9 And He began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey for a long time.
There is quite a bit of imagery in the Old Testament that relates the nation of Israel to a grape vine. (Ps 80:8–16, Isa 5:1–7, Jer 2:21, Ezek 15:1–8, 17:5–10, 19:10–14, Hos 10:1.) The OT writers repeatedly spoke of Israel in these terms and of God as the one who planted the vine and would uproot it should it not bear fruit.
So the meaning of the parable would be clear. Christ is borrowing from the Old Testament to speak a parable about Israel.
The idea of God withdrawing for a while and leaving the care of the nation in the hands of tenants or stewards would also parallel with the period of silence that the nation of Israel experienced between Malachi and John the Baptist, where the care and leadership of the nation resided with the priestly caste. God trusted them to lead the people and care for them.
10 At the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers, so that they would give him some of the produce of the vineyard; but the vine-growers beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 And he proceeded to send another slave; and they beat him also and treated him shamefully and sent him away empty-handed. 12 And he proceeded to send a third; and this one also they wounded and cast out. 13 The owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 But when the vine-growers saw him, they reasoned with one another, saying, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance will be ours.’ 15 So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What, then, will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and destroy these vine-growers and will give the vineyard to others.” When they heard it, they said, “May it never be!”
So the narrative goes that the tenants abused the power they were given. They rebelled against the landlord and refused to offer him any of what was his due. They saw themselves as the new owners and the ones in charge. So they met all of his envoys with disdain, heaping abuse and physical harm upon them.
The owner decides, at last, to send his son to carry his message for him, at which point, the tenants decide to murder him so that they could legitimize their hold on power. Jesus ends the story with a dire warning that swift destruction would be coming upon them and the owner would give the vineyard to others.
The reaction from the crowd is horror: “May it never be!” The idea that God would come and destroy the priestly caste system and overthrow their leadership is unheard of. It’s the established way that people came to God and worshipped. The idea is that the Temple worship would come to an end. That depicts a massive tragedy in their minds in which they identified their uniqueness and specialness via their relationship to God through the Temple and Temple worship. To lose that would be an idea they couldn’t conceive of, but like the previous chapter in which Christ said that Jerusalem would be desolate, it was an event that would occur within the lifetime of many standing there hearing his words.
17 But Jesus looked at them and said, “What then is this that is written:
‘The stone which the builders rejected,
This became the chief corner stone’?
18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.”
19 The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them. 20 So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor.
Christ counters with a passage He relates to the Messiah. The idea of a rejection by the leadership, but an eventual recognition of the Messiah’s importance and criticalness to our lives and the Kingdom of God. He offers them a choice. To fall on the stone and be broken, to have their assumptions and traditions challenged and to surrender to Him or to have the stone fall upon them and be scattered like dust. Another diaspora. Again, the idea is a repeat of a lot of what we’ve been hearing from Jesus: lose your life to save it. Try to save it and you will lose it. Give all that you have to the poor and you will find treasure in heaven. It’s a major reprioritization of our lives. It’s recognition of our own place in this world and the true worth of the things that our culture tells us we should value. In some cases, it’s a recognition that money is temporal. In this case, the Lord speaks to power and tradition as the temporal things.
Well, the priests understand exactly what He’s saying. They want to take Him into custody immediately because they understand He’s being critical of them, associating them with murderers and rebels against God. But again, their power is a fragile thing. They have to kill Him to preserve their power, but killing Him publically would undermine their base of power. So they have to be crafty. They enlist agents to feed Jesus controversial questions to turn the people against Him or to catch Him saying something seditious.
It’s a picture of how the things we cling to distort our characters. Attachment to them can make us do things that normally we’d never do. Here you have very pious, very religious men plotting how to murder a rival and get away with it. The thought doesn’t occur to them that they are betraying every value they claim to hold dear. It often doesn’t occur to us either. Our culture, our perceptions, our desire for things can lead us to very dark places. Places that, if we were thinking clearly, we’d say we’d never go.
But if your eyes are dark, how great is that darkness. If our values are flawed, then we lose sight of what really matters.
Well, the idea still applies to us too. We’re called to fall on the Rock and be broken of our distorted vision and values. And to embrace what the Messiah represents: Love, mercy, compassion, faithfulness, integrity, but above all Love.