The Parable of the Tenants
Jesus was teaching in the Temple precincts. Luke's Gospel places the Parable of the Tenants after a confrontation between Jesus and the chief priests, scribes and elders about Jesus' authority for his ministry. That had concluded by Jesus asking them if John the Baptist's ministry was from heaven or just his own. They had replied 'We dinnae ken' and Jesus had ended the conversation by saying 'Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things'. Verse 9 says He went on to tell the people this parable. Verse 19 indicates that the chief priests, scribes and elders stayed around to listen. The meaning of the parable of the tenants is hardly obscure. The main characters are the owner of the vineyard, the tenant farmers, the owner's agents, the owner's own son and heir, and a new succession of tenants.
A repeating theme in some of Jesus' parables is the absentee landlord. It was there in the parable of the talents and here it is again. Not only is the owner absent but he is so for a long time. What does Jesus mean by this? It must be the absence of God. It is known that for more than two centuries before Jesus appeared, there had been no significant prophets in Israel. The Holy Land had been colonised by a succession of foreign powers. The Romans were the latest. The temple leaders in Jerusalem had worked out an arrangement with the Romans like Vichy France during the 2nd Word War. They collaborated with the colonising power. The people were not free. Oppressed, they longed for their hoped for Messiah. Most had lost faith. If they prayed at all, their prayers were not answered. They were discouraged and disenchanted with God. John the Baptist shook things up with his revivalist ministry. His was a call to repentance from all the backsliding and apostasy that had became prevalent among the people of God.
That is something many people feel today. God is so far out of their reckoning in daily life except for taking his name in vain 'OMG' that God is an irrelevance and a nonentity in society generally. Politicians do not invoke the Name and help of God nor do they offer a place to Christianity in their overall understanding and interpretation of life. Christianity is struggling. Churches in Britain are losing position, strength and influence. State schools are almost secular in Scotland. Christian chaplaincy is only welcome if diluted. There is not however a collective crying to God for help; there is no expectation of quick revival or of the appearance of a messiah like figure. Some devout evangelical Christians think that the Lord Himself will return in these circumstances. In the politics of the land there is a general sense is of wanting to be free of God and of Christianity. The Churches are seen to be part of the national establishment which needs to be uprooted and replaced with something different. It is not the whole of Christianity that is longed for but only a political application of Christianity in a type of socialist society without the excesses of capitalism, wealth and materialism, in other words, a poorer but less unequal society with centralised control typified by the election of Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party reflecting the desire for a kind of saviour figure to overturn the status quo and usher in this new type of kingdom.
What is common with the times of Jesus is a lack of direction and purpose in life, chaotic licence in personal lifestyles and values, large amounts of anxiety, stress and illness amid general prosperity and affluence compared with the majority of the people of the earth. Terrible crimes are committed. There is extreme wealth and a lot of financial hardship. There is guilt and uneasiness among many. There's lots of manufactured entertainment but not a lot of happiness. Palestine in Jesus' time was febrile in atmosphere. That explains why so many people came out to listen to Jesus. His words went viral in that context – that is by repetition, word of mouth and gossip. Here he was in the Temple in Jerusalem telling this brilliant parable in the hearing of his known enemies.
The vineyard is unmistakeably Israel. Isaiah 5:7 reads 'The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress'. Immediately – everyone knew what Jesus was talking about. The owner of the vineyard is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who has entrusted the chosen people to the leadership tenancy of the priests, scribes and elders. The owner does not return at harvest time. He sends an agent to pick up his share of the produce which is the Godly, righteous and just society. The agent is beaten and sent packing without so much as a penny. This happens several times representing in the parable the prophets of Israel in previous centuries. Isaiah according to tradition was sawn in half. Jeremiah was put in an underground prison for a time and became a refugee in Egypt. Ezekiel was martyred as were Micah and Amos. Amaziah the priest of Bethel ordered Amos not to prophesy and go back home. His son was responsible for Amos' death.
