The Wicked Tenants

Imagine, if you will, that you are a priest who walks into church one day to find a strange man standing at the pulpit spouting a philosophy that is antithetical to the things that you believe in, and working some pretty awesome miracles while he is at it. What would you do? Chances are that you will be more outraged than enamored, miracles notwithstanding, and ask the man, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Not surprising then that the Pharisees asked Jesus the same question one day when he was preaching in the temple. After locking them in a classical Catch-22 situation—damned if I do it; damned if I don’t—he told them two parables.

The first parable was about two sons who were asked by their father to work in the vineyard. The first said he wouldn’t go but did; the second one said he would go, but didn’t. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” Jesus asked his listeners. When they told him it was obviously the first son, he told them that prostitutes would go to heaven before them because they were like the second son, promising God many things but doing nothing.

And then he told them another parable which is the subject of this study. It’s a relatively long one about a landowner who plants a vineyard, making sure that it has everything including security. Then he leases it to some tenants and goes off to a distant country.

When it’s harvest time, he sends three of his men to the tenants to collect his produce, but they beat one, stone another, and kill the third. The owner sends more of his men but they are treated the same way. Then, finally, he sends his son, believing they would respect him. But using logic fitting their depraved nature, they figured if they killed him, they would inherit the vineyard. What happens next? The details are in the Scripture passage right alongside this column. Read it and let us proceed to the study.

Who's Who?

There are five main characters in this story with a couple of additional elements that are relevant. The landowner is representational of God. The tenants are the Jewish priests and elders. The landowner’s servants are the prophets whom God has sent at regular intervals through the course of Jewish history to remind them of their obligations. The son, of course, is Jesus. And the other tenants are the Gentiles (us). The vineyard is Israel and the produce is the fruit the nation is required to bear. 

A little background about land ownership during the time of Jesus will shed some deeper light on the parable so here is a little historical perspective. 

Absentee landlords were a common thing in ancient Israel. Many foreigners owned land which they would lease to locals to be farmed in exchange for rent and/or a percentage of the produce, usually a third or a quarter of the harvest. It was an arrangement that generally worked well for everyone because the locals secured employment, accommodation, and wages, and the landowner had a steady annual source of income. 

There were some legalities that had to be observed with regard to these dealings. The landowner was required by law to visit his property once a year (or send a representative) to collect his share of the produce, failing which he would lose his right to receive it. A crooked tenant intent on defrauding the owner would try to prevent the landowner from receiving his share of the proceeds. One method was to claim the vineyard was unfruitful, and therefore there was nothing to give the owner. Another, more gruesome method, was to waylay the representatives and kill them (which is what the people in this story did). 

If, for whatever reason, the landowner did not receive his share of the produce for three years, he was entitled to take legal action against the tenants. This was something he had to undertake himself, or appoint someone who had the right to act legally on his behalf. (This is why, in our story, the landowner sent his son; a son has legal rights.) A really wicked tenant might kill this person too and appropriate the land for himself. How could he possibly expect to get away with murder? Just as there were unscrupulous tenants, there were unscrupulous landowners as well, who would sometimes hire mercenaries to enforce their diktats, including forcibly evicting tenants from their property. The tenant could therefore claim that he was attacked by the landowner because he refused to vacate the premises without a court order, and the landowner was killed in the resultant skirmish. After all, what could he do but defend himself? C’est la vie.

What's What?

So now that we have established the characters and set the background, let us look at some of the other elements in our story. 

The landowner does three things after he has planted his vineyard: he digs a wine press, he puts a fence around it, and he constructs a watchtower. The function of the wine press is to process the grapes once they are harvested. The fence keeps out foxes and other animals. And the watchtower serves to guard against thieves, poachers and miscellaneous intruders, while also providing the workers with a place to stay. 

The point of Jesus stating all this in great detail was to underscore how every aspect of the vineyard was diligently planned and executed so that the tenants couldn’t blame anybody if they did not reap a good harvest. Jesus also wanted to remind his listeners about how God--, the real landowner, had provided for the nation of Israel just as the landowner in the story had provided for his tenants. From the time God had promised Abraham that he would make him “ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5), the Israelites had been God’s chosen people and God had given them every single thing they needed. He declared, “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12).

Whenever they seemed to forget this covenant, he would send his prophets to remind them of how special they were in his sight; how “beloved.” One of the great prophets—Isaiah—wrote this: Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. (Isaiah 5:1-2). Sound familiar? 

The prophets also reminded the “beloved” of what was expected of them—a rich harvest; after all, they had everything they needed for one. God had prepared the soil to be fertile. He had “dug the ground and cleared it of stones.” Instead of listening to the prophets, they treated them despicably. Some were beaten (see Jeremiah 20.2); some killed (see Nehemiah 9:26); some stoned (see 2 Chronicles 24:21). 

Years later, Stephen, a prophet of the New Testament would say to those preparing to stone him: “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it” (Acts 7:52-53). 

But the landowner reveals another facet of his personality: patience. He also shows that he is a God of second chances. He sends other slaves, more than the first. Unfortunately they meet the same fate. 

Finally, the landowner decides to send his son, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they thought that here was an opportunity to gain the vineyard for themselves. So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him (Matthew 21:39). 

