The Parable of the Tenants

Way back in Isaiah, God sang a song for the people of Israel and Judah. What at first sounded as a love song, quickly turned unpleasant. I’ll let you read it for yourselves. It’s a fairly short song.

Let me sing for my beloved
    my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.

He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
    and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
    but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
    and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.

What more was there to do for my vineyard,
    that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
    why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
    and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
    and it shall be trampled down.

I will make it a waste;
    it shall not be pruned or hoed,
    and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
    that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
    but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
    but behold, an outcry! (Isaiah 5:1-7, ESV)

According to this song, Israel and Judah are the vineyard, God is the planter. Because of Israel and Judah’s evil, God allowed judgment to befall his vineyard. This was the judgment that came with Assyria taking away Israel and Babylon eventually taking away Judah. However, Judah eventually returned to the land.

Now, let’s skip ahead a few hundred years to the time Jesus walked on earth. Rather than sing a song, Jesus told a parable, but much of the language is the same.

And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
 this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:1-11, ESV)

It is not difficult to see the similarities in the song and parable. Each has a man planting a vineyard. Each has a man putting up a fence/hedge around it. Each has a man building a watchtower. Each has a winepress/wine vat. But this is where the similarities end. There is one stark difference though that is the focus of the parable. In the song, the vineyard grows wild grapes rather than what was planted. In other words, the people of Israel and Judah acted wickedly. In the parable, there is no issue with the vineyard itself. It was not the common people who are acting wickedly. Instead it was the tenants of the vineyard–the leaders of the people.

In the song, God seeks justice but finds bloodshed. He seeks righteousness but finds only an outcry (of unrighteousness). That’s how the average Israelite acted. In the parable, we find the same thing, but not with the people at large, but instead with the leaders. The vineyard owner (God) sent servants (prophets) to the tenants (leaders), but the tenants beat some and killed others (bloodshed rather than justice). No one was going to take the vineyard away from them! This vineyard was their baby. They had led for all these years. They had made it what it was. They tilled the ground. They planted the crop. They fertilized. Why should they not get the fruit? What they forgot was their place in the grand scheme of things. They were the tenants, not the landowner. They were stewards, not masters. In reality, they had not forgotten this fact; they simply disregarded it.

The landowner finally sent his son. The son had the same claim, the same authority, and the same mind as his father. When the tenants saw the son coming (from the very watchtower that the landowner built??) they devised a plan to kill the son and keep the vineyard. They pulled off their scheme and thought they were victorious. However, this was the last straw. The vineyard owner would come and destroy the tenants. In the song, the vineyard was ransacked, but in the parable the vineyard was left in place. This was the fault of the tenants, not the vineyard. What they craved–so much that they killed the son for it–was taken from them.

Of course, this is all about Jesus! The leaders of Judea wanted the God’s people all for themselves. If the people followed Jesus, they’d cease to follow them. They’d lose all they had worked so hard to gain. Mark pointed this out in his account of Jesus’ trial (which obviously led to his death): “For [Pilate] perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up,” (15:10, ESV, italics mine). In the end, the Jewish leaders had Jesus killed, and cast him outside Jerusalem (cf. Heb 13:12), but their destruction was then assured. By the turn of the centuries the Pharisees had been displaced by rabbis and the Sadducees ceased to exist altogether, having lost all power when the temple was destroyed.

God’s vineyard was given to another. One could argue whether Jesus meant the Romans empire or Gentile Christians. I would venture the latter. Paul wrote to the Romans, using a different metaphor (an olive tree which also has previous imagery representing God’s people; cf. Jer. 11:16). He informed the Christians that God had grafted the Gentiles into the olive tree in order to bring jealousy to those who were cut off (Jewish people), but would one day he would graft them back in. Though a different metaphor, I think it is appropriate to use in understanding that the vineyard–God’s people–continued to be God’s people, but in a different manner. Since Jesus, the chief cornerstone, was rejected by the tenants, all who did not reject were allowed into the vineyard. Instead, however, of being predominately Jewish, it became predominately Gentile. “This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”