There is nothing like a good story told by an expert storyteller. In fact, I maintain that a good story, orally told by a great storyteller, is more captivating then reading a book or watching a movie. There are few things more captivating then a ghost story told around a campfire, or a well-timed comedy routine, or a fascinating testimony of a transformed life.
In our technology crazed, digital universe, storytelling has become a lost art. However, there is one group trying to keep storytelling alive. In 1973, Jimmy Smith, a high school journalism teacher, and a carload of students heard Grand Ole Opry regular, Jerry Clower, spin a tale over the radio about coon hunting in Mississippi. Mr. Smith was inspired by that event to create a storytelling festival. Now, every first full weekend in October, in Jonesborough, Tennessee, people from all over the world gather at the International Storytelling Center for the annual International Storytelling Festival.
Jesus was a master storyteller. In His culture people learned through oral teachings, and so the ability to tell a story was critical for effective communication. Jesus’ stories are called parables. A simple definition of a parable is that it is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus’ stories were meant to teach valuable lessons about life and eternity. Luke’s gospel is full of Jesus’ parables. We have already looked at some of them. But now, I want us to take a closer look at one of His most poignant parables. So caught up in the story was the audience who heard it, that they spontaneously responded at the end. So captivated by the story were the religious leaders who heard it, that they were ready to kill Jesus immediately because they knew His story was about them.
The Parable of the Tenant Farmers
At this point in Luke’s narrative, beginning with the Triumphal Entry (Luke 19:28-44), Jesus enters Jerusalem to begin the last week of His life before being crucified. Jesus spent His last week teaching the people and confronting His enemies. Luke writes, “When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘My house will be a house of prayer; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’ Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words” (Luke 19:45-48). No doubt the entire week was stressful for Jesus, for His disciples, and for the religious leaders. Later that week, during another day of teaching in the Temple, after His authority is questioned by the religious leaders (see Luke 20:1-8), Jesus begins telling the following story: “A man planted a vineyard…” (Luke 20:9).
A good story is built on things the audience already knows, are familiar with, and can relate to. Jesus’ story is based on an extremely prophetic psalm found in Isaiah, known as “The Song of the Vineyard.” The people in the Temple listening to Jesus would have known this song by heart. The song is about how God has done everything He could do for the nation of Israel, but they have continually rejected Him. It is a song of judgment, and is the reason why at the end of Jesus’ parable based on this song, “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” (Luke 20:19). Below is Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard:
“I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
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.
Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?
‘Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it.’
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.”
Now let’s look at Jesus’ story based on Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard.
Jesus says, “A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time” (Luke 20:9). Like Isaiah’s song, in Jesus’ story, the vineyard represents Israel, and God is the owner of the vineyard. He is the Man who “planted the vineyard.” In addition, Jesus mentions “farmers.” In context, the “farmers” (also called “tenants;” similar to “share-croppers”) are the religious leaders of Israel; those who were responsible to grow and cultivate the Israelites so they would recognize the follow the Messiah when He came. For the sake of clarity, here again are the characters in the story mentioned so far. (Two more will be mentioned later.):
- The owner of the vineyard – God.
- The vineyard – Israel.
- The tenant farmers – Israel’s religious leaders.
Jesus continues, “As harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed” (Luke 20:10). Every good story has a plot. In this story, the plot is about how violently the tenant farmers treat the servants the vineyard owner sends to collect some of the fruit of the vineyard. No reason is given for why the tenant farmers acted the way they did. The owner’s request was reasonable. Just a sample of the fruit was requested. The plot thickens each time a servant is beaten and “sent away empty-handed.” In this story, it happens three times. “He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out” (Luke 20:11-12). Each servant was treated worse than the previous servant.
The “servants” in this story represent the Old Testament prophets. In spite of Israel’s continual unfaithfulness to God, God continually sent prophets to them, calling them to repentance, giving Israel another chance to be faithful. Time and time again, however, the prophets were beaten, mistreated, and murdered. And it was the leaders of Israel who often lead the rebellion against the prophets!
