Luke 20:9-19 “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. 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. 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. 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!’ 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’’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.’ 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.”
The event that was going to change the destiny of the cosmos was about to take place in Jerusalem, just a few days after these words were spoken. God the Son, lovingly sent into the world by God the Father, was going to offer himself as a sacrifice for cosmic sin. On the occasion before us the Lord Christ explained to the people what was going to happen in Jerusalem. He had previously spoken to them in brief plain language about why he’d come into the world. It was to give his life a ransom for many. He had come to seek and to save that which was lost. He had come to be lifted up in order to draw men to himself, but here he did not speak like that in didactic theological terms, not on this occasion. Certainly what we have before us in our text is the ultimate explanation of Jesus’ death. But we have it in the form of a parable. Jesus told them a story, and of all the parables that he told throughout his entire ministry this is the most allegorical of them all. Let me explain what I mean. Pilgrim’s Progress is the best known of all Christian allegory. In an allegory different fictional characters stand for or symbolize different factual people or sins or virtues. Pilgrim stands for every Christian; Vanity Fair stands for the enticing world system; Doubting Castle stands for the Christian’s battle with unbelief; the last river the pilgrims cross stands for death, and so on. Parables are not generally allegories, but this parable is the most like one. The various items stand for different people and places.
Now no first century Jew would need to have explained to him what Jesus was talking about when he told this parable. It was all so stark. The man who does the planting is God. The vineyard he has planted is Israel. The tenant farmers are the generations of the indifferent, rebellious, chosen people. The servants sent to by the owner to the vineyard are God’s prophets, and Jesus is the Son who has been sent to them by the owner, his Father, God. This parable is a lively picture of redemptive history right across the two testaments. It’s a portrait of the loving God who had taken the initiative in creating, permitting the fall, choosing these people, preparing for them a land flowing with mile and honey, and sending his prophets to speak his word to them. We see here the climactic claim of Christianity that the promised Messiah is actually God’s own beloved Son. The Lord Jesus is the Son of God, and Jesus is here telling them that they – the people he’s speaking to – are going to treat him as wickedly as their fathers treated the prophets before him. The kingdom of salvation will then be taken from them and given to the Gentiles. Jesus is the chosen but rejected stone of God’s building. In other words, this parable told the people how God viewed them, as his defiant and rebellious people who had taken for granted all the privileges he’d given them, the covenants and promises and his shepherding care. The parable told them of their responsibilities which they’d dismissed. Finally it told them of the consequences facing them of killing God’s Son.
GOD’S PEOPLE HAVE BEEN PLANTED AND NOURISHED BY GOD.
To what can you compare your own life? Would you dare to say to me, “The best picture I can give you of my life is this – it’s all been barren, an acre of weeds and nettles and thorns? That’s it! Nothing fruitful or fragrant or nourishing, just poison ivy and Japanese knot weed. That’s been my life.” I would say that though that may be true for a very small minority of people in the world yet for almost all of you it’s not been like that at all. You have no cause to be bitter against God or peevish and self-pitying because of your providence. Many of you have had loving parents and health and prosperity, and you were taken to hear the word of God each Sunday and many of you were even prayed for every day. That is how it has been with you. God has blessed you and watched over you. Your life has prospered. It has not been a field of weeds; your life has been more like a beautiful vineyard. God has been so good to you. Where is the fruit of this love? Where is the sweetness?
That is how it was with the Old Testament people of God. In Psalm 80 Asaph, the writer, says, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and you planted it” (v.8). Jeremiah says that God planted Israel like “a choice vine” (Jer. 2:21). This was no wild vine with grapes like little ball-bearings – a choice vine! Hosea calls it “a luxuriant vine” (Hos. 10:1). This is high quality grapes, bursting with sweet juice. Yummy! But the most famous prophecy is one Isaiah wrote in chapter five to describe the blessed people of God, but how disappointing the annual crop was. Jehovah pruned and watered and dunged it, but the grapes were wild! You could never produce wine from such small bitter fruit.
