Have you ever been a tenant? Have you ever rented a property – maybe for years, maybe for a week or two? If so, what kind of tenant are you? Whether or not you have been a tenant, that is the question for every one of us this morning. We live in a world that belongs to God, who made it. It belongs to him. What kind of tenants are we?
Well we're picking up our series on Luke's Gospel again called the King and the Kingdom, and we've got to the Parable of the Tenants. This is Luke 20.9-18. This is where we've got to as we work through Luke's Gospel, and you might wonder whether this has much to do with world mission, on this Mission Sunday. But in fact it has a great deal to do with God's mission in the world, as we'll see.
You can find my outline at the back of the service sheet. You'll see there that I want to talk about: a story Jesus told; a history Jesus knew; a reality Jesus experienced; and a warning and a promise Jesus gave. So:
1. A Story Jesus Told
Nowadays, the papers seem to be littered with stories of terrible tenants. I believe there's even been a TV series called 'tenants from hell', so common is this kind of case. I'll tell you more about one extreme example in a bit.
As we've already heard, Jesus told a story about tenants from hell. That's not his phrase, but perhaps it's even more applicable because the case that Jesus told about was even more extreme – to the point of murder.
This wasn't just a story to fill the pages of the tabloids, of course. This was a parable – a story with a deeper significance that those with eyes to see could see. Although in this case it was really staring everyone in the face. The significance was not obscure. It was dangerously obvious.
So what was the situation when Jesus told this tale? Jesus was teaching and preaching in the temple in Jerusalem. And he was challenged by the religious leaders. This is the first part of Luke 20, and Ken spoke about this a couple of weeks ago. Effectively, they were asking Jesus, 'Who do you think you are to come and preach on our patch and make these outrageous claims? Who gave you the authority?' Well, he stymied them on that one with a counter-challenge – you can read about that for yourself later. And then he told them this story with a sting in the tale. Luke 20.9:
"And [Jesus] 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.'"
Now that immediately flags up that this is indeed not just going to be a story to keep them entertained. Why? Because talk of a vineyard would immediately make them think Jesus is actually going to talk about Israel – the Jewish nation. Why? Because these are Bible teachers and scholars who Jesus is aiming this at. They would have been very well aware that the Old Testament uses a vineyard as a picture of Israel. And planting a vineyard is a picture of God making a people for himself. So, for instance, there's Isaiah 5. This prophecy begins (Isaiah 5.1):
"Let me sing for my beloved my song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines; ..."
And it goes on to say that the owner of the vineyard had done everything possible for it. But the crop that it produced was useless. So he says he's going to break down its walls and turn it into a wasteland. And then this, in verse 7 of Isaiah 5:
"For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry."
For the planter read the Lord. For the vineyard read Israel. And when the Lord looks at his people he expects to see justice, but instead, he sees bloodshed.
So when those chief priests and scribes and elders heard the opening line of Jesus story, just after their attack on him has been stymied, perhaps they thought, 'We're not going to like this story. This is not going to end well for us. What's coming?' And they would have been right to worry. And, if they'd been listening, so would all the nations of the world be right to worry. Why? Because the Lord of Hosts, the maker and judge of all the earth, is about to give his verdict on how his people have treated him across the centuries. And what applies to Israel also applies with equal force to the whole of humanity.
So Jesus goes on:
"When the time came, [the owner of the vineyard] sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard."
In other words, it's time to pay the rent – as of course they should. "But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed." Can you imagine that? You would have thought that would be the end of it there and then. But this owner it seems has great patience. "And he sent another servant. But they beat and treated him shamefully,..." so there's an escalation in their abuse "... and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out." So this one wasn't just sent away, he was thrown out – perhaps too beaten up and injured to walk. "Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do?'" Send in the troops perhaps. But no, his patience is still not exhausted.
"I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him. 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.'"
What are those tenants thinking? That is breathtakingly bold and stupid at the same time. How do they think this is going to end? But they don't come to their senses. Instead, Jesus goes on:
"And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him."
That's the story Jesus told. And it vividly depicts:
2. A History Jesus Knew
Only last week there was a story in the papers about 'tenants from hell'. Or so the paper called them. And I have to say I can see why. The headline was
"British mother, 46, says 'tenants from hell' have destroyed her dream Spanish holiday home and left her £50k in debt".
Apparently these tenants seemed like good, ordinary people, until they took possession of the house. Then everything started to go wrong. They threw furniture out of the windows, broke walls and flooring, racked up unpaid electricity bills, and destroyed the sofas. The kitchen was left destroyed, with holes in the cupboards and pink graffiti and swear words sprayed up the walls and on appliances. Shocking stuff.
In Jesus' parable, who is it that are represented by that sequence of servant-messengers the vineyard owner sent? Above all they are the prophets, who spoke God's word to a world and a nation that didn't want to listen. As Hebrews 1 says:
"Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things ..."
Here are two examples of how the prophets were treated, beyond just being ignored.
When the prophet Elijah was calling Israel back to God, the king was Ahab – a tenant from hell if ever there was one. He blamed Elijah for the spiritually squalid state of the nation he imagined he ruled. So on one occasion, when he met Elijah, Ahab said to him (this is 1 Kings 18.17):
"Is it you, you troubler of Israel?"