After three failed attempts, what will the owner of the vineyard do? He does the unthinkable. He sends his son. Jesus says, “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 20:13). The phrase, “whom I love,” carries the idea that this was the owner’s only son. As we shall see, the tenant farmers’ response to the son suggest he was an only son as well.
By this time the audience is on the edge of their seats. Maybe they are starting to realize what Jesus is saying. They can’t believe He is being so bold…in the Temple…in front of the religious leaders…during the Feast of the Passover. Maybe they are feeling a little uncomfortable sitting there (or standing) listening to Jesus’ words, feeling the stone-cold glares of the religious leaders.
What happens to the owner’s son?
“But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him” (Luke 20:14-15). Sounds a lot like the conversation Joseph’s brothers had over what to do with Joseph, doesn’t it (see Genesis 37:12-36). The thought that by killing the son they would receive the inheritance was irrational. The thought that by killing the son they would be next in line to receive the inheritance also suggest he was the one and only son of the vineyard owner.
Now comes the punchline.
Jesus asks, “What will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” (Luke 20:15). The answer is obvious to everyone. The owner will not give the murdering tenant farmers his inheritance. Instead, “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Luke 20:16a).
Jesus’ audience is now totally engulfed in the story. They sensed the horror of the story, and its drastic application. Unable to contain their emotions, they cry out, “May this never be!” (Luke 20:16b).
Next, Jesus drives home His point. Luke writes, “Jesus looked directly at them and asked, ‘Then what is the meaning of that which is written: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed” (Luke 20:17-18).
A couple of days earlier, as Jesus entered Jerusalem, riding a colt, the people shouted Psalm 118:26, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Now, Jesus quotes from the same psalm, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone” (Psalm 118:21). He then asks, “What does that mean?” The meaning is that those who reject Jesus will be totally destroyed on judgment day. The religious leaders completely understood that Jesus is threatening them. It will not be long now before they have Jesus arrested, beaten, and crucified.
Every good story has a twist. The twist in Jesus’ story is that He took a well-known psalm about the nation of Israel as a whole, built on it, and made it a personal story about the religious leaders who have rejected Him (and will reject Him). It was a surprise ending for both the listeners and the leaders.
Now, let me add my own twist to the story: This parable is about you and me! We are the tenant farmers. Our lives are the vineyards, and God is the one who has given us life. If it were not for Him, we would not be alive. In a metaphorical sense, God has planted our life like a vineyard. Furthermore, it is God who has cultivated our lives, and given us all we have. Without Him we are nothing. All He asks is that we live for Him, and give Him our “first-fruits.” He wants us to be good stewards of all He has given us.
Throughout our entire lives, God has sent us His servants, telling us about His Son. His servants may have taken on the form of a Sunday School teacher, or a mom or dad, or grandparents. His servants could have been a pastor, or a mentor, or a coach, or a friend. There is no doubt that many of His servants are in the pages of His Word. These servants have been sent for our benefit. Some we have accepted. Many we have mistreated and rejected. Some of you have continued to reject God’s servants; His prophets (so to speak). Not only has God sent us His servants, but He also sent us His One and only Son. More often than not, He has been rejected.
This story is about you and me. This story is a strong warning. If you continue to reject Jesus you will get what you deserve. You will be destroyed on judgment day. The only thing left from today’s story is to ask two questions: Will you accept God’s Son, or will you crucify Him? What will the ending be to your story?
 We will look at the Triumphal Entry (Luke 19:28-44) on Palm Sunday (April 9, 2017).
 It is important to note that this parable comes right after the religious leaders of Israel question the authority of Jesus as a Rabbi. If you have not done so, back up and read Luke 20:1-8.
 Once again, for sake of review, here are the characters in the story:
- The owner of the vineyard – God.
- The vineyard – Israel.
- The tenant farmers – Israel’s religious leaders.
- The servants – the Old Testament prophets.
- The son – Jesus.