1 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. 2 When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this Scripture: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” 12 And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.
One of my favorite novels is Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. There is a very interesting scene in it in which a preacher, Monroe, attempts to win a man he considers to be a heathen, Esco, to faith in Christ.
So Monroe had gone visiting, Ada at his side. They’d sat together in the parlor, Esco humped forward as Monroe tried to engage him in a discussion of faith. But Esco gave up little of himself and his beliefs. Monroe found no evidence of religion other than a worship of animals and trees and rocks and weather. Esco was some old relic Celt was what Monroe concluded; what few thoughts Esco might have would more than likely be in Gaelic.
Seizing such a unique opportunity, Monroe attempted to explain the high points of true religion. When they got to the holy trinity Esco had perked up and said, Three into one. Like a turkey foot.
Then in awhile, convinced that Esco had indeed not yet got report of his culture’s central narrative, Monroe told the story of Christ from divine birth to bloody crucifixion. He included all the famous details and, while keeping it simple, he summoned all the eloquence he could. When he’d finished, he sat back waiting for a reaction.
Esco said, And you say this took place some time ago?
Monroe said, Two thousand years, if you consider that some time ago.
—Oh, I’d call that a stretch all right, Esco said. He looked at his hands where they hung from the wrists. He flexed the fingers and looked at them critically as if trying the fittings of a new implement. He thought on the story awhile and then said, And what this fellow come down for was to save us?
—Yes, Monroe said.
—From our own bad natures and the like?
—And they still done him like they did? Spiked him up and knifed him and all?
—Yes indeed, Monroe said.
—But you say this story’s been passed around some hundred-score years? Esco said.
—So to say, a long time.
—A very long time.
Esco grinned as if he had solved a puzzle and stood up and slapped Monroe on the shoulder and said, Well, about all we can do is hope it ain’t so.
Frasier goes on to say that Esco was a Baptist all along and was just pretending to be ignorant in order to have some fun with the preacher and his obvious assumption that Esco was ignorant! Even so, Esco’s final response might accurately be viewed as the hidden hope of many people living today: “Well, about all we can do is hope it ain’t so.”
The story that the Bible tells us is a story that many hope is not true for it is a story that threatens our idol of radical autonomy, of isolated self-determination, of ego, of pride, and of greed. Nonetheless, the story the Bible tells is the story of the world and is true whether we “hope it ain’t so” or not!
In our text, Jesus tells the story of the world by telling a story about a vineyard. I hasten to add that, in context, the story Jesus tells is clearly aimed at the religious elites with whom He has just clashed. It is, in the narrow sense that Jesus says it here, a story about how religious powerbrokers end up shutting God out of their lives and “ministries.” Yet, it is not inappropriate to apply this story to the world at large, for in it we find the broad strokes of the entire story of scripture. That is what we will do here. We will see in this story the story not only of the few who rejected Jesus at a particular time, but of the world’s rejection of Christ. The world at large rejected Jesus just as these religious leaders did. The story of the vineyard is therefore not only a story about priests and the temple. It is also a story about the world.
Chapter 1: God gives us stewardship over what is good and what will bless us and honor Him.
The story of the world begins like many stories: happily. God gives the good earth to man to keep and tend.
1 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.
The foundational theological components of the beginning of the story Jesus tells are clear to see.
- God created the earth.
- God made the earth sustainable and good.
- God made us and gave us the earth for us to tend and steward.
All of this is good. God has been good to us! Think of the many blessings of your life. Think of each and every breath you take. Think of the fact that you woke up this morning. Even now, on this side of the fall of man, we see the goodness of God evident in countless ways.
It is interesting to note that the predominant adjective in Genesis 1 is the word “good.”
4 And God saw that the light was good.
10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.
21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them…
25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them…
31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
Chapter 1: “good, good, good, good, good, good, good!” Consider the blessings of God! The story starts with “good!” and we still see the “good!” all around us today, if we will but open our eyes to see it!
Chapter 2: God asks us for our devotion and we resent the intrusion.
Everything should have continued forward with no problems. God blessed man with the earth. As the blessings came from God, and as God created all that is, it was therefore only right that man would offer devotion to His Creator, to the Lord of the vineyard and the Lord of the vineyard keepers. It was also right that God would expect devotion from us. Yet this is not what happens.
2 When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.
The owner of the vineyard does what owners of vineyards do: he sends a servant to receive some of the fruit that their labors in His vineyard had produced. It was his right to do so. He was right to do so! After all, he owned the vineyard, he employed the tenants, and he justly provided for their families. The vineyard tenants should have rejoiced to give to the vineyard owner the offering. It should have been the most natural thing in the world!
