Summary: People refuse to accept God’s authority. We don’t want to be tenants in God’s Vineyard. We want to be the owners.
"Stick and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!" You’ve no doubt heard that little rhyme, and you’ve probably even used it at times. When I was growing up it was the standard playground retort to an insult. But of course we all know that those words were simply a bluff. They had as much value as the rhyme itself. Words have a capacity to hurt far greater than any sticks or stones. I’m sure, looking around the room today, that there are people here who are still bearing the scars of things people have said to them in the past; even the long gone past. Not that all words of insult hurt as much as each other. Words that come out as a slip of the tongue are not nearly as painful as those that are premeditated, that are aimed at hurting us. And the pain is magnified if they come from someone close to us; from a child, or a brother or sister or parent.
But that sort of insult pales into insignificance when compared to the insult that Jesus is telling us about in Luke 20. If you like, this is the ultimate insult, because it’s delivered not against a fellow human being, but against the loving, the long-suffering heart of God himself. This is the last parable in Luke’s gospel and perhaps the last that Jesus ever told. In fact there’s some argument about whether this is a parable at all. Rather it’s more of an allegory where, unlike the other parables, the meaning is barely hidden in details of the story itself. Certainly, the scribes and the chief priests, at the end of the parable, have no trouble working out what it means. So let’s look at it to see what Jesus has to teach us by it.
1. The Human Condition
You may remember from last week that Jesus told the parable of the 10 pounds just as he was about to enter Jerusalem. Well, now he’s entered the city with quite a fanfare, and the first thing he’s done is to drive out the money changers and merchants from the temple precincts. This of course doesn’t make the Pharisees and Chief Priests very happy, so they challenge him on where he gets the authority for an act like that. His response is to turn the tables back on them. He asks them how they understood John’s baptism - was it from heaven or was it of human origin. In other words, where did John’s authority come from? Well, that puts them in a bit of a spin, and while they’re fumbling for an answer, he tells them this story.
He begins by saying: "A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time." Now for Jesus’ listeners this would have rung loud bells. The vineyard was a well-known OT metaphor for the Nation of Israel. In Is 5, God tells them how he planted a vineyard but when he came to harvest it, all he could find was bad fruit. It was such a famous parable of the failure of Israel that Jesus’ hearers couldn’t have helped but think of it as they listened to this parable. And as the parable progresses it becomes more and more clear that he’s pointing the finger of criticism at them. Elsewhere he accuses them of being no better than their forefathers who killed the prophets (Lk 11:47-49) and here he goes further in predicting that they’ll even kill God’s only son.
At first the story only indicates their greed and their impudence towards the owner. But as the story progresses we find the true motivation behind this incredible act of rebellion. v14: "But when the tenants saw the son, they discussed it among themselves and said, ’This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.’" The true motivation behind their action is this: although they’ve been placed in the vineyard as tenants, they don’t want to acknowledge the true owner of the vineyard. They want to be the owners themselves.
Now, the danger when we read a parable like this is to see what Jesus is saying in the original context, that is, that the Jewish leaders have rejected God’s rule over them, and are about to reject God’s Son as well; and to leave it there. We think what terrible people these hypocritical chief priests and scribes were, and we think that’s all there is to learn from it. But that’s to miss the sting in the tale.
Because what Jesus is describing here is the condition of every fallen human being. The vineyard is a picture not just of Israel, but of the whole world. All of us have been put on this earth as tenants in God’s vineyard. And what’s our response? We don’t want to be tenants, paying rent. We want to be the owners. Adam and Eve were placed in the garden in the first place and given the task of tending it and what happened? They decided it would be good to be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil. And human beings have been doing the same thing ever since. The people of Israel from the moment God liberated them from Egypt, kept on turning away from the true worship of God to idols, until, eventually, God expelled them from the promised land and sent them into exile. The Kings of Israel present a long line of failure after failure to do what was right, with the odd exception. And it’s continued right through to our own day. A hundred years ago, humanist philosophers were predicting a golden age, where God would be irrelevant, when poverty, disease, war, would all be done away with. Human advances in science and medicine and sociology would solve all our problems for us. Well, 100 years later we look around our world and see incurable diseases still rife, wars happening with an increasing regularity, relationships breaking down at an alarming rate and we wonder how could things have got so bad? What’s gone wrong in God’s vineyard?