Who Owns the Vineyard?
The beauty of Jesus’ parables is that they still work today. We might have some trouble with the sheep-based or agricultural-based stories. Our methods have changed since the first century, but not enough that we miss the point Jesus was trying to make. His parables are about real people doing real-life things, and we get them. We can put aside the cultural differences, get to the heart of the story, and let Jesus take us right to the lesson he wanted to get across.
Have you ever tried to retell one of Jesus’ parables with a modern setting? The Parable of the Wicked Tenants seems like a good one for that approach. I’m not going to do that here, but it’s an exercise you might want to try. The parable of the Prodigal Son also works well.
Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He is spending his days in the temple teaching anyone who will listen. The people love what they hear. The religious leaders do not. They know they will have to silence him or risk losing everything—their position, their fortune, their sumptuous life style—all that sets them apart from the common people and makes their lives worth living. They know the people resent them, and it won’t take much to turn them to Jesus’ leadership.
It is a time of political unrest. The Zealots are all but in open rebellion against Rome. If the religious leaders can’t keep peace there will be bloodshed, and some of it might be theirs. The Romans won’t stand for weak leadership.
Jesus knows all this, so he tells a story of a wealthy man who entrusts his vineyard to tenants before he takes a long journey.
In due time he wants to receive fruit from his vineyard. He sends a servant to collect what he is owed. The tenants assume if they send the servant away empty-handed, they will not have to pay. They beat him and throw him out. This happens twice more. Finally, the owner sends his son, sure the tenants will respect him, realize they can’t escape paying, and the matter will be settled. Instead, the tenants kill the son, sure that this will end the matter and they will be left in full possession of the vineyard.
Jesus asks: “What will the owner do?”
We know what he won’t do. He won’t let the tenants get away with thievery and murder. He will punish the wicked tenants and put others in charge.
The religious leaders know Jesus is casting them as the wicked tenants. In Jesus’ eyes, they had failed to lead the people to God, failed to be the overseers who would care properly for God’s vineyard. Instead, they put their own interests first, and destroyed anyone God sent to correct the situation. Jesus knew he would be the one to die. As long as he continued to hold the leaders responsible for their actions, he could not escape death. On the other hand, as long as the crowds gathered around Jesus the leaders couldn’t do anything to him.
The message for us is the same as it was for first century Judah. God is not limited to the leadership status quo. God does not have to keep wicked or incompetent people in charge of God’s people. At any time God can desert the church as it stands and raise up a new entity to be God’s representative on earth. That’s what happened in the first century. The religious leaders triumphed for a time, but they were eventually replaced by the apostles and the Christian church. Over the centuries the procedure has been the same. Leadership ceases to function as God’s representatives and is replaced. We must make sure it doesn’t happen to us.