There speaks the sinful heart. There is a terrible irony in the fact that it's the one who speaks God's truth and proclaims God's word who gets blamed by the Godless world for all that's wrong with it.
Many years later, the prophet Jeremiah warned that God's longsuffering patience was finally running out and judgement was coming on the nation in the form of destruction at the hands of their enemies. How was he received? Jeremiah 26.11:
"Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, 'This man deserves the sentence of death, because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.'"
Never mind that what he said was true, and listening to him was their only hope. By the grace of God, some did listen on that occasion, and Jeremiah was allowed to live to prophesy another day.
That was not the case for Jesus, the Son of God himself, when he came from the Father. Which brings us to:
3. A Reality Jesus Experienced
Back to that Spanish dream holiday home with its tenants from hell. One time, when the owner and landlord visited the property, they said 'we will murder you' and threw a brick from the roof at her. 'They threatened to kill me', she said, 'even leaving a knife wedged in the sofa with a threat on my life. This has been a nightmare. The entire situation has left me heartbroken – the house isn't even habitable at the moment.' What happened next? We'll come back to that.
Let me just remind you of the sequence of response to Jesus as he taught and healed and called people to put their trust in him – and poured out his love on those around him. Here's Luke 4.28-30, early in his public ministry:
"When they heard [what Jesus was saying], all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away."
His time had not yet come. On to 5.21:
"And the scribes and Pharisees began to question, saying, 'Who is this who speaks blasphemies?'"
"But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus."
19.47 (just before our passage):
"And [Jesus] was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him."
Then here are the words of Pontius Pilate (of all people) in 23.15:
"Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him."
And a few verses later:
"... they crucified him."
When Jesus told his parable, he knew exactly what he was talking about. The vicious hostility towards him was already strong and obvious. He knew how it was going to end. He knew he was going to the cross. That was the reality that Jesus experienced.
But then finally and:
4. A Warning and A Promise Jesus Gave
So what happened in the case of that dream Spanish holiday home that turned into a nightmare and left its owner heartbroken by the vandalism and violence of her tenants from hell? The tenants were taken to court, at the owner's expense. Months of eviction notices were ignored.
But judges and courts will not tolerate being ignored, and will not be thwarted in the end. Eventually, those tenants from hell were evicted by the court authorities, so the owner could take possession of her property again. She has paid a high price, but she and her family and friends are restoring the house to what it should be.
Now back to Jesus and his hearers – and this is where it gets interactive between them. Jesus asks the obvious cliff-hanger question. What's going to happen to next? Or as he says (this is the second part of verse 15):
"What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?"
And he answers his own question:
"He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others."
And this brings a shocked response from his hearers:
"When they heard this, they said, 'Surely not!'"
They seem to be in denial about the inevitable end to this story.
"But [Jesus] looked directly at them …"
as if to say, 'this is you I'm talking about'
"… and said, 'What then is this that is written: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone"?'"
That's a Bible quote from Psalm 118. And he adds:
"Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him."
'What does that mean?', he asks. What it means is that he, Jesus is the rock on which the world is built. He is the solid foundation of everything. And if, after all his patience, we end up rejecting him, thinking to gain, we will be sorely disappointed. Because if in the end we reject him, he will reject us, and – to use this picture of the great rock falling on us – we will have the life crushed out of us.
That's the warning. But on the other side of that coin there's a promise as well. The promise is that Jesus is on a mission. The day will come when he will eject from his kingdom all that is evil and all who are evil. All who are his enemies on that day will not be able to stand against him. Goodness and righteousness and the love of Christ will prevail. And the kingdom will be given to those who have turned from their sin and rebellion and put their trust in him and in the forgiveness that flows from his blood shed on that cross. They will not deserve a place in his kingdom. But his is a kingdom of grace and mercy. That is the promise.
So there are some clear lessons for us all.
One, see how deep the corruption in humanity goes – and in our own hearts. Only then can we see the full wonder of what Jesus did for us when he died for our sins on the cross. As J.C. Ryle puts it:
"Christ is never fully valued until sin is clearly seen."
Two, be amazed at the longsuffering and patience of God towards us. We try his patience beyond all endurance, and yet he continues to give us and the world new opportunity after new opportunity to turn back to him in repentance and faith.
Three, don't lose sight of the fact that God's patience will one day come to an end. The task of calling the nations of the world to repentance and faith is urgent. We dare not delay. The day of final reckoning is coming. The owner and landlord will clear out the tenants from hell. He will restore his rightful rule. He is the owner and the judge and the ruler of this world of his. He gave his Son to die, and raised him from death, so that he could fully take possession of his Kingdom again. He will complete his mission.
Four – and to spell it out – a person's eternal destiny is determined by his or her attitude to Jesus. If, as it were, anyone throws out his messengers and wishes him dead and gone, then they are joining the tenants from hell and will share their fate. So don't ignore what Jesus said, and don't despise what Jesus did, and don't reject Jesus. Let's make sure we keep on turning to him in repentance and faith. And then let's take every opportunity to persuade others to do the same. Then, by grace, we will belong in the vineyard. We will have a place in his kingdom. We will share in his inheritance – and in all the blessings of eternal life.