In our last essay we studied Luke 19:28-48, in which we saw Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the temple. In this essay we are studying 20:1-19. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the temple, Jesus spent the next couple of days teaching in the temple. The first event reported is Jesus’ reply to a question about his authority. The question was asked by a group of Jewish officials, namely, chief priests, scribes, and elders (v. 1).
The chief priests, of course, were in charge of the temple. They were the Sadducees whose authority and wealth was based on the temple and its sacrificial system. The scribes on the other hand were Pharisees who focused on the law and its interpretation. Thus their authority came from the written word of God. And the elders were older, secular Jewish leaders of families and clans who were chosen for their experience and wisdom. Their authority came from their positions as traditional leaders. All of these men were sure of their authority. And they wanted to know what was the basis of Jesus’ authority. These three groups made up the Jewish religious governing body in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin. Therefore the chief priests, scribes, and elders who were confronting Jesus were representatives of the Sanhedrin.
As Jesus was teaching in the temple, the representatives of the Sanhedrin ask him “by what authority are you doing these things?” The “things” referred to would be his teachings, healings, and the temple cleansing. Jesus replies with a counter question, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Frankly, I’m surprised that they let him put them on the defensive like that. They could have insisted that he answer their question first. But they didn’t.
The officials discussed Jesus’ question among themselves and recognized they were in a difficult spot. If they answered, “From heaven,” Jesus would want to know why they didn’t believe John and receive his baptism. But if they answered, “Of human origin,” (which was what they actually believed) they feared the people would stone them, because the people believed John was a true prophet. So the officials took refuge in ignorance. They said they didn’t know the answer. Since they would not answer his question, Jesus refused to answer theirs.
Following his exchange with the Sanhedrin representatives, Jesus tells the people the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. The Sanhedrin representatives didn’t know it until the end of the story, but the parable represented them, the prophets, and Jesus.
The story, seen in verses 9-19, is about a landowner who plants a vineyard and leases it to tenant farmers while he is in another country. Absentee landlords were not unusual in first-century Palestine, so the story would have been easily understood. When the harvest season came, the landlord sent a slave to collect his share of the fruit. Now if the vineyard in question was a new one, the sending of the slave could have taken place as much as four years later, because it takes that long for a new vineyard to reach maturity and produce abundant fruit. However long the period was, the tenants decided to keep all of the fruit for themselves. They sent the slave away empty-handed and gave him a beating as well.
So the owner sent another slave, perhaps after the next year’s harvest when the fruit hopefully would be more abundant. But the second slave received the same treatment as the first. The owner then sent a third slave, perhaps after still another year. But he was wounded and thrown out. The word “wounded” suggests something more severe was done to him than the beatings given the first two slaves. Finally, the owner sent his own son, hoping that the tenants would respect him. But they did not. Indeed they killed him.
The parallels in Matthew and Mark are a bit different. Matthew has two groups of slaves who are sent and mistreated rather than three individuals (Mt. 21:33-36). Mark’s account says that the owner sent many slaves (rather than just three) some of whom were beaten and some killed (Mk. 12:2-5). But otherwise the stories are about the same.
When the owner sent his only son, the tenants’ original plan may have been simply to once again refuse to pay the rent. But when they saw that it was the owner’s only son who came, a new plan developed. Under Jewish law, ownerless land could be claimed by anybody. Perhaps they thought that the son’s coming meant that the father had died. If so, by killing the son, the new owner, the land would become ownerless; and the tenants would have first claim on the land by virtue of their possession of it.
Now then, at this point Jesus asks, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” Then Jesus answers his own question, ”He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” In Matthew’s parallel the listeners rather than Jesus give the answer, but it is the same answer (Mt. 21:41). The master himself, who is not dead, will come and see to the destruction of the wicked tenants, and the vineyard will be given to others to tend.
Next, Jesus asks what Ps. 118:22 means, and he quotes it. It reads, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” And again Jesus answers his own question, an answer that only Luke records. He says, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces: and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” In other words judgment will come on all who resist God’s Son, the “stone.” Verse 19 tells us that the scribes and chief priests finally catch on. Jesus’ parable is about them, the prophets, and Jesus, God’s Son.
Now then, there is a lot to talk about here. We cannot be sure at what point in the story the religious authorities caught on to what Jesus was doing with this parable. But they knew the scriptures, and so they knew that in the Old Testament Israel is symbolically referred to as a “vineyard” (Is. 5:1-7; Ps. 80:8-16). Let’s look at one classic example, Is. 5:1-7.
In these verses Isaiah sets forth a parable of a vineyard that has had every possible thing done to make it fruitful and productive (vv. 1-4), but it produces only “wild grapes” (v. 4). The result, Isaiah says, will be eventual destruction of the vineyard (vv. 5-6). In verse seven Isaiah gives an interpretation of his parable, quote, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel. And the people of Judah are his pleasant planting: he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.” In other words, God planted Israel like a vineyard. He provided everything necessary for them to succeed as his people. The fruit he expected were justice and righteousness. But what he got was bloodshed and the cry of the oppressed. Therefore as we see later in that chapter of Isaiah, Israel would suffer the consequences of foreign invasion and oppression.
The Jewish leaders also knew that time and time again Israel had refused to give God his due and had rejected his messengers, the prophets (Neh. 9:26; Jer. 7:25-26, 25:4). Jeremiah 7:25-26 and 25:4-9 illustrate this quite well, if you wish to look up those passages. Jeremiah goes on in 25:11 to predict the destruction of Israel and the Babylonian exile: “This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.”
Coming back to Jesus’ day and Luke 20, verse 19, we are seeing the same pattern repeating itself. The Jewish leaders rejected John the Baptist, the first true prophet in over 400 years, and his message. And they now were in the process of rejecting and killing the Son of God himself.
In the Old Testament the “stone” is a familiar symbol of God and of the promised Messiah (Gen. 49:24; Deut. 32:4; 15; 30-31; Is. 8:13-14; 28:16; 1 Cor. 10:2-5). The religious leaders knew that Ps. 118 was a messianic psalm, and they understood that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah by identifying himself with God’s messianic stone. When Israel rejected the prophets and John the Baptist, they were rejecting God. When they rejected and killed Jesus, they rejected both the Father and Son. And clearly Jesus was pronouncing judgment upon them.
Another thing to notice about this parable is the insidious nature of sin. The tenants began by refusing to give the owner his due and beating his slaves. That was bad enough, but their conduct escalated somewhat when they wounded one of the owner’s slaves. Eventually, when the owner’s son came, they turned to murder. Obviously it is a serious thing to reject the message and messengers of God. But it is far more serious to murder the Son of God. And unfortunately, according to Heb. 6:4-6, we can do that. That passage reads, quote, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and holding him up to contempt.” Did you catch it? We can crucify again the Son of God by becoming apostate.