13. Wicked Tenants, Wicked Guests (Luke 20:9–18)
Probably none of the parables is as clear and explicit a prophetic denunciation of Israel as this parable of the wicked tenants. What Jesus has been teaching in different aspects and from different perspectives since He began this journey He now lays out fully and plainly to the people:
A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. 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 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 yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. 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 him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Luke 20:9–16).
This parable encapsulates the whole history of Israel. First, God established Israel in the promised land, which was indeed a veritable garden:
And they came to the Valley of Eshcol and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them; they also brought some pomegranates and figs. That place was called the Valley of Eshcol, because of the cluster that the people of Israel cut down from there. . . . And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” (Num. 13:23–27).
“Valley of Eshcol” literally means “Valley of the Cluster,” referring to the wonderful clusters of grapes growing there. The fruitfulness was God’s blessing to them. The prophets would repeat this image when speaking of God’s love, or sometimes forgiveness and renewal of the covenant (Song 4:12–16; 5:1; 6:2; 8:13; Isa. 51:3; 58:11; Jer. 31:12; Ezek. 36:35). There is no doubt that the vineyard spoken of in the parable is a reference to the land of Israel. The owner is obviously God, and His tenants are therefore the people of old covenant Israel.
Second, God expected this land to bear fruit, and thus obviously expected the tenants to produce it. “Tenants” here translates the Greek georgois, which is literally “farmers,” or “tenant farmers.” These were not just renters, but agricultural tenants; they were put there just as Adam was put in the Garden of Eden, to till the soil and keep the garden. The fruit God expected was spiritual fruit. The expected produce, of course, was something we have discussed more than once now: Israel should have been a witness to the nations, converting them to God’s law. While God had gone far away, He was not uninterested in the produce of His property.
So, third, He sent agents periodically in season to inspect (“times of visitation”) the produce. But the tenant farmers rejected these servants. They beat them, shamed them, and sent them packing. When Jesus tells this parable to the priests and elders in Matthew (21:33–46), He says that the tenants even killed and stoned some of the agents (we will discuss Matthew’s account briefly later). For Israel, these are obviously references to the prophets. God had sent them to teach, warn, and condemn Israel on many occasions, and Israel ignored, mocked, rejected, and killed them all. This had been part of Jesus’ lawsuit from early in this journey. He condemned the lawyers in Luke 11:47–51:
Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,” so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation.
Indeed, the blood of all the prophets from the foundation of the world would be charged against this generation—the generation to whom Jesus was speaking. Jesus repeats this exact charge against Jerusalem on His way there (Luke 13:34–35) and after He arrives in the temple (Matt. 23:33–39). It is also the exact charge, as we have noted already, for which the Great Whore of Revelation 17–18 is condemned: “I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. . . . And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth” (Rev. 17:6, 18:24). There is no doubt, then, what this part of the parable means. The worst was yet to come.
Fourth, when none of the servant-prophets availed, God resolved to send His beloved Son. “Perhaps they will respect him.” “Respect” here is the common translation, but I question it. The KJV says “reverence,” but this still does not capture it. The exact word form entrapesontai appears in this story in all three synoptic accounts (Luke 20:13; Matt. 21:37; Mark 12:6). In this form, it more literally means “will be ashamed.” The verse means that these wicked farmers should be ashamed of their actions, and the only thing that may, perhaps, bring them to repentance is that instead of any mere servant, the Lord sent His actual Son as the agent. The Son would be a prophet to them, a priest-inspector, and a vicegerent of the Lord—a King. This is the last effort, indeed, the last possibility. If these tenants are not ashamed of their sins before this Man, they will not repent for anyone.
Fifth, even the manifestation of the Son Himself was not enough to bring them to repentance. In fact, as repentance was only given to elect Israel, the appearance of the Son only served to harden the rest of Israel’s hearts further. In their rebellion, they schemed how they may steal the inheritance by their own works, for 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 (Luke 20:14–15).
They were willing to murder God’s Son if they thought they could secure their inheritance without repenting. Of course, as Jesus spoke, this final act of murder was yet future. But it was a prophecy by Jesus of what would in fact happen, and it came to pass just as He predicted.
This, of course, is exactly how Paul condemns the unbelieving Jews: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:3). Peter condemned that generation of Jews for this crime as well:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:22–23).
This was Stephen’s message as well, just before these same Jews killed him:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it (Acts 7:51–53).
Sixth, Jesus then gives the sentencing for these rebellious farmers’ crime, and it is twofold: the owner of the vineyard “will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Luke 20:16). The meaning is clear: after the Jews kill Christ, the Father will 1) destroy that generation of Jews, and 2) give the vineyard to others. This is obviously fulfilled in 1) the destruction of Jerusalem in ad 70, and 2) the transfer of the kingdom to the New Covenant era (made up of the remnant of faithful Jews with the in-grafting of millions of gentiles).
The people (to whom this particular telling of the parable is addressed, Luke 20:9) could not bear to hear this. From their reaction, we can deduce that they largely understood the meaning: “When they heard this, they said, ‘Surely not!’” (Luke 20:16). Jesus proved His lesson from prophetic tradition:
But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (Luke 20:17–18).
There is amazing irony in this exchange. The quotation is directly from Psalm 118:22. The people had only the day before entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, and the people sang praises from this very Psalm and few verses down: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Psa. 118:26; see Luke 19:38; Matt. 21:9). Now they stood before Jesus as He quoted a few verses of the same tune back to them. It foretold the rejection of the Son. Jesus then added Isaiah 8:15 which foretold the destruction of those who stumbled at this cornerstone (see the discussion on Luke 17:1–5). “No, surely not us,” was the thought. But Jesus had said it: there was coming a great judgment and vengeance upon this city and these people, and it would entail a great transfer of sovereignty to a new people.
Next Section: The Pharisees and the Parable of the Wicked Guests