Let’s read the first seven verses: “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it. The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”
Hasn’t God been exceedingly good to you, giving you every good and perfect gift, your intelligence, your years of peace and prosperity, loved ones and friends? How have you responded? God comes to you and he looks for some fruit from his goodness to you, the fruit of acknowledging him as God, the fruit of worship, and service, and keeping a day holy and your tongue clean of blasphemies, and your life pure and your marriage vows honoured. What does he find? How many rich, juicy grapes of love for him are in your heart? Is there one? Not one. There is bad fruit, bitter fruit, strange fruit of ingratitude and hatred. You won’t listen to preachers of the Bible. You’ll give them no time in your life.
The national sign of Israel was the vine. The national sign of Canada is the maple leaf. The national sign of Wales is the leek. Jesus was speaking in the courts of the Temple that he’d cleaned up and cleaned out, and there in the distance was the building itself and around the open door that led into the temple was sculpted a great vine whose branches, tendrils, leaves and clusters of fruit were all made of gold. Herod had had this sculpture made and it was as high as the wall behind the pulpit of Alfred Place. It could be added to by rich patriotic Jews in thanksgiving to Jehovah, by a gold leaf or a jeweled grape or cluster of grapes. It was always evolving; the gold vine was a tourist attraction. Israel had been a rich vine planted and nurtured by the Lord and I am saying to you that you have been nourished and cherished and loved by God and that he has given you a beautiful rich life. So the vineyard is the people planted by God.
THE FARMERS OR TENANTS WERE THE LEADERS IN ISRAEL.
Planting a vineyard on a hillside has to be a long-term investment. Initially there would be considerable outlay and expense. It took four or five years to begin to show a profit. It was rather like setting up a windmill farm on your land. You borrow a great deal of money from the bank to buy and erect the vast windmill towers. Your farm becomes the collateral for the loan. All the money that you receive from the sale of the electricity for the first ten or twenty years will disappear in paying back what you’ve borrowed.
God invested so much in these Old Testament people – his covenants and promises, the feasts, the sacrifices and the law code, but God has also invested so much in you. What God did was to put people under wise leaders and to give them many inducements and encouragements to do his will. So they had prophets, and they had the Scriptures; they had priests and Levites who taught them God’s way so that they were without excuse for sinful behaviour, and these leaders became the very people who opposed his word. They led the people astray. They were dumb at the stoning of the prophets. They preached ‘Peace!’ when there was contempt and hostility against God. You see it in the chapter before us. What was happening in Jerusalem when Jesus walked into the Temple? The chief priests and elders and scribes who taught in the synagogues, the very men responsible for the nurture of the fruit of faith in Israel, were plotting to destroy their Messiah. God had put up with these people for centuries, these leaders, responsible for the cultivation of the hearts of the people of God, feeding and pruning and protecting them, had become indifferent to them; they were concerned only for themselves. Their divine calling had been genuinely to love the people of God as a farmer loves his vineyard. In this they’d failed. They didn’t pastor them; they didn’t evangelize them; they didn’t warn them; they didn’t bear their burdens; they didn’t sing, “The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want,” they sang rather, “I did it my way.” Instead of the conviction that the Lord our God is one Lord, they listened to the voice of the prophets of Baal and they said they didn’t want to be too narrow, and there was truth in all religions.
THE MESSENGERS SENT TO THEM WERE GOD’S PROPHETS.
Remember the prophet Elijah standing before the people on Mount Carmel, he all alone, with 850 prophets of Baal on the other side of the arena. Who were the people going to follow? “‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’ But the people said nothing” (I Kings 18:21). When the king of Israel’s wife, no less, heard that Elijah had triumphed and all the prophets of Baal had been destroyed we are told that, “Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ‘May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I don’t make your life like that of one of them’” (I Kings 9:2). If the prophets said and did things that displeased the leaders of the people then they threw them in a cistern, or they stoned them or they cut their throats. So it was in Jesus’ parable, the owner sent his messengers (the prophets) to the vineyard to receive the fruit of his investment, but the farmers were irate to discover that that distant landlord demanded anything from them. They beat up one, they cut the clothes off another at waist height shaming him, they knifed another, and all returned back to the owner empty handed, humiliated and hurt. What was the fruit the owner received? Rejection, hatred and contempt. “Don’t expect a single grape from us, old fellow. Back off!”
God responds. He speaks through Jeremiah and he says to defiant Israel, “From the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their forefathers. When you tell them all this, they won’t listen to you; when you call to them, they won’t answer” (Jer. 7:25-27).