Indeed, it should be natural for humanity to offer God praise. Why should we not? God made the world. God made each and every one of us. God owns the vineyard of the world. God has placed us in it. We are privileged to tend it, to be stewards of it. The vineyard provides for us and for our families. We should say nothing but, “Thank you!” We should give God nothing but praise! What do the vineyard tenants do?
3 And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed.
Instead of praise, man resents what he views as God’s intrusion. Why? Because man mistakes his stewardship as ownership. He begins to assume that the vineyard is his. He forgets the owner.
Is this not what humanity does? Is this not what we do? How on earth could we be so arrogant? How on earth could we be so foolish?
Shortly before he was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh quoted William Ernest Henley’s 1875 poem, “Invictus,” as his last words. While the poem is beloved by many, its sentiments communicate man’s belief that he and he alone is the creator and owner of his own life, indeed of his own soul.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Of course, shortly after quoting this poem, McVeigh was put to death, as if to remind him and us all that such sentiments are utterly short-sighted. We are not the captains of our fate. God is! Do not resent God’s just and right call for devotion, for worship, indeed, for love! He has given us all good things! Do not reject His presence in the vineyard that He owns!
Chapter 3: God sends people into our lives to tell us the truth we resent them and reject them.
Jesus continues the story by revealing that the owner of the vineyard sends numerous servants to call on the tenants to do what is right.
4 Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed.
The wicked tenants treat the servants cruelly. Jesus says that some of the servants were beaten and some were killed. One in particular “they struck…on the head and treated him shamefully.” Since Jesus mentioned John the Baptist to the religious leaders at the end of Mark 11, some see in this particular reference an allusion to the beheading of John the Baptist.
Unbelievably, as if piling rebellion upon rebellion, man, in his rejection of the God who made him, not only resents God but resents and rejects the people God sends into their lives to tell them the truth. There are few things that people who are caught in rebellion hate more than one who challenges them with the truth. How often it happens that a person sent by God enters our lives and speaks a word of truth to us. And how often we fabricate some reason to distance ourselves from them because we know that what they say is the painful truth that we most need to hear!
The wicked vineyard tenants had come to believe only in whatever narrative they had crafted amongst themselves to legitimize their collective rejection of the truth that the vineyard owner was attempting to communicating to them. We do the same. Richard John Neuhaus has given a modern example of this.
Rabbi Joseph Gelberman used to be Orthodox and now he is Reformed, of sorts. Once a year in his Interfaith Temple in Manhattan, on Valentine’s Day, he does marriages free. All year round he declares that he is prepared to marry anyone-Jew, Christian, Hindu, gay, straight, believer, nonbeliever. The very genial rabbi says, “I’m not here to please God. I’m here to please God’s people.” As Aaron explained to Moses about the calf.
The tenants were committed to pleasing each other, not the vineyard owner. They loved what they considered their own kingdom, not the true kingdom or the true King. So too, we love our own version of reality, our own narratives, our own kingdoms. We have no room for any other King once we have crowned ourselves. And, since the truth-tellers that God sends into our lives represent the interests of the King we have rejected, we must reject the King again by rejecting these truth-tellers!
Chapter 4: God sent His Son and we killed Him and claimed complete autonomy over our own selves.
Finally, the vineyard owner decides to send his only son.
6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.
Unbelievably, the tenants dare to kill the vineyard owner’s son! Why do they kill the son? They kill the son because the son represents the last link to the vineyard owner. They think that if they can kill the son they can effectively remove the father’s presence from their lives. If they can kill the son then they are, in their own minds, utterly free, completely untethered from any sense of accountability. The death of the son meant for them, they thought, the death of the father!
Clearly Jesus is speaking here of His own coming and crucifixion. Remember that He is telling this story to the men who will have Him killed!
Jesus will be crucified. Why? Because, like the tenants, if we can keep Jesus out of our lives we can keep the presence of the Father likewise out of our lives. Man’s rejection of Jesus is man’s rejection of God. Ultimately, when a man rejects the Son of God he is asserting a claim to ultimate autonomy, ultimate freedom. Christ is the presence of God among us. To human beings who want to do whatever they want to do, who do not want to answer to anybody, Jesus is an unwelcome threat!
Neuhaus, again, provides another great example of man’s insatiable desire for complete autonomy.
