The Vine and Wicked Vinedressers


I. Jesus Tells a Parable- This is the 22nd of twenty-three parables in Luke. In the first (5:36-39), Jesus emphasized that his message was introducing the principles of the new covenant. His work and words would define it in terms of its fulfillment of the types and prophecies of the Old Covenant as well as his perfect fulfillment of the Law. He emphasized the necessity of hearing the word with profit (6:47; 8:8), with a good heart (8:15), with an intention to make its truths known in word and life (8:16-19). He even identified his family as those who “hear the word of God and do it” (8:21). The Pharisees understood this parable only too well, but derived no profit from it, received it in a bad heart, and plotted against Jesus as a result of their understanding (20: 19).


II. Jesus told about a vineyard planted by a person who left the vineyard in the hands of vinedressers. This parable is found in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 21: 33 and Mark 12:1).

A. A vineyard brings to mind a symbol often used to designate Israel as peculiarly privileged by God (Isaiah 5: 1-7 “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel”) ; Jeremiah 2:21 “I planted you a noble vine, a seed of highest quality”; Ezekiel 19: 10-14 “Your mother was like a vine in your bloodline”; Hosea 10: 1-4 “Israel empties his vine; He brings forth fruit for himself”; Psalm 80: 8-13 “You brought forth a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it”.

B. Jesus in fact identified himself as the particular vine of the vineyard toward which the history of Israel was moving (John 15:1-11 “I am the vine”; Compare this with Psalm 80: 14-18 “But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself”).

C. Whereas in these Old Testament references, the vine has come to ruin in its production of bad fruit, in this parable Jesus finds fault with those that the owner left to tend the vine. Jesus spoke of the owner’s going on a journey “for a long time” (9) This refers to the time from Israel’s rescue from Egypt by the hand of Moses, his giving the law through Moses as well as all the details of the sacrificial system, the civil law to mold the people into a people that honored, worshipped, and obeyed the word given by God.


III. The owner wants some benefit from the fruit and sends servants to collect it (10-12). Jesus summarized the many opportunities that God had given to Israel to bear fruit in true godliness by the figure of three slaves. These represent the preaching and ministry of prophets and the reforms of different kings. When Paul lists the aspects of advantage absent from the Gentiles but present with the Jews he says, “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2: 12). The servants sent to find benefit from the vineyard, therefore, are of several sorts.

A. They have the prophecies of a Messiah that will come to effect their true union with God by his redemptive work. Peter summarized this in 1 Peter 1:10 -12 as “this salvation” and “the grace unto you” brought by the “the sufferings of Christ and the glory that would follow.” Certainly the prophecies of a redeemer-king in the persons of the Christ were rich and abundant in the prophetic literature. These servants were misunderstood and opposed in their lifetime and their prophecies, though clear, were largely ignored.

B. Israel as a commonwealth was given an organization and laws to maintain abundant production, a safe and just society, and a unified worship built on divinely revealed truth. They were an elect nation, a peculiar people, and were to show forth the praises of the one who called them out of slavery into freedom.

  1. Some of the kings brough great blessing to the nation through their obedience to the law of the Lord and their own example of piety, even though they were inconsistent at times. Hezekiah gave an example of obedience, humility, and reliance on the Lord (2 Chronicles 29: 1, 2; 2 Chronicles 32: 20-23, 26). Josiah responded with deep repentance and resolute determination to reform the nation when he heard the word of the Lord (2 Chronicles 34: 19: 19-21; 29-33).
  2. Many despised this great advantage and adopted the gods and the immoral and cruel ways of the people around them (2 Chronicles 33: 1-9). Their resistance is summarized in words that preview the presentation Jesus gave of the treatment of the servants. “And the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by his messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His word, and scorned His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy” (2 Chronicles 36: 15, 16).

C. Israel had the “covenants of promise” as abiding messengers to them of the gracious purpose of God and of their place to be a light to the nations.

  1. The covenant with Abraham spoke of a people from his own body who would be afflicted by another nation for four-hundred years and would come out with great possessions, a covenant ratified by sacrifice (Genesis 15: 4-15, als0 so 17: 1-16). Isaac and Jacob had this covenant renewed in their lives (26: 23-25; 28:13-15)
  2. The covenant made with Israel through Moses was grand in its promises but conditional in its terms (Genesis 19: 3-6): “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to me above all people; for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Joshua’s reminder of all that God had done from Abraham through the exodus and conquest met with hearty approval by the leaders of Israel. Their zeal to affirm obedience was met with the sobering observation of Joshua, “You cannot serve the Lord, for his is a holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after he has done you good.” The parable of Jesus sees this reality with clarity.
  3. David was given specific covenant promises (2 Samuel 7: 12-16). The covenant had elements both conditional and unconditional. The implied conditionality is in the phrase “If he commits iniquity,” concerns Solomon (2 Chronicles 6: 8ff) and all the others that were noted as son of David (2 Chronicles 13:5, 8;21: 12; 29:2; 34: 2) but ultimate success of promise is unconditional—“Your throne shall be established forever.” This is the element of a confession of saving faith present in the plea, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Luke 18: 38, 39). To this Paul referred in saying, “Christ Jesus, . . . his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1: 2, 3 ).