So what happens next? Does he send them all into exile? Does he send fire from heaven and treat them all like Sodom and Gomorrah? No. The Lord speaks and he says, “Let’s go to them, my Son. You will be my representative, as if I were going right to them. If they see and hear you they are seeing and hearing me. They must surely respect you who are my own Son! They will surely listen to you!” God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son. How amazing is grace. God sent many servants to plead with the people to turn around. He vindicated his name and showed his power by fire from heaven burning up Elijah’s sacrifice, but the people spat in the faces of all of them. Yet God didn’t give up in wrath. Finally he sent his Son to speak to them.
In your own past, God was dealing with your fathers by preachers and reformers for centuries. There was an earlier grace in the land and amongst your ancestors, but long before any of them were born God’s Son has visited our world. What grace! In spite of all your resistance to God his Son has affected you and he is responsible for the best parts of you. You are a beneficiary of the one you ignore.
THE SON THAT WAS SENT WAS JESUS OF NAZARETH.
This is the heart of the parable, the sending of the owner’s Son, and his murder at the hands of evil men. “What shall I do?” the owner asked. Whom did he ask? Was he speaking aloud to nothing? Was it to his advisers? Whom did God the Father ask? Did he not inquire of his Son and the Holy Spirit? Wasn’t Jesus the lamb who was crucified before the foundation of the world. Didn’t the Godhead determine before time began to create, and to permit the fall and to redeem men by the sacrifice of the Son of God? Did not these words, “I will send my beloved son” (v.13) sound forth even before the words “Let there be light”? I believe so. What words! Only one person comes to our minds as we read through the Bible and we come across these words, ‘my beloved son.’ We find ourselves on holy ground; we are in the eternal counsels of God; we are at the heart of the universe and we are also at Golgotha in its darkness. The beloved Son or the only-beloved Son is the most precious of all persons to everyone who believes. We know who this is! We first met this thought in the story of Abraham, when God called the patriarch to make the costliest of all sacrifices. God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love . . . and offer him . . . as a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:2). God was telling Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son.
That was part of God’s preparation for the coming of Christ. There never was a Son more beloved than Jesus – the only begotten of the most loving of Fathers. Luke has shown this already. He showed it at the baptism of Jesus, when “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son’” (Luke 3:22). Or again, when Jesus was on the mount of transfiguration, “a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son!’” (Luke 9:35).
Do you see what Jesus is doing here? He is telling us a story about himself. If the parable is about a beloved Son, then the parable must be about him, because he is the most beloved of all sons. It is as if Jesus can’t tell a parable about himself as the Son without telling us that he is the beloved Son. Once we see that the parable is about a beloved Son, our hearts are drawn both to the Son and to the Father who loves him. We can see here that Jesus was totally aware of his own divine identity. He knew exactly why he had come into the world and who he was: he was and always will be the Father’s beloved Son. Therefore, when he told this parable about the sending of a beloved Son, he was bearing witness to the love he shared with the Father from all eternity. From eternity past to eternity future, the Father is always love, and he loves supremely his Son. If you want to know the most elementary truth about who Jesus is, then be sure of this, that he is the beloved Son of God the Father.
The beloved Son in the parable was loved with his Father’s love, and sent on his Father’s mission. What a delight to do something – anything – for his Father! Out of the love of his loving heart, the Father sent his beloved Son. “What shall I do?” he had asked. It is so plaintive. Can there be any other way? He cannot send any more servants to their deaths, and he has waited so long. The tenants have now filled up the fulness of their wickedness, so it is time for him to take holy action. But one more chance . . . he will send his Son. That is the costly final opportunity: “I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him” (v.13). Yes. Some did. Five hundred of them. And in love to his Father and in love for those who respected him Jesus the Son came. There was no reluctance at all in his coming, being born of the virgin, dying on the cross, tasting death, rising from the dead, being a man for evermore as well as being God – this is all an offer of mercy to defiant Israel. Perhaps some will respect him, and 500 did, the congregation he gathered around him that met him on the hill of ascension.
