Summary: A short talk asking an important question. This parable has often been used to say that God's promises to Israel have all been transferred away from Israel and given to the church. Is this what Jesus was saying? Who was he talking to?
When Stevie Wonder appeared on Top of the Pops and sang, “I just called to say I love you” – who was he singing to? Was it the studio audience? Was it the wider TV audience? Or was it the person on the other end of the phone? I’m almost certain it was the latter.
Does it matter? Yes it does. If members of the TV audience or the studio audience heard the song and thought, “Wow. Did you hear that? Stevie Wonder loves me” – would they be right or not?
In our Bible reading who is Jesus talking to? Who is he addressing through this parable? Who was he addressing in the original context of this parable? Does it matter? Yes it does – because this is a parable that often gets used to tell Jewish people that God has finished with them and finished with Israel. The context matters! Just as it does when I’m at my daughter’s Sports Day shouting, “Come on Rebekah!”
In that example I am shouting encouragement to my daughter. I’m not shouting for any other Rebecca!
Our understanding of the context for this parable may affect how we view and how we pray for Jewish people; and how we view and pray for Israel.
The context of this parable is confirmed in Matthew 21: 23 and Matthew 21:45 – both before and after the paragraph we’ve just read. Indeed it could be argued I should have asked for a longer portion of scripture to be read; but I didn’t because there is a principle I would like us to inhabit: I want you to ask questions about a Bible text. Investigate it. What comes before it and what comes after it? What does the rest of the Bible have to say about this subject? Doing this helps us to avoid going up the wrong street.
Matthew 21:23: “While [Jesus] was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him”.
Matthew 21:45: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables they knew he was talking about them”; and this is really important because so often the Christian church has used this parable to say that God was taking the Land and the promises of scripture away from Israel and the Jewish people and transferring those promises to the church.
In the parable Jesus tells of a landowner who plants a vineyard and rents it out to some farmers (21:33). At harvest time the owner sends his servants to the tenants to collect his share of the fruit but one by one the tenants kill the servants of the owner (21:34-36). Finally the owner sends his son – the rightful heir - to the vineyard. When they see the owner’s son the tenants throw him out and kill him (21:37-39); and so Jesus asks, “When the owner of the vineyard comes what will he do to those tenants?” and they reply, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and will rent the vineyard to other tenants” (21:40-41).
Next is the verse that has been used and abused – verse 43. Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit”; and so often large sections of the church has said, “From this point God finished with Israel and he gave the Kingdom to us – the church – to produce its fruit.”
I want to ask a question and make an observation. Who was Stevie Wonder referring to when he sang, “I just called to say I love you”? Who was Jesus talking to when he said, “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit”? The chief priests and elders (21:23) came to Jesus. In response to their questions he spoke in parables. God was taking authority and the Kingdom away from them because they had abused the prophets and now they were about to abuse and reject Jesus. For a full explanation I recommend a book by one of my predecessors Rob Richards.
The book is called, “Has God finished with Israel?” The book is not a defence of the modern state of Israel but it is a faithful, Biblical teaching regarding the people of Israel; and the fact that we the church have been added to or grafted in to God’s kingdom people. We have not replaced Israel.
Maybe you are left with questions and I’ll be happy to talk with you in a few minutes; but I do recommend Rob Richards’ book; and I hope that you will adopt this principle to reading the Bible: What was the context? Who is being addressed? What comes before and what comes after? What must I now do?
Let’s pray together.