D. They were given “hope.” While the Gentiles, the uncircumcised, were without hope, the sons of Abraham according to the flesh were given hope by the promises announced through Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets. When two spies went into the land to bring a report back to Joshua, they were protected from harm by Rahab and returned to Joshua to say, “Truly the Lord has delivered all the land into our hands, for indeed all the inhabitants of the country are fainthearted because of us” (Joshua 2: 1, 24). Isaiah 59 alternates between great hope, judgment, and the hope of covenantal certainty. “Behold the Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save, nor his ear heavy that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from God; and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he will not hear. . . . ‘As for me,’ says the Lord, ‘this is my covenant with them: My Spirit who is upon you and my words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants.’”

E. They had “God in the world.” To Abraham God spoke the words, “I am Almighty God; walk before me and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1). Through Isaiah, the Lord spoke, “To whom then will you liken God,” and then for himself, God asked, “To whom will you liken me, or to whom shall I be equal?” (Isaiah 40: 18, 25). “I am the Lord, your holy one, the Creator of Israel, your King” (Isaiah 43:15). No other nation has been given such a direct revelation of the one true God, had been set aside as the choice nation through whom redemption would come, as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2: 32).

F. All of these messengers had been ill-treated, persecuted, ignored, perverted and put under a bushel to hide the light. Standing before Jesus as he related the hostility of the tenant of the vineyard were those very people. They knew he was presenting to the crowd a picture of their character and unfaithful service. He was telling them precisely what they would do to the Son of God.


IV. The Owner sends his son and receives a more egregiously evil response (13 – 15).

A. The parable presents the owner of the vineyard as marvelously patient. In spite of the ill-treatment of the previous servants and the increasingly severe treatment received by each one, the owner seeks to reach their heart by sending his “beloved son (13). Given dramatic suspense in light of the kindness demonstrated by the owner, the persons hearing this presentation might gasp at this point realizing that these tenants are no good and they are up to no good. The owner makes himself utterly vulnerable and gives the most compelling opportunity for proper response in this action. What would happen? Would they fall down and say, “We have been wrong; we have acted in an evil manner and have stripped the owner of his rights to fruit. We must receive his son and respond with hopes for mercy for our evil hardness to his other overtures for what is rightfully his.”

B. Such a response would not come from those whose hearts were intent on possession of the property of another; they sought their own pleasure and their own advantage even at the cost of the life of the son. As the owner presented a soliloquy in consideration of the result of sending his son into what had proved to be an intractably evil situation, so the evil men reason and conspire with each other. Obviously, overcome by evil and oblivious to how such moral perversity has infected their capacity of right judgment, they decide to kill the heir. What stupidity evoked by corrupt hearts, that they would consider the “inheritance” as theirs on the basis of a murder. They neither established it nor owned it, but thought that through evil scheming they could make the property of another belong to them.

C. Two things they did: murder and exclusion. Luke follows Mark’s order while Matthew reports the murder first and the casting out second. The point is that the son, who is the rightful owner of the vineyard as the true heir, was excluded and, in order, fancifully, not to deal with him any more, they killed him. Evil is blind to moral consequences in its lack of fear of retribution. As Paul says in describing the nature of progressive human corruption, “Who knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1: 32).

D. Without hesitation, Jesus asked the startling question with a self-evident answer: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them” (15). He has no more recourse, no more overture of mercy, all that can be done to gain a loving and obedient response has been done; the time of retribution has come. Who could not have answered the question with a full knowledge of the justice of the owner’s response?


V. The owner will take retribution. This retribution will be two-fold. The tenant vine-dressers will be destroyed. That treasure of which they had been covetous will be given to others. Here Jesus refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the terrors that will accompany that divine judgment described in chapter 22. With the destruction of the temple (21: 5, 6), so ended the sacrificial system and the Mosaic age (Hebrews 10: 1-10). The gospel then was given to the Gentiles as the prime example of the power and final status of the new and better covenant (Acts 28: 28, 29; Hebrews 8: 13; 9: 15). “May it never be!” they responded. That which they had claimed as their due would be given to others. They had never been undone by the mercies of God in his blessings on them as a people, but had considered themselves as intrinsically better than others and worthy of their peculiar blessings. They had violated the intent of these blessings, been haughty instead of grateful, and had kept their hearts far from the beauty of true worship.


VI. Jesus applied two Old Testament passages to the interpretation of the parable (17, 18).

A. He applied Psalm 118: 22 to the parable—“The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief cornerstone.” The entire edifice of revelation pointed toward Jesus. He would hold all of it together and bring an end to iniquity and establish a worshipping people on the basis of true righteousness. The Psalmist had written, “Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will go through them, and I will praise the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord, through which the righteous shall enter. I will praise you, for you have become my salvation” (Psalm 118: 19-21).

B. In another reference to a stone, Isaiah 8: 14, 15 looks to the Lord of hosts, who should be their sanctuary, as “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” When they fall, they shall be broken. Peter cites these same passages (1 Peter 2: 7, 8) in explaining how a new group has become the covenant people “who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.”


VII. The response of the chief priests and scribes immediately demonstrates the truthfulness of the parable. Having heard Jesus describe an evil plot to assault the owner’s son, the scribes and chief priests do precisely as the plotters had done. Had it not been for the popularity that Jesus had at that time with the crowd, they would have taken him immediately (“that very hour”). Part of their strategy, then would have to be to turn the people against Jesus while seeking to arrest and convict him in the absence of their observation (Luke 22: 52, 53). How neatly they had fit themselves into Jesus’ observations and their efforts to justify their position.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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