When Jesus told the story of the vineyard tenants (in Luke 21:9-16), “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.” They recognised the import of the story without difficulty because the vineyard symbolised Israel so frequently in the Old Testament. The identification was explicit: “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel.…” (Isaiah 5:1-7).
And the people too, listened with growing alarm as Jesus described the rebellious tenants conniving against their master. They heard the stark question “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” and the answer, “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” “And when the people heard this, they said, ‘God forbid!’”
That is to say, the import of Jesus’s denunciation was too much to bear. It was a picture of rebellion and its consequences. And it wasn’t easygoing at all.
A man (standing for God in the parable) plants a vineyard and then rents it to tenants.
The Owner expects Fruit (20:10-12)
The tenants usually kept a portion of the harvest, with a fixed percentage going to the owner. But this is the point where something went wrong:
“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.” (20:10-12)
Three words describe an escalating scale of violence: “Beat” is Greek dero, “to beat, whip;” “Treat shamefully” is Greek atimazo, “to dishonor, shame,” perhaps subject to public ridicule (a grievous offence in an honor-shame oriented Semitic society); “Wound” is Greek traumatizo, from which we get our word “traumatize.”
The disciples, at least, would know where this was heading. Jesus had made frequent reference to the long story of Israel: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34)
Jesus sees the current rulers doing the same as their ancestors -killing the prophets who were sent to Israel to correct them and turn their hearts to God as his fruit from his vineyard. So in Jesus’ parable, the tenants represent the unbelieving rulers, while the vineyard is the nation of Israel itself.
The Treatment of the Owner’s Son (20:13-15a)
But in Jesus’ parable this rebelliousness does not only stop at killing the prophets.
“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.” (Luke 20:13-15)
The owner’s son should be offered respect. “Respect” (NIV) or “reverence” (KJV) is the Greek verb entrepo, “have regard for, respect, show deference to a person in recognition of special status.” Instead the son meets death.
The Tenants are Punished (20:15-16)
How will the owner respond? With continued patience? Not at all!
“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!” (Luke 20:15-16)
And here is the crux of the horror to come. Jesus will be handed over to unbelievers and killed and -within a generation- Jerusalem itself will be destroyed by the forces of Rome.
And the listeners respond: “May this never be!” (Luke 20:16). They get the point clear enough, but Jesus dismisses any notion of mercy:
“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 cornerstone.”
Messiah as “Stone” in the Old Testament
There are several Old Testament passages that the Jews identified with the Messiah. Look at Daniel 2:
“While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands…. In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.” (Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45)
Isaiah 28:16 was also interpreted messianically, and quoted in 1 Peter 2:6 and Romans 9:33; 10:11:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;
the one who trusts will never be dismayed.” (Isaiah 28:16)
There are also Messianic references in the Rabbinical literature to the plumb line in the hand of Zerrubabel (Zechariah 4:10) and the stones in Isaiah 8:14, which is particularly germane:
“And he will be a sanctuary;
but for both houses of Israel he will be
a stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare.” (Isaiah 8:14)
The Rejected Stone Becomes the Cornerstone (20:17)
Given this background of understanding of the identification of the Messiah with the Stone, Jesus cites Psalm 118:22 in an unexpected application: “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”?’ “ (Luke 20:17)
“Builders” is a participle of the normal Greek verb oikodomeo, “build, construct a building.” It is also used in a spiritual sense for building up the Christian church (Matthew 16:18; Romans 15:20; 1 Peter 2:5). Here it refers to the builders of Judaism, the leaders who have become his enemies. The word “rejected” is apodokimazo, “reject (after scrutiny), declare useless.” The rulers didn’t just make a quick judgment error on the spur of the moment. This word indicates that they had a chance to examine the “stone” carefully and then reject it after reflection.
The consequence of such rebellion is stark: those who reject the stone for use in the building will themselves be rejected; but the stone itself will become the foundation stone of something entirely and unexpectedly new.
But here’s the thing: If we place ourselves against him, we declare ourselves to be his enemies. If we allow ourselves to stumble over Christ’s will, then we call upon ourselves the terrifying punishment of being crushed by the Stone.
Just this morning I was reading Psalm 107, and the picture painted there is of “…prisoners suffering in iron chains, because they rebelled against God’s commands and despised the plans of the Most High.” And yet if this is the consequence of rebellion, the psalm also proposes the cure, that “He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains.”
The cross of Christ not only shows us what rebellion against God looks like and what it does; but it also breaks the chains of that rebellion, and offers the freedom of new life and the fruit of obedience for which God still comes seeking.