“I will do your will,” he said to his Father, and this was the last act of this great drama that Jesus told. The Son himself comes onto the stage. Still hopeful that his tenants would acknowledge his authority and accept their responsibility, he enters in person. He approaches the farm, just as the prodigal son in another parable recorded in Luke once approached his old home. But now there is no loving Father running to greet him. He was going from the Father into a world that hated both him and his Father. He was going all alone, so vulnerable and exposed. Immediately we want to cry out that he is making a huge mistake. Even before we hear the rest of the story, we know that the wicked tenants will not respect the man’s Son any more than they respected his servants. “No!” we want to shout. “Don’t send them your beloved Son! Don’t you know that they will kill him?”
This is exactly what they did, of course: “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” (vv.14-15). After the owner’s long absence, the tenants assumed that he must be dead, and that this man approaching them was the new owner so they decided to seize the opportunity to get the vineyard as their inheritance. He introduces himself to them as the owner’s Son and their brains immediately went into overtime. They actually thought that if they killed him the vineyard would become theirs! What folly. They were renting the land from the owner. They were stupid people. What fools they were, and what fools men are who think that if they ignore God all their lives then when they die they’ve won. They have beaten God. They have done it their way and they have got away with it. No! Now they face a meeting with God! After death there is the judgment. There is no escape from God. If they make their bed in the grave, lo, God is there! There has to be the rendering of an account. There is the encounter with the God they’ve defied all through their lives. They don’t get the inheritance; they get divine justice for how they’ve lived, and so it was for these men. They determined that they would take the produce of the vineyard rent-free and now they imagine that they could get the land too as their own if they but killed the Son. So they saw the boy and they took him and they threw him outside the walls and they butchered him.
This story is much more than a parable isn’t it? We can call it a ‘prophetic autobiography.’ The storyteller is telling the story about himself. Jesus knew that he was the last in a long line of prophets, but more than that, he was the spirit who had inspired all the prophets. That’s why he had the authority to say the things he said and do the things he did. God had spoken at many times and in many ways to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Heb. 1:1-2).
Jesus also knew what he was doing. He knew that in sending him, his Father was sending him to die. There is a fearful momentum about this story. One after another the prophets are beaten up and hurt badly, and then the Son of the owner comes and we all know what’s going to happen. Men’s hearts have not changed. The enmity to God is still there. They are going to murder the loveliest and the best of men. If they did that to Jesus should we be surprised that men and women are so cruel and mean to us? Didn’t Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount, “Reckon on it”? Men will despise you and say all manner of evil against you. That’s why there is such an air of inevitability about the entire story. Jesus knew exactly what would happen to him at the hands of ordinary men. Their hearts are desperately wicked; already the religious men, religious leaders, are plotting to destroy him. Two more days and they will murder him by crucifying him. Men will do that to the Lord Jesus.
They hate his Father and they hate him. How wicked it all was, and how foolish! God is the owner of all creation. What could possibly be gained by murdering his beloved Son? What could you do worse than that? Nothing! They are antagonizing the God who is a consuming fire. Bow down before him now! His glory proclaim now! Worship the Lord! Repent of your sins and cry mightily to him for mercy. All the good fruit of God’s vineyard was his. “I will give you the uttermost part of the earth for your inheritance” God says to him. Yet they picked up a sledge hammer and they nailed his hands and feet to a cross and lifted him up. They made fun of God the Son. It was so brutal, murdering God’s infinitely perfect Son.
Yet if we were to say to the Father, “Stop a moment! Listen! They’ll kill him if you send him. That’s what they’ll do to your beloved Son. Don’t send him to that place.” God would reply, “Yes, I know what they’ll do to my dear Jesus, but don’t you know that is why I’ve sent him into the world?” The Father knew this would happen before you did. The Son knew it before you did. The Father was sending the Son to suffer, bleed and die. This was the main business of his life. Jesus told his disciples at the beginning that the Son of Man must be “lifted up” – lifted up to die on the cross. That was the only way of our deliverance. That is how God is, holy and just and sin-hating but infinite in grace and mercy. He would be the one bearing our judgment and condemnation that we may go at last to heaven saved by his precious blood. That was God the Father’s plan, not to spare his loving Son from that death so that hateful people like us might be saved. He would die an atoning death that we might live a pardoned life for ever.
