attracted considerable Rabbinical comment:

"While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.... In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever." (Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45)

Isaiah 28:16 was also interpreted messianically, as is clear from the rendering of the Septuagint. It is quoted in 1 Peter 2:6 and Romans 9:33; 10:11.

"See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;[8]
the one who trusts will never be dismayed." (Isaiah 28:16)

There are also Messianic references in the Rabbinical literature to the plumb line in the hand of Zerrubabel (Zechariah 4:10) and the stones in Isaiah 8:14, which is particularly germane:

"And he will be a sanctuary;
but for both houses of Israel he will be
a stone that causes men to stumble[9]
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare." (Isaiah 8:14)

Two passages that were not interpreted Messianically in Jesus' time were the rock of Horeb and Psalm 118:22, which Jesus quotes in the lesson we are studying today:[10]

"The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone.
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it." (Psalm 118:22-24)

The Rejected Stone Becomes the Cornerstone (20:17)

Given this background of understanding of the identification of the Messiah with the Stone, Jesus cites a passage they probably haven't looked at that way before.[11]

"Jesus looked directly at them and asked, 'Then what is the meaning of that which is written:
"The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone"?' " (20:17)

"Builders" is a participle of the Greek verb oikodomeo, "build," construct a building. It is also used in a transcendent sense for building up the Christian church (Matthew 16:18; Romans 15:20; 1 Peter 2:5).[12] Here, Jesus extends it to the builders of Judaism, the leaders who have become his arch enemies. The word "rejected" is apodokimazo, "reject (after scrutiny), declare useless."[13] The rulers didn't just make a quick judgment error on the spur of the moment. This word indicates that they had a chance to examine the "stone" carefully and then reject it after reflection.

The exact role of the stone in this passage has been disputed. KJV translates the Greek literally, "head of the corner," that is, the cornerstone of a building, one of the first building blocks placed in a building. Others consider it to be the capstone above the door or the porch.[14] Whichever the word refers to, the point is that while it was rejected by the builders, it ultimately was placed by God in the key position of the entire building.

Crushed by the Stone (20:18)

Jesus continues:

"Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed." ' (20:18)

Having established Psalm 118:22 as messianic, Jesus connects it with two other messianic verses about the stone. Isaiah 18:14-15 refers to stumbling on that Stone and Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45 refers to being crushed by it.

Jesus' choice of words concerning the destruction of the Messiah's enemies is a sober one. The word translated twice in this verse as "falls" is the common Greek verb pipto. The word translated "broken to pieces" is Greek sunthlao, "crush (together), dash to pieces," to crush in such a way that an object is put in pieces.[15] The word translated "crushed" or "grind to powder" is the Greek verb likmao.[16] These words portend a terrible fate for the Messiah's enemies.

The Plot to Arrest Jesus (20:19)

Jesus' dispute with his enemies has gone beyond the philosophical stage. It has become deadly serious:

"The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people." (20:19)

Can We Sustain Our Rebellion?

We began looking at this passage by talking about our own tendency to rebel against God and his will. We want our own way, prefer our own way, and resent it when we can't get it. Too often there are issues we war with God about -- an untimely death, a financial reversal, a loss we can't seem to recover from. Sometimes we openly voice our bitterness in prayer, and sometimes speak it to family members and Christians.

My dear friends, you and I have no more excuse for rebellion against the Messiah than the leaders of Israel. If we place ourselves against him, we declare ourselves to be his enemies. If we allow ourselves to stumble over Christ's will, then we call upon ourselves the awesome punishment of being crushed to powder by the Stone.

We disciples can (rightly) see some long-ago Pharisees and Chief Priests in this parable. But until we see -- at least potentially -- ourselves, we have not learned the lesson that we must. The King is supreme. He does not tolerate rebellion, either from his subjects or from his children.


Prayer

Father, there have been times when I have been angry at you. I have questioned your will and railed about my circumstances. I have been in rebellion. Forgive me and take away my shame for rebelling against my Master. Help me to accept you and your direction as from your hand instead of resisting you at each step. Help me to discern your works from those of the enemy that I might not blaspheme you. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.


Key Verse

" The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone'?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces,
but he on whom it falls will be crushed." (Luke 20:17-18)


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
All 120 lessons now compiled as a 808-page e-book and paperback. Get your copy for easy reference

Be sure to read the lesson material before answering the questions. The text about the Stone needs careful reflection to understand it properly.

  1. How does tenant farming work in Jesus' day? In our day? What did the owner of the vineyard expect of his tenants?
  2. What does the vineyard itself represent? The owner? The tenants? The servants who are sent to collect the owner's portion? Who is the son? Historically, how did God destroy the "tenants"? (20:9-16)
  3. In 20:17 who is the stone? Who are the builders? In your opinion, why did they ultimately reject Jesus after studying him carefully?
  4. In what ways did the Pharisees and Chief Priests stumble on the stone and were broken to pieces? In what ways are they crushed by the "falling stone"?
  5. How can we detect when our hearts are rebellious against God? What should we do when we are angry at God? How can we prevent "a root of bitterness" against God to grow in our heart? Is this only hypothetical or is there any danger of the Stone crushing us to powder?


References

Common Abbreviations www.jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm

  1. BDAG 300.
  2. BDAG 196.
  3. BDAG 218-219.
  4. BDAG 148-149.
  5. BDAG 341.
  6. BDAG 114.
  7. BDAG 115-116.
  8. "Cornerstone" in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of Isaiah 28:16 is Greek arkogoniaios, "at the extreme angle, the corner foundation-stone" though some defend the idea of "capstone." BDAG 39-40; Lidell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon (abridged, Oxford Press, 1871), p. 28.
  9. The Greek Septuagint translation of Isaiah 9:14 is lithou proskommati, which means "rock of stumbling, or which causes to stumble." Greek proskomma means "the act of stumbling" (from proskopto "bruise" as a result of stumbling). BDAG 882.
  10. I am relying heavily for the history of Messianic interpretation on the scholarship of Joachim Jeremias, "lithos," TDNT 4:272-273.
  11. Jeremias, p. 273, note 45, observes that a Messianic understanding of this passage is first found in the writings of Rashi who died in 1105 AD.
  12. BDAG 696.
  13. BDAG 110.
  14. Jeremias, p. 274, asserts that according to the agreed testimony of the Syriac translation of Psalm 118.22, Symmachus, Testimony of Solomon, Hipp., Tertullian, Aphraates, Prudentius, and Synagogue poetry, the reference is "the stone which crowns the building, or, more precisely, the key stone of the structure probably set above the porch." BDAG 542.
  15. BDAG 972.
  16. BDAG 596.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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