BY THIS STAGE IN JESUS’ MINISTRY, the tensions between him and the authorities have become acute. Some are overtly theological; others have pragmatic overtones and elements of turf protection. Every unit in Luke 20 reflects some of this increasing tension.
We shall focus on the parable of the tenants (20:9-19). The story becomes more comprehensible to Western minds when we recall that these “tenant farmers” in the first-century culture were not simply employees (in the modern sense), but workers tied to an entire social structure. They owed the owner of the vineyard not only a percentage of the produce, but respectful allegiance. Their treatment of the servants he sent was not only harsh and greedy, but shameful. That he should send his son would not be thought of as a stupid act on his part: it would simply be unthinkable for them to kill him. But in the story that Jesus tells, that is just what they do: they kill him, hoping somehow that the land will become theirs not that the rightful heir is dead.
What then will the owner do? Jesus answers his own question: “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (20:16).
The people grasp the point of the parable. The main lines were clear: God was the vineyard owner, the tenant farmers were Israel, the servants rejected by the farmers were the prophets, and eventually God sends his “son” (doubtless a slightly ambiguous category for them) — and the result is that the land and prosperity that the owner provided are stripped from them and given to others. Small wonder they exclaim, “May this never be!”
That was exactly the response Jesus expected from them. He had set them up for it. But now he looks at them steadily and cites Scripture to prove that that is exactly how things will turn out, exactly how things therefore must turn out. For doesn’t Scripture say, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone” (20:17; Ps. 118:22)? That “stone” finally wins; those who fall on it are broken to pieces, those on whom it falls are crushed. But the fact of the matter is that the stone is initially rejected by the builders.
Doubtless Jesus’ hearers did not understand all of the ramifications of this parable. But the scribes and chief priests understood enough to know that they themselves did not figure too well in it: they must be included among the people who beat up on prophets and finally reject God’ s Son. Politically, this is one more step to the cross; theologically, Jesus teaches his followers what kind of Messiah he is, and how his death is as inevitable as the scriptural prophecies that predict it.