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.” – Luke 20:9-18 ESV
The chief priests, scribes, and elders had come to Jesus in an uproar, demanding to know what gave Him the right to usurp their authority over the temple grounds.
“Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” – Luke 20:1 ESV
They viewed His ransacking of the temple the day before as little more than another demonstration of His wanton disregard for their right to rule the religious affairs of the people. From their perspective, Jesus had come onto their turf and embarrassed them in front of the thousands of pilgrims who had flocked to Jerusalem for the Passover.
These men had hoped that Jesus would reiterate His claim to be the Son of God. If He did, that would give them ample proof to declare Him a blaspheme worthy of death. But Jesus had refused to play their little game of cat and mouse. Instead, He had put them on the spot with a question of His own, which they too refused to answer. But Jesus followed up this exchange with a parable. Luke records that “Jesus turned to the people again and told them this story” (Luke 20:9 NLT).
Jesus would use this simple story-telling format to address the topic at hand: The source of His authority. As the crowd gathered in the temple courtyard listened eagerly to Jesus’ words, the religious leaders overheard everything He said, and the point of His story did not escape them.
In the story, the man who planted the vineyard is meant to represent God. The tenant farmers are the religious leaders of Israel. The servants play the part of the prophets whom God had sent over the centuries to warn the kings and spiritual shepherds of Israel. And finally, the son is intended to be a clear reference to Jesus Himself.
With the telling of this seemingly innocuous story, Jesus encapsulated the long and sordid history of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. The man (God) planted a vineyard. This imagery of God as the vinedresser and Israel as the vine is found repeatedly in Scripture.
You brought us from Egypt like a grapevine;
you drove away the pagan nations and transplanted us into your land.
You cleared the ground for us,
and we took root and filled the land.
Our shade covered the mountains;
our branches covered the mighty cedars.
We spread our branches west to the Mediterranean Sea;
our shoots spread east to the Euphrates River. – Psalm 80:8-11 NLT
The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
The people of Judah are his pleasant garden.
He expected a crop of justice,
but instead he found oppression.
He expected to find righteousness,
but instead he heard cries of violence. – Isaiah 5:7 NLT
God had planted Israel in the promised land and cultivated them into a powerful and influential nation. Under King David, they had experienced unprecedented growth and prosperity, and this God-ordained spread of Israel’s fortunes had continued under the early leadership of Solomon, David’s son and successor. But because Solomon chose to worship idols, God split his kingdom in two. This resulted in two rival kingdoms, Israel and Judah, each ruled over by a succession of men who, for the most part, failed to follow David’s example. Unlike David, the man after God’s own heart, these kings would fail to shepherd God’s people with integrity of heart and skillful hands (Psalm 78:20). They, along with the priests and elders of the people, would prove to be ineffective caretakers for God’s vineyard. Their open disregard for the wishes of the vineyard’s owner and their misappropriation of His property led to a confrontation. The prophet Ezekiel records just one of the many indictments God leveled against the kings and religious rulers of Israel and Judah. Using the metaphor of shepherds and sheep, God would level His charges against these men and call them to account.
“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign Lord: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them.” – Ezekiel 34:2-6 NLT
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I now consider these shepherds my enemies, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock. I will take away their right to feed the flock, and I will stop them from feeding themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths; the sheep will no longer be their prey.” – Ezekiel 34:10 NLT
God had repeatedly sent His prophets to declare His dissatisfaction with those to whom He had delegated the care of His people. The prophet Jeremiah also recorded God’s growing displeasure for His unfaithful servants.
“What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 23:1 NLT
God was expecting fruit from His vineyard, but because of the poor care provided by His servants, the vine had produced little in the way of return. And the men to whom God had delegated the well-being of His vineyard rejected His demands for restitution. The kings and religious leaders placed in authority over God’s people treated His prophets with disrespect and oftentimes subjected them to verbal abuse and physical harm. Back in chapter 14 of his gospel, Luke records the words of Jesus as He considered the fate that awaited Him in Jerusalem.
“Yes, today, tomorrow, and the next day I must proceed on my way. For it wouldn’t do for a prophet of God to be killed except in Jerusalem! O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers” – Luke 13:33-34 NLT
And Jesus refers to His ignominious demise in the parable. After repeated attempts to reason with the unfaithful servants, the vineyard owner resorts to sending his own son to act as a mediator on his behalf.
“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’” – Luke 20:13 ESV
But in Jesus’ story, the “beloved son” is not met with open arms, but he is subjected to ridicule, rejection, and, ultimately, death.
“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.’” – Luke 20:14 ESV
Jesus, the beloved Son of God, was experiencing the very same reaction from the religious leaders of Israel. The chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, and elders were all conspiring against Him. They had already determined to put Him to death and were simply looking for the right evidence and waiting for the perfect opportunity to put their plan into action. And, in His story, Jesus reveals exactly what these men were going to do with Him and to Him.
“…they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” – Luke 20:15 ESV
As Jesus unfolded the plot of His parable, the crowd must have listened with eager anticipation to hear how the story would end. But this outcome must have shocked and surprised them. Even they would have found the actions of the tenant farmers to be unacceptable and worthy of retribution. And Jesus asks His audience what they think should happen to those wicked men.
“What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” – Luke 20:15 ESV
But before they can respond, He provides them with the answer.
“He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” – Luke 20:16 ESV
By this time, they seem to have made the connection and understand the true meaning behind Jesus’ story. They have connected the dots and comprehended the underlying message behind the parable. So, when Jesus provides the shocking conclusion to the story, they respond: “May this never happen!” (Luke 20:16 NET). They fully understood that Jesus was suggesting the demise of Israel, not just its leadership, and this thought was unacceptable to them. But they were missing the primary point of Jesus’ message.
Jesus looked at them and said, “Then what does this Scripture mean?
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has now become the cornerstone.’
Everyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.” – Luke 20:17-18 NLT
By rejecting Him as the Son of God, which they would ultimately do, they would be rejecting the source of their salvation. And the apostle John would later describe how the people of Israel refused to accept Jesus as the Son of God and the light of the world.
He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:11-13 NLT
And with Israel’s refusal to accept Jesus as their Messiah, the message of the gospel would be taken to the Gentiles. And the judgment of God would fall on all those who refused to accept the Son of God. The apostle Peter would later expand on Jesus’ metaphor of the cornerstone, providing important insights into its meaning.
You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor.
And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God. As the Scriptures say,
“I am placing a cornerstone in Jerusalem,
chosen for great honor,
and anyone who trusts in him
will never be disgraced.”
Yes, you who trust him recognize the honor God has given him. But for those who reject him,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has now become the cornerstone.”
“He is the stone that makes people stumble,
the rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they do not obey God’s word, and so they meet the fate that was planned for them. – 1 Peter 2:4-8 NLT
With His death, Jesus would become the cornerstone of a significant new structure, the Church, made up of people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. And as Peter goes on to say, this “spiritual temple” would represent “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9 ESV). Israel’s rejection of Jesus would lead to the Gentiles’ inclusion. The death of the Son would not be the end, but it would be the beginning of something new and unexpected.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.