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Luke 20:9-19 – A Vineyard’s Murderous Tenants

Summary

While teaching in the Jerusalem temple and frustrating his opponents' attempts to entrap him, Jesus tells a parable that depicts him as God's unique emissary to Israel and characterizes the Jewish leadership as rebellious against God.

Analysis

From Luke 20:19 it is clear that Jesus means this parable as an indictment of the scribes and chief priests. His telling of the parable is one of many scenes in a longer series of stories set in the temple, in which he frustrates and accuses various members of Jerusalem's religious leadership (20:1-21:4). Given its place within the flow of the Gospel narrative, the parable offers an interpretation of Jesus' presence in Jerusalem and the opposition there that will bring about his cruel death.

The vineyard represents Israel or, as representative of all Israel, Jerusalem. It is likely that Jesus composes the parable to recall another story about a vineyard, Isaiah 5:1-7. Isaiah's song of the vineyard describes an unproductive vineyard that will be destroyed. In Jesus' parable, however, the vineyard produces as it should. The problem is the keepers of the vineyard, the tenant farmers who will not give the vineyard's owner his deserved share. These tenants, according to Luke 20:19, represent the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem. The parable implies that they are warring against God, refusing to return what is due to God. The "beloved son" of the parable represents Jesus, who is also called "beloved" in Luke 3:22. The parable depicts Jesus as one of a long line of people who have come to call Israel's caretakers to fulfill their obligations to God, the vineyard's owner. But, like those who come before him, the beloved son is rejected. Even more, he is killed in an attempt to keep the owner away forever.

Jesus announces that the owner of the vineyard will annihilate the tenants and give the vineyard to others. For Luke's earliest readers, this may have recalled the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. Jesus never defines who are the "others" who will receive the vineyard, but there is obviously no reason to assume that he means Gentiles will take the place of Jews as God's people. The parable is against members of Israel's leadership (the tenants), not Israel as a whole (the vineyard).

Jesus' final words, in Luke 20:17-18, do not relate smoothly to the story of the parable. In referring to Psalm 118:22, he claims that something rejected by the experts will in fact come to play a necessary role. Jesus implies that through the resurrection God will overturn Jesus' rejection. The death of the son will not be the end of the Gospel's story.

Luke 20:9-19

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

9 He began to tell the people this parable: ‘A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. 10When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. 12And he sent yet a third; this one also they wounded and threw out. 13Then the owner of the vineyard said, “What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” 14But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, “This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.” 15So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.’ When they heard this, they said, ‘Heaven forbid!’ 17But he looked at them and said, ‘What then does this text mean:
“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone”?*
18Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ 19When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.

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10 February 2011

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