The Stories Jesus Told: The Wicked Tenants, Luke 20:9–19
February 2, 2021
by Peter Amsterdam
The Stories Jesus Told: The Wicked Tenants, Luke 20:9–19
Note: When recently reviewing the series The Stories Jesus Told, I realized that there was one parable I hadn’t covered, so I’m going over it in this article.
The parable of the wicked tenants is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels.1 The focus here will be the account from the Gospel of Luke, with some points brought in from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. In the Gospel of Luke, this parable is found in chapter 20, between the incident when the chief priests, scribes, and elders challenged Jesus’ authority and when they asked Him whether it was lawful for the Jewish people to pay taxes to Caesar.2
He began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed.”3
Vines and vineyards were common within Israel in Jesus’ day, as they continue to be in that part of the world. Nearly everyone who owned some land would have had some vines. However, in this parable, Jesus was referring to a larger vineyard owned by an absentee landlord who had tenants working the property. In the Gospel of Matthew, more details are given regarding the vineyard. The vineyard owner not only planted a vineyard, but he also put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower.4 This suggests that the owner had invested a considerable amount of money in the vineyard, and he would have hoped to get a good return on his investment. Newly planted vineyards take some years before they bear fruit, so perhaps this was the first year that there was a harvest. However, rather than giving the owner what was his right to receive, the tenants beat the owner’s servant who had been sent to collect what was due. After beating him, they sent him back to the owner with no payment whatsoever.
“And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out.”5
The second time the owner sent his representative to collect what was due, they beat the servant and treated him shamefully. The Greek word translated as shamefully means that they dishonored him, insulted him, and treated him with contempt. In a third attempt to collect what was rightfully his, the owner of the vineyard sent yet another servant, who was wounded, presumably by being beaten as the previous servants were. In the Gospels of Mark6 and Matthew7 we’re told that the tenants beat, stoned, and even killed some of those sent by the owner of the vineyard.
“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”8
Sending his servants hadn’t sufficed, so the owner sent his son, who had much more authority than his servants. He expected that the tenants would respect his son’s authority, but he was wrong. The tenants saw the opportunity to eliminate the heir as a means of securing the vineyard for themselves. They may have thought that the landlord had died and that his son now owned the vineyard. If so, eliminating him would leave the vineyard ownerless, and they could possibly gain possession of it. Whatever their thinking was, they threw the son out of the vineyard and then killed him.
Jesus then interpreted the parable by means of asking and answering a question.
“What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!”9
The possibility of these tenants taking possession of the vineyard after they had killed the son was zero. The owner of the vineyard, the father of the slain son, would have destroyed those who took his son’s life. The account in the Gospel of Matthew is even more strongly worded: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”10
Those listening were shocked at the interpretation of the parable and its implication of harsh judgment of the Jewish leadership as well as the vineyard being given to others, which was understood to mean Gentiles. However, what Jesus described was in fact what happened in AD 70, when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, and then deported the people of Israel.
Jesus concluded by quoting from Psalm 118 and Isaiah 8.
He looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”11
A cornerstone, as referenced in Psalm 118:22, is a stone used in construction which bears the weight and stress of the walls built upon it. Without the cornerstone, the walls, and therefore the whole building, would collapse. Jesus is the cornerstone, the foundation of God’s building—the body of believers, the church.
Jesus then quoted from Isaiah 8:14–15, which alludes to those who are offended by the gospel and reject the stone, and therefore experience severe judgment. The first part speaks of the Jewish leadership, who would fall on the stone and be broken into pieces, meaning they would experience disastrous judgment. The same idea is then repeated, with the image of the stone falling on and crushing these leaders.
Jesus’ parable reflects what was written elsewhere in the book of Isaiah.
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!12
The parable of the wicked tenants served as a means for Jesus to describe the history of Israel. God had sent prophets to guide and warn His people, and one after another was rejected. He then sent His own Son to the people of Israel, and Jesus patiently called them to follow Him and to bear fruit. Sadly, the people who had consistently rejected the prophets also failed to receive and believe in God’s Son. In telling this parable, Jesus foretold His own death as the climax of their rejection.
Of course, it’s important to recognize that not all the people of Israel rejected Jesus. He and His first disciples were all Jewish. The apostle Paul, who played a major role in bringing Christianity to the Western world, was also Jewish. Paul often made the point that one’s nationality makes no difference when it comes to salvation; what does matter is belief, becoming a new creation.
Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.13
The Wicked Tenants, Luke 20:9–19
9 And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while.
10 When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed.
11 And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed.
12 And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out.
13 Then 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 tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’
15 And 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 those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!”
17 But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Matthew 21:33–46, Mark 12:1–11, and Luke 20:9–19.
2 See “Jesus—His Life and Message: The Question of Authority.”
3 Luke 20:9–10.
4 Matthew 21:33.
5 Luke 20:11–12.
6 Mark 12:5.
7 Matthew 21:35.
8 Luke 20:13–15.
9 Luke 20:15–16.
10 Matthew 21:41.
11 Luke 20:17–18.
12 Isaiah 5:1–7.
13 Galatians 6:15–16.