The question is: Do you believe in God, or not? This God? The God of the Bible? The God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Do you believe in him? The one who has commissioned his magnificent beloved Son to unrelieved, unmitigated judgment on Golgotha’s cross that you might be pardoned? If you believe in him, you will be saved forever. He comes to you in love, offering his life for your sins. God is not dead. God will never be dead. None of us can avoid death but God lives for ever and ever. This God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, the God who put Jesus in the hands of the cruelest men and did nothing to spare him, this God is prepared to look on his Son and pardon you your sins; you can have life in yourself. This is the choice that everyone has to make: Do you believe in Jesus, or not? “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).
THE CONDEMNATION CAME ON THOSE WHO HATED HIM.
The Lord Jesus then asks them a question. Let me ask you this same question; “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” Will he shrug? Will he say, “I don’t judge. No. Not me”? “Everyone has the right to do whatever they want to do?” Many say that and so a spirit of cruelty and pain abounds and there are less restraints on how we behave than ever. What would you do if men had butchered your dearly beloved only child? Would you say, “I would want to see justice done”? I hope you’d say that. I hope you wouldn’t go after the men with a knife. I hope you would look to the powers that be as servants of God for justice. Most of you would say that that is what you would do, and you feel that because you are made in the image of God and he has given you a conscience and it tells you that murdering someone else for financial gain is wicked, and that it merits punishment. You believe that because God still has some access to you. That is the right, God-honouring response. Are you more loving than Jesus? No. So what did the loving Man say of his Father’s response to those who killed his Son? “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Jesus said that sadly no doubt, but he said it approvingly and justly and solemnly. He was saying to them that the wages of sin is death, that the soul that sinneth shall surely die. He was warning us of the judgment that lies before us all, that we are living in a moral universe and that what a man sows that he also reaps. The Creator who blesses us richly with vineyards also expects us to keep the terms of the agreement of living and moving and having our being in him. We answer to our God.
The Jews who heard Jesus tell this parable knew exactly what he was saying, that they had forfeited the right to being his chosen people. That had all come to an end, and now other Gentiles nations were going to get the vineyard. The old covenant was ending with the murder of the Messiah by the chief priests and elders of Israel. Now God would turn to the Romans and Greeks, to Africa and Europe and Asia. “May this never be” (v.16) they cried. “May we never kill the Messiah. May we never know judgment,” they pleaded. You will! We are told that Jesus looked directly at them utterly unintimidated by their hostility to his parable and so very, very earnest, and he appealed to the Bible. He quoted the Scriptures once again, just as I have been quoting this Scripture to you all today. Doesn’t that awaken you? What do you think about this parable? You say you don’t think about i. Well, you should think about the words of the greatest person this world has ever seen, the one man who rose from the dead never to die again. Jesus quoted to them from Psalm 118. The scene is a builders’ yard and in it there was an awkward-shaped stone, utterly unique and they discarded it as useless, then one day they were needing a capstone on a fine building and they saw that this was the perfect fit. Christ, who never fits into any category of men, different from us all, loving and yet so righteous and just, merciful and yet so full of warnings of hell, tender and yet he can order storms about, and demons and even death. He is the Rock of Ages, the capstone, and if you find him a stumbling block and he trips you up and you are always trying to avoid him and you grumble about him, then your life is destined to be broken in pieces, and if his full weight of justice falls on you then you will be crushed. That is how Jesus ends.
Now preachers are supposed to end their sermons with a happy little story so that everyone goes home happy. We went to the Globe Theatre last year and stood in the open air and watched a play about the life of Ann Boleyn, a fine Christian queen, but you know how her life ended? Her husband Henry VIII had her head cut off. But you can’t entertain people with a story that ends with such monstrous cruelty, and so at the end all the cast lined up and sang and danced and fooled around so that everyone could go home cheered by their routine. I can’t do that, because I must end as Jesus ends this parable with the notes of judgment, but I can tell you that Christ once came and he went to his death so lovingly that we might not perish but have everlasting life when we entrust ourselves to him and his mercy. He also sent his servants to preach to these same people who had killed him at the feast of Pentecost and he told them to repent and receive the Holy Spirit and they would know the forgiveness of sins. He has sent me to tell you this parable today for this one end that you confess how badly you have treated Jesus Christ, but you bless God that though your sins crucified him he hears your plea for mercy and will forgive you. Amazing grace to sinners who repent for killing the Son of God.
29th April 2012 GEOFF THOMAS