Luke 20:9–19 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions

The Parable of the Tenants (or Who Owns the Vineyard?)

Some awful mistakes can happen when those who are tenants begin acting as if they're owners. The more valuable the property they occupy, the more responsibility they have to treat it carefully. Can you imagine tenants in a beautiful mansion who refuse to pay rent and who threaten or beat up those whom the owner sends to collect rent?

To follow up on last week's study of how Jewish leaders challenged Jesus about the source of his authority, he tells a parable about wicked tenants of a vineyard, who'd wrongfully assumed ownership of that which wasn't theirs. It's one of only three parables that occur in all three synoptic gospels (i.e., the Sower and the Mustard Seed). Today's parable answers the question the leaders had just asked Jesus: "By what authority are you doing these things?" If God owns the vineyard, and Jesus is the Son and rightful heir to it, then Jesus is acting under God's authority. The Jewish leaders had wrongfully usurped the authority of God, the rightful owner.

The fundamental question that not only these Jewish leaders, but all who hear the parable, need to answer is, "Who owns the vineyard?" Keeping in mind the answer to that question will determine how we live. Let's read the parable now (vv. 9–19, shown below). . .

Seeking Fruit (vv. 9–12)

Jesus begins his story — for that's what a parable is — with a very familiar hallmark of Middle Eastern agriculture: a vineyard. Along with the fig tree, the vineyard is almost proverbial for "abundant blessing." But Jesus' parable of the vineyard is unique. It isn't just a story; it's an allegory that has each part representing something different. A man (who represents God in this parable) plants the vineyard and then rents it to tenants.

This simple story comes with a powerful punch. If Jesus wouldn't answer the question about his authority directly, his answer here is pointed and painfully clear, albeit indirect. The vineyard was a common symbol for Nation Israel. God had, at the exodus, "planted Israel," sending his prophets who are this parable's "servants." The nation, through its leaders, consistently rejected the prophets and their message. While God had sent these servants, they were nevertheless rejected and persecuted. John the Baptist, about whom Jesus had just questioned his opponents, was the last of these rejected prophets.

The prophets weren't regarded as having any authority over the vineyard tenants. Eventually, the vineyard owner decided to send his own son. Surely they'd recognize and submit to his authority. Instead, these rebels proposed to kill the son, thinking that that might somehow give them possession of the vineyard and the right to continue to rule it. The owner of the vineyard would surely be justified in coming to his vineyard, destroying its leaders, and placing others in charge of it.

Tenant farmers were usually paid by allowing them to keep a portion of the harvest, with a fixed percentage going to the owner. But these tenants didn't want to share anything with the owner. When the owner's representatives come to claim the owner's share, the tenants beat and mistreated them. In our passage, we see three words that describe this violence: (1) "Beat" is Greek dero, "to beat, whip"; (2) "Treat shamefully" is Greek atimazo, "to dishonor, shame," perhaps subject to public ridicule. It's an especially grievous offence in the honor-shame-oriented Semitic society; and (3) "Wound" is Greek traumatizo, from which we get our word "traumatize." Having heard Jesus' teaching, it's clear to the disciples to whom he was referring (Luke 11:47–50 and 13:34). He sees the current rulers doing the same as their ancestors — killing the prophets who were sent to correct the Israelites and turn their hearts and praises toward God as fruit from his vineyard. So in Jesus' parable, the tenants represent the unbelieving rulers, while the vineyard is the nation of Israel.

Sending the Son (vv. 13–15a)

What a powerful message we find here. Men like John the Baptizer were prophets who had the authority to speak for God. John, as a divinely appointed spokesman for God, proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. But just as Israel's leaders had rejected other prophets, so they'd done with John.

Jesus, in this parable, is telling his listeners that he isn't a prophet but the Son, which is the basis of his authority. He owns the vineyard; he's been sent by his Father to possess what is his. But they'll reject him and put him to death, doing so with the full knowledge that he's the Son, because he's the Son. This, we recall, is what Jesus' opponents have already proposed to do (19:47). It's not so much that they didn't know who Jesus was, it's that they wouldn't accept his authority.

In our Parable of the Tenants, such rebelliousness doesn't only apply to rejecting the prophets (vv. 13–15a). The owner's son should have been offered respect; instead, the son was killed. Of course, in this thinly-veiled allegory, the son is the Son of God whose death takes place outside the city on Golgotha.

Responding to Evil (15b:16)

How will the vineyard owner respond to the rejection, beatings, and killing? With continued patience? Not at all! His response is firm: "He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others" (v. 15b). How do you think the parable's listeners reacted to that ultimatum? Notice their response: "God forbid!" (v. 16). They must have understood something of what