Throughout Israel's history there was conflict and confrontation between the established cult and the prophetic voice. First it was with the monarchy and later with the temple. Nathan the prophet denounced King David. Elijah denounced Queen Jezebel. The growth of the synagogue movement of local pious Jews was set against the centralised Temple cult with its power and money bought of the necessity to offer sacrifices. Protestant Christianity was also a grass roots reaction against the centralised power of Rome in the middle ages. Today numbers of independent evangelical churches have increased as alternatives to established churches.
The owner is patient, forgiving and generous. This is a characteristic of God throughout the Old Testament – in the Psalms and Joel – for example. Psalms 145:8 'The LORD is gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in loving kindness'. Joel 2:13 'And rend your heart and not your garments'...Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in loving kindness And relenting of evil'. The owner decides to send his son thinking that he will be respected. Does this suggest naivety? The text says perhaps. It is evidence of loving concern and ownership and an attempt to re-establish good relationships with the tenant farmers. Why risk his very own son? Magnanimity. Self-giving love. Note that in this parable the sending of the son is not a sacrifice to assuage the anger of the owner of the vineyard. God did not demand that Jesus be crucified as a just punishment for sin. God is not schizophrenic. The son is sent for reconciliation and for justice and righteousness.
In the parable the tenants recognise the son as the owner's heir. But we know that the priests, scribes and elders refused to recognise Jesus as the Son of God. Indeed it was because he claimed to be so that they were sure he was not and they had him disposed of for supposed impersonation and blasphemy. Their blindness seems inexcusable. The people realised that God was with Jesus in a way never seen in Israel. Spiritual blindness is prevalent in humanity. Not everyone's eyes are opened to the presence of God. Many believe and are faithful even though they cannot point to any particular time or event in their personal lives in which God was revealed to them. Lots of churchgoers are like that. Some also are born again into a realisation of the Living God.
The endings of some of Jesus' parables are full of violence. Here when the owner learns about the murder of his son, he exacts justice. The murderers will forfeit their lives. Death for murder was only abandoned in Britain in 1964. Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen, two convicted murderers, were hanged with little ceremony at separate prisons at 8am on 13 August of that year. In America the death penalty for murder still exists in some states. In China, Russia and in Islamic states it is practised today. The violence in Jesus' parables contradicts his own peacefulness. Jesus does not diminish the consequences of actions. He himself suffered terrible violence but he did not return it nor did he ask or expect that His Father in heaven would do so. The violence Jesus refers to is the violence of the world, of the human community.
So the tenant farmers would lose everything. And they did. In 70 AD Jerusalem was ploughed over by the Roman General later Emperor Titus. The new Israel came into being. We are the new tenants of the vineyard. The vineyard is the New Israel - the people of God throughout the world, Christians, followers of and believers in Jesus the Son of God. Are we good tenants? Do we produce a good harvest for the Lord? Does our part of the vineyard look neglected full of weeds waist high? Is that a parable for our spiritual lives and living?
The people got the message of this parable and they protested that what Jesus said could surely never happen. Verse 17 says Jesus eyeballed them and he quoted Psalm 118:22 'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone'. The unredeemed person seeks revenge on any slight or insult or exposure. And so verse 19 tells us that the chief priests, scribes and elders immediately determined to arrest Jesus and have him silenced and put out of the way because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. Their reaction confirmed their own spiritual state, they lived far from God and his purposes. They were concerned about their own positions, prestige, income and political power. And they got their way but that just opened up the process for the establishment of the New Israel. No-one can defeat the purpose of God as revealed in Jesus. No-one should want to. But many do. We live in difficult times in this once Christianised land. It was never perfect, far from it but there was an acknowledgement of the place of God which is no longer there. The tenants of our time have nationalised the vineyard and have no need of its former owner. But there is a faithful remnant. There are many who love worship and serve God in Jesus Christ. We are privileged to be among them. May we continue to be as good tenants for his sake.