[Jesus said:] “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Let me tell you the story again, so everything is in focus. There is a landowner who plants a vineyard, a place where you grow grapes. He puts a fence around it. He digs a wine press in it. He also builds a watchtower. Then he leases it to some tenants and goes away to another country. When harvest time comes, he sends his servants to collect the fruit, but the tenants beat them up. So he sends his son, believing they will treat him well, but they kill him. Obviously, the landowner is furious. He punishes the tenants and hands the vineyard over to other tenants.
Now, 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 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. That’s us. The vineyard is Israel. And the produce is the fruit the nation is required to bear.
The landowner does three things after he has planted his vineyard. One, he digs a wine press. Two, he puts a fence around it. Three, 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 this in such 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.” 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).
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).
What was the result? The kingdom of God was taken away from them and given to a people that produced fruits of the kingdom. These people were the early Christians, but over the years, we seem to have become like the original tenants, not bearing fruit, and unmindful of the prophets of God. However, as we have seen, he is a God of second chances. He is giving us the opportunity through these times to see the mistakes we have made and rectify them. If we do, we will start producing fruit for his kingdom, as we once did. If we don’t, he will remove us as tenants and give his vineyard to others.
Let this not be our fate.
May the Spirit be with you.