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.”

Joyful Treasure: Thoughts on Matthew 13:44

When I was a teenager, our family hosted a Saturday night Bible study for the youth. Since my dad was a pastor, we had dozens of Bibles so if anyone forgot to bring theirs, they simply borrowed one of ours. I remember that on one Saturday night, one teen found $20 in a Bible. He informed my dad of his discovery and got up to hand it back to him. He told him to keep it. He explained that he purposefully put the $20 in the Bible a few weeks prior as an object lessons. “There’s treasure in the Scriptures; greater treasures than a measly $20.” You probably know what happened next. Everyone with a borrowed Bible began thumbing through it looking for $20. Perhaps they missed the point.

Jesus told a parable as well. An object lesson of sorts. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field,” (Matthew 13:44, ESV). The kingdom of heaven, God’s kingdom (his domain, his realm, his rule) is like a treasure hidden. It is of great worth. It’s more valuable than we know.

If you’ve ever seen the Marvel’s movie The Black Panther, you know that the nation of Wakanda looks like a poor African kingdom, but in reality it is technology and monetarily wealthy. It has weapons and technology no other nation in the world has. Yet it is purposefully hidden in East Africa using the technology that comes with harnessing Vibranium. I am not a fan of comparing reality with comic books, but I want to make the points that

  1. God’s Kingdom has more riches, more wonders, than we may notice at first and
  2. Those riches and wonders are purposefully hidden and must be found.

Just as Wakanda and just as my dad placing the $20 in the Bible were purposefully hidden, so the kingdom of God is hidden as well. This is why Jesus told parables. “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand,” (Matthew 13:13, ESV). Mark expresses it even more emphatically, “And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven,”‘” (4:11-12, ESV).

However, once someone sees–truly sees–the treasure that is God’s kingdom, nothing can keep him from having it. In the parable, the man covers the treasure up and runs to sell everything in order to buy the field. Some people get hung up on his covering and buying without informing the owner. Don’t. Parables have a point. They are not to answer every question that may arise. Not everything has a specific meaning in parables. The main focus is on how great the treasure of the field is, and it should be on that which we concentrate.

The treasure was so great that the man sold everything! He abandoned everything he knew and had to gain the treasure in the field, and he did it with pleasure. Like those teenagers who began to flip through their Bibles joyfully expecting a surprise, this man joyfully bought a field. He was willing to pay any price because he knew that nothing he owned could compare to what he found. Even if everyone else thought he was insane to sell everything, he knew the truth. Do we see heaven like that man saw the treasure?

I wonder if many of us simply see some shiny metal, maybe a sparkle here and there and do not see the treasure that is heaven. I wonder if we have not inspected the treasure to see how valuable it truly is. I say that because of how casually many Christians treat the kingdom.

I watch Survivor and see men and women cast away for 39 days. They suffer hunger, pain, sleep-depravation, loneliness, betrayal, and more to win $1,000,000 and often to prove something to themselves or others. They cry, they get angry, they laugh at times, they push themselves to the very limit, always talking about coming home with $1,000,000 and self-respect. Not everyone wants to be on Survivor, but watching that show can give us an idea of what the man in the parable felt. If someone came to you and simply told you that you could have $1,000,000 if you sold your house and all your possessions, would you be willing to do so? The kingdom of heaven is much greater than that, and in reality, most of us will never have to sell a thing. Instead, we must see it for what it is: priceless–invaluable, and then be willing to give all (even if we are never called upon to do so). I hope this year, as I grow in my Christian walk, I see God’s kingdom ever more valuable and may the joy that brings to my soul be such that I can easily part with whatever called upon to do. I hope the same for you.