Stories are explosive. They have the potential to get under our defences and blow things apart. Jesus told a story just a few days before his execution; a highly-charged story that likely contributed to the calls for his arrest:
‘Jesus 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, “God forbid!” 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’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone 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.’ (Luke 20:9-19)
If you were a first century Jew hearing Jesus recount this story, it would have sounded familiar. The Vineyard was a common Old Testament picture for Israel, the people of God (Psalm 80:8-13; Isaiah 5:1-7, 27:2; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 19:10-14; Hosea 10:1). So as soon the story began “a man planted a vineyard…” you’d know what to expect: God is the owner, we are the vineyard.
One story in particular would have leapt to mind. Isaiah 5:1-7 tells of God lovingly crafting His vineyard. He dug its foundations, cleared it of rocks and planted in it the choicest vines. But when He went to gather the grapes, He found only wild grapes – bitter, and inedible. The meaning of the story is clear. God lovingly cared for His people, but when He looked at them, expecting to see righteousness, He saw only bloodshed and injustice.
So when Jesus started his parable, people would have assumed that they knew where it was going. God wanted His people to love righteousness and act justly, and if they weren’t bearing good fruit, He would punish them.
But Jesus changes the details of the story. Instead of the owner coming to the vineyard personally, he sends three servants, each of whom gets treated worse than the one before; beaten, shamed, wounded. The cumulative message of multiple servants leaves the vineyard tenants with no excuse; they’ve had three warnings. Jesus doesn’t elaborate who the servants are in the story, but presumably he means the likes of Isaiah and the Old Testament prophets who were repeatedly rejected or ignored.
The twist in Jesus’ story comes when the vineyard owner decides to send his own son to confront the tenants. Rather than respecting the son, the tenants brutally evict and kill him. Not only is this a shocking climax to the story, but it demonstrates an amazing level of awareness on the part of Jesus, who by this point must have known that the religious leaders were plotting against him (v19).
Through this parable, Jesus reveals details about his identity, his fate, and the future.
He plays the role of the son – the beloved and prized messenger with the most intimate connection to the vineyard owner; a bold claim, which formed the basis of charges against him at his trial (Matt 26:63). His fate would be death – he was under no illusions – he knew what was being plotted against him. His path would not be the one his followers had marked out for him; leading an uprising and taking the throne.
But perhaps the most controversial element of the story is the fate of the vineyard. In Isaiah 5:5-6 the fate of the vineyard is destruction, but here Jesus promises not that the vineyard would be wiped out, but that there would be a change of ownership. Those to whom the vineyard had been entrusted would be punished, and new tenants would be welcomed in.
This parable, whilst shocking to the original hearers, is great news for us. Not only does it demonstrate God’s unwavering commitment to His vineyard – His determination to rescue it rather than wipe it out – but it signifies our inclusion in the people of God. No longer, says Jesus, would inclusion be based on blood lineage and relationship to Abraham, it would be open to all. Jesus is building a new community, built around himself; the precious cornerstone.
Questions for Reflection
- Read Isaiah 5:1-7. God is shown to be caring in the way He cultivates and cares for the vineyard. When the tenants reject Him, God doesn’t tear up the vineyard, but He promises to restore it, under new management. What does this tell us about the character of God and His attitude towards His creation? How does that encourage you?
- The tenants in Jesus’ parable had rejected the repeated ways in which God had tried to communicate with them. Are there things that God is saying to you, which you know you are ignoring? What might He be asking you to do?
Why not use the following to help you to pray today:
Thank you God that you care deeply about your creation and about mankind. Thank you for your loving provision, and the way in which you reach out to us. Thank you that you demonstrated your love for us, by not abandoning us to our destructive ways, but by sending your own Son to be rejected and put to death on our behalf. And thank you that you are committed to restoring your creation, beginning by creating a community around the person of Christ. Help me to be a good steward of all that you have given me, and may my life bear fruit that is pleasing to you. Amen.
If you find yourself with some extra time today why not read the following article, ‘Christ Alone, Cornerstone’ by Liam Thatcher.
Image: Grapevine, used under CC