Unitarian minister John Pridinoff heads up the Hemlock Society, premier promoter of euthanasia. In its quarterly, Pridonoff reflects on the religious claim that life is a gift from God. “My understanding of a gift,” says Pridonoff, “is that it is given without any strings or attachments. If God has truly ‘given me a gift of life,’ then it is mine to do with as I wish.”
And there you have it. This blatant articulation of a desire for complete moral and spiritual freedom actually represents a more honest expression of what many people feel and think but do not want to state aloud. In fact, there are undoubtedly many within the church today who yearn for and are grasping for such unaccountable freedom while singing hymns to the Christ they profess to love! There are many ways to cast the Son out of the vineyard of our lives, and some of them can be done while simultaneously being great church members, if we are deft enough at maintaining the façade.
Regardless of how it is done, this mad grasp for freedom is actually self-deluding, for freedom outside of God is no real freedom at all. David Bentley Hart put it perceptibly when he wrote:
It is, at the very least, instructive to realize that our freedom might just as well be seen—from certain more antique perspectives—as a kind of slavery: to untutored impulses, to empty caprice, to triviality, to dehumanizing values. And it can do no harm occasionally to ask where a concept of freedom whose horizon is precisely and necessarily nothing—a concept that is, as I have said, nihilist in the most exact sense—ultimately leads.
It is, in truth, an empty freedom that we yearn for, but its siren song is seductive enough to make many reject the Son outright.
Chapter 5: God rightly brings judgment against those who reject His Son.
What, then, does the owner of the vineyard do? In killing the son, do the wicked tenants truly free themselves from the vineyard owner?
9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
No, they do not. Why? Because even if we reject the vineyard owner’s ownership, he still owns the vineyard! He is still the only rightful authority over what he has created and those he has blessed.
Our rejection of God does not render God not-God! He is forever and always God regardless of whether we acknowledge this fact or not.
Lost humanity has always mocked the idea of hell or has accused the very idea of being monstrous. Now this skepticism is prevalent in the church as well. But let us be very clear: to reject the Son is to invite the judgment of God.
People often ask, “How can a loving God send someone to hell?” But a loving God sent His Son into the vineyard of your life so that you need not go to hell! When a person rejects the cure for that which is killing him, it will eventually kill him. When a person rejects the Son who is alone life, He will receive instead eternal death. The real question is, “Why would choose hell over heaven, death over life, judgment over forgiveness.”
God is not unjust. God is not unfair. Rather, marvel at His amazing love in sending the Son so that you might be forgiven and have life!
Chapter 6: Yet the rejected Son also means forgiveness and eternal life to those who will accept Him.
The owner the vineyard, Jesus tells us, sent his son and his son was killed by the tenants. Whereas the wicked tenants thought this would mean freedom, it really meant judgment. Rejection of the son invited the judgment of the vineyard owner. Rejection of Jesus invites the judgment of Almighty God. But does this rejection mean that the wicked tenants gain a victory over the vineyard owner by killing his son? No, as Jesus explains:
10 Have you not read this Scripture: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
The rejected son amazingly becomes the chief cornerstone, that is, the most important part! How can this be if the tenants killed him? It must be because death could not hold him, because their weapon proved ultimately ineffective.
In concluding the story in this manner, Jesus was pointing to His resurrection. Yes, He would be killed. Yes, He would go to the cross. Yes, there would be a temporary “victory” for these wicked men who were plotting against Him. But it would indeed be temporary. Easter would be the end of their misguided revelry.
The rejected Jesus would become the chief cornerstone. He always was. He was always the most important part, the main character in the story. He still is and He ever will be!
You may reject Jesus. You may turn away from Him. You may dispute with Him. You may nail Him to a cross. Even so, He remains the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He cannot be silenced. He cannot be defeated. He cannot be overthrown. His rule was established in eternity past. His reign will last into eternity future.
Even now Jesus desires for you to receive Him, to recognize His lordship over the vineyard of your life. Will you cast Him out? Will you reject Him? Will you turn from Him?
You may reject Him along with the wicked tenants, but know that rejecting life means inviting death, that rejecting forgiveness means inviting judgment.
Or you can stand with Jesus against the clamoring crowd. You can do what you will soon understand to be the most natural thing in the world: acknowledge His lordship and kingly rule over your life! He is King! Will you accept that He is? He is Lord? Will you receive Him?
Cry out to the Lord of the vineyard in repentance and faith. Cry out to Him and He will save you! As our brother Paul explained in Romans 10:
9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
 Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain: A Novel (pp. 44-45). Grove Press. Kindle Edition.
 RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. May 1993.
 RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. April 1994.
 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions. Kindle, 1418-20.