By the time Jesus was done telling the parable, “they realized that he was speaking about them” (v.45), but did they realize he was also speaking about himself? After they had killed Jesus would they have remembered what he had said about the son being killed outside the vineyard? As the author of the letter to the Hebrews notes: For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood (Hebrews 13:11-12). If they hadn’t realized it, Peter would have reminded them about it in his first public sermon where he berated them for putting Jesus to death (see Acts 2) and several times thereafter.

Jesus paused in his storytelling to ask his listeners: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (v.40). The leaders unwittingly pronounced judgment upon themselves when they said, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (v.41). 

The latter half of this prophecy has been fulfilled. Custody of the vineyard has been handed over to the other tenants—the Gentiles. That’s us. It is just a matter of time before the other half is fulfilled as well. The landowner will come to reclaim his vineyard and, as the NIV translates it, “he will bring those wretches to a wretched end.” And wretched it most certainly will be according to Jesus who says it is a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Editor: see article ‘The Terrifying Reality of Hell’ in this issue).

The vineyard is God’s, not any leader’s, no matter how fanatic or fundamentalist he might be in his practice of the faith, or how influential a role he plays in the hierarchy of his time. God will be returning to claim his vineyard one day. And this time there would be no mercy because the time for that will have passed; now it would be time for judgment. 

The Matter of the Cornerstone

When Jesus had finished telling his listeners this parable, he asked them: “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’” (Matthew 21:42). 

This wasn’t the first time Jesus had prefaced his question by asking them if they hadn’t read the scriptures (see Matthew 12:3; 19:4; 21:16 and Mark 12:10). But to be charitable, Jesus was probably drawing their attention to what Scripture had said about him, rather than insulting them for their ignorance of it. Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and the religious leaders just couldn’t seem to see it. The reference to the ‘cornerstone’ came from Psalm 118:22-23, which the Jewish leaders would most certainly have read. 

The cornerstone (or foundation/setting stone) is the first stone set in the construction process. It is an important stone since all other stones are set in reference to it, thus determining the alignment and stability of the entire structure. If a building has an imperfect cornerstone, not only would the aesthetics be marred, the building would also be unsafe.

Jesus is the cornerstone—the setting stone—of another building. What is the building? It is the church—not a physical structure but the body of believers. We are the living stones that form it. Paul writes: So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord (Ephesians 2:19-21).

Without Jesus, everything is out of sync, and even a cursory examination of our lives when it is devoid of Christ would reveal the truth of that. Without him we are an insignificant, insecure and rootless people, chasing after relationships, fame, fortune, power, and glory like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. 

Even those who try to lead a holy life outside of Jesus are bound to fail. This is what the people of Israel had tried to do. They had built their foundation on the law. The law, however, never had the power to make anybody holy; it could only reveal to people their sinfulness. This is why Peter would later write that the “Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”” (Romans 9:30-33). Peter was echoing the words of Jesus that he said in this parable. “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls” (v.44).

There are two aspects of the stone that Jesus speaks about: one relates to those who fall on the stone and are broken, and another pertains to those whom the stone falls upon and crushes. Some interpreters say there is no difference between the two, but I see a distinction that I believe is very important. 

The former describes the people who have stumbled upon Jesus. They realize that whatever they had hitherto held to be important was actually without any value whatsoever, and would gradually but surely allow themselves to be broken as they conformed to the image and likeness of the Savior. They would not, however, be crushed. Being crushed describes the fate of those who refuse to humble themselves and accept the salvation that comes from Jesus because salvation can be found only through him. When Peter spoke to the rulers and elders who had seized him and John because they had healed a crippled man, he said, “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12). The people who reject salvation will be those who are crushed to dust in the final judgment. 

Are we ready?

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is relevant to us today because we are now the tenants of the vineyard. The requirements of the landowner are the same: that we bear fruit and we bear it in abundance. Do we? Religious practices and devotions are all very well, but if they don’t produce the fruit that is real evidence of a relationship with Christ—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control—then we are just like a tree with showy leaves on it and nothing else. Jesus got very angry when he came across a fig tree that had only leaves but bore no fruit, and he cursed it (see Matthew 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14,20-24). When he did this he symbolically denounced Israel as a nation, but it is also a denouncement today of those who profess to be Christian but don’t show the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

For this to happen we need to fall on the cornerstone that is Jesus and be broken by it, or run the risk of the stone falling on us and crushing us. Being broken isn’t pleasant, but it is infinitely preferable to being crushed. 

For those of us who have already fallen on the stone, it is vital we make Jesus the cornerstone of our lives. His words should form the basis of how we live, not the ideas and practices of the world, which are becoming increasingly degenerate. Rejecting what Jesus said because it doesn’t fit in with the current world-view is the same thing as rejecting Jesus. And the consequences are the same!

With Jesus as the cornerstone, we will bear the fruit that show us to be his disciples and reap a rich harvest. And then Jesus will send us out as he sent out those he chose 2,000 years ago saying: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2). And we will produce even more fruits for his kingdom. If we don’t, he will remove us as tenants and give his vineyard to others. We can already see this happening in the Church with many losing what they had. Let this not be our fate.

More in this category: « The Lost Coin The Barren Fig Tree »