Wicked tenants


Sermon: Sunday, 27th November, 2022 Video
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Luke 20:9-19 & Isaiah 5:1-7

Throughout his ministry, Jesus has shown his total authority. We see his authority over sickness as he heals the blind and lame. We see his authority over nature as he walks on water and calms the storm. He has authority to forgive sin, pronouncing forgiveness to the paralytic in Mark chapter 2. His authority to teach is displayed in his wonderful instruction. We even see his authority over death as Lazarus is raised to life. He’s just demonstrated his kingly authority by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and by cleansing the temple and restoring it to a place of prayer and teaching and worship. He is in charge. Again and again, Jesus reveals his identity as the Messiah, sent from God. Who else could he be? Above everyone else, the religious leaders ought to have understood this and responded with faith and joy and by giving Jesus their allegiance. After all, he is the King of Kings.

However, the religious leaders resent Jesus’ authority and are jealous of his popularity. They are like corrupt politicians who just want to cling onto power, and who aren’t really concerned about the truth. They hate Jesus, because he is the light of the world, and his light exposes the darkness in their hearts. They want rid of Jesus as soon as possible. And so, rather than responding to Jesus with humility and faith, they say, in effect, ‘Who do you think you are Jesus? What gives you the right to say what goes on in our temple? That’s our domain! ‘Who gave you this authority?’ (Luke 20:2) I think it’s likely they’re trying to get Jesus to publicly claim to be the Messiah, so they can arrest him for blasphemy.

Once again, Jesus shows his superior wisdom and insight by asking a simple counter-question. Was John the Baptist’s authority from God or merely from men? They try to trap Jesus, but Jesus traps them, and exposes their rotten hearts. If they say John the Baptist was a prophet of God, then Jesus can logically ask why they did not listen to him, especially as John always testified that Jesus was the Messiah, sent from God. They’re too scared of the crowd to say John wasn’t from God. In other words, they are not interested in discovering the truth or living by the truth, but only in holding onto power, pleasing the people, and living for their own interests. It’s like the religious leaders have challenged Jesus to a game of chess, think they have Jesus trapped, but in a few simple moves, Jesus has won – checkmate.

But Jesus is not finished with the religious leaders yet. He is about to tell a parable to underline just how wicked their rejection of him really is. The chief priests and teachers of the law understand the meaning of Jesus’ parable, but rather than coming to their senses, they go deeper and deeper into their hatred of Jesus.

‘The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people.’ (John 20:19)

However, just because this parable is about the Jewish religious leaders in the first instance, doesn’t mean our minds should drift away to what’s for lunch. There are wonderful things for us to learn here about the character of God. And there are warnings we need to hear, and most of all, each one of us must wrestle with the challenge of Jesus’ authority over every area of our lives today.

1. Understanding the parable

In this parable, God is the landowner who plants a vineyard. The vineyard is the nation of Israel, chosen by God to bear fruit. Who are the tenants? They are the religious leaders. The servants are the prophets sent by God, men like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos. And of course, the son in the passage stands for Jesus himself.

This parable would have been easier to understand and connect with in Jesus’ day, because it was a common fact that the nation of Israel was often referred to as God’s vineyard. We see this in Isaiah 5:2. ‘He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.’

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.’ (Isaiah 5:7)

In Jesus’ day, landowners would frequently plant a vineyard, rent it out to tenants to work, and then return to claim a proportion of the crop. So, in this parable, God is the one who chooses Israel to be his special people, and gives them a beautiful vineyard with excellent conditions for growing grapes. It is well-protected and equipped. It is a privilege to work for this owner. This reminds us of just how privileged the nation of Israel have been. They were rescued from slavery in Egypt in brought into the promised land. God revealed his Word to them, and promised to bless them if they kept his covenant. They didn’t deserve this generous treatment from God- it was given only ought of God’s sheer grace. However, God expected them to produce spiritual fruit, living in faithfulness to the Lord, and living holy lives.

And so, throughout Israel’s history, the Lord sent prophet after prophet to remind the people that God expected fruitful lives from them. But down through the centuries, the leaders of Israel treated the LORD’s prophets shamefully. What happened to Isaiah? He was sawn in half. Jeremiah was imprisoned and humiliated. Zechariah was stoned. John the Baptist was beheaded. In this part of the parable, Jesus looks back into Israel’s dark history, and how they mistreated God’s own prophets.

Next, Jesus looks ahead, prophesying his own death in a few days time! He himself is the son the owner of the vineyard sends. ‘Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’ (Luke 19:13) Do you remember what God the Father said from Heaven at Jesus’ baptism? ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ (Luke 3:22)

What will Israel’s leaders do with the Son of God? They will crucify him. They will reject his rightful authority because they want to be in charge of their own lives. They want to be the king, and there isn’t room for another. If it wasn’t bad enough killing the Lord’s servants, now they have the gall to murder the Lord’s one and only son! What will God do? Will he turn a blind eye to this behaviour? Of course not. ‘He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.’ (Luke 20:16) In other words, the nation of Israel will be punished, and God’s blessings will be given to the Gentiles instead. And that is exactly what happened. In AD70, Israel is destroyed, but God’s Kingdom advances throughout all the nations of the world. In one sense, this parable is a summary of the whole of the Bible. It’s a picture of the history of Israel, the coming of Jesus, and the growth of the church.

But is this just a history lesson for us this morning? No! What does it teach us about God and about our own lives?

2. God’s generosity and our privileges

As we have seen, the Lord gave Israel so many advantages.

‘You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth.’ (Amos 3:2)

‘He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws.’ (Psalm 147:19-20)

But what did Israel do with their privileges? Surely the application for us is obvious. Like Israel, those brought up in the Christian faith have had massive privileges. God has been so good to us, giving us Christian parents, Sunday School teachers, godly Christian grandparents, freedom to worship Jesus in church, Bibles to read in our own language, sermons to listen to and books to read. The conditions have been really good for me in my life, but the challenging question is, what have I done with it? Have I been producing fruit for God? Have I lived a loving and kind life, and worked hard and been a good witness for Jesus? Sadly, not nearly as much as I ought to have.

And what of people here, or listening who have grown up with some of these privileges but have rejected Jesus? Maybe you have heard the gospel hundreds of times, or thousands of times. But you’re just not interested in whether Christianity is true or not, or what God expects of you. You just want to do your own thing, and live any way you choose. God is not in charge of your life, you are! Even those without a Christian heritage have been privileged by God in so many ways. All the gifts of life come from his generous hand: food and work and family and laughter and the beauty of creation.

Do you realise that God is your Creator, and expects you to live for him, and not to ignore him? Or are you one of those people who is slow to thank God for what he gives us but quick to complain about what he has not given? When it comes to God, we human beings can be so ungrateful. And being ungrateful to God is evil.

3. Our responsibilities to God

You might wish you had a job with no responsibilities, but all jobs have some of them. You might wish there was no God with authority over you and to whom you were not responsible; but the fact remains that we are creatures made by the eternal Creator, and he has given us responsibilities.

‘Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.’ (Luke 12:48)

Just as God expected fruit from Israel, so today he expects fruitfulness from all members of his church.

‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: love each other.’ (John 15:16-17)

The religious leaders in Israel used their privileges to line their own pockets, gain the popularity of the people, and to have power and prestige in the community. They didn’t care about producing fruit in order to please God. Life was about pleasing self. Can’t we easily fall into the same trap in church today? Can’t we fall into that trap at work too? Rather than doing everything for the glory of God, we are just earning money for our own agendas, so we have more for ourselves and our families. So we can have better cars, homes and holidays. Sharing with others and Kingdom work can fall to the bottom of our priority list, if it even makes it onto the list.

Or church involvement can become selfish too. We want others to think well of us. We want the friendship and social side of church, and for service to be done in a way we are comfortable with. It’s become about us! We can easily forget our responsibilities to share Jesus with others, and to do good works for God’s glory. We can forget about the fruit God expects.

4. The consequences of rejecting Jesus and living for ourselves

The consequences of refusing to give Jesus his rightful place as King in our hearts are serious and severe. Yes, the Lord is patient with us. He showed amazing patience with Israel down the centuries, giving them every opportunity to turn from their sin and trust in God. He warned them again and again. He even sent them his own Son.

‘The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling-place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.’ (2 Chronicles 36:15-16)

‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ (2 Peter 3:9)

But even God’s patience with those who keep pushing Jesus away will eventually run out, and then all that is left is judgement which means Hell.

Jesus is called a cornerstone in this passage, which references Psalm 118. ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…’ (Psalm 118:22) For those who trust in him, and gladly receive him as King, he is our foundation in life. He holds everything in its right place both now and forever. The church is like a spiritual temple, with each Christian a stone in that temple; Jesus is the stone holding everything in place. (See 1 Peter chapter 2)

However, if you reject Jesus as your King or ignore him, you will not know Jesus as your friend but your Judge: ‘Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.’ (Luke 20:18) If you reject Jesus, the loss will be yours, and it is a loss too great to bear.

May each one of us know him as King. One day we will all meet with God face to face. He won’t be too interested in our success at work. He won’t care how much we earned, or how much others thought of us. The main question he will ask us is this: Did you know and love Jesus? What did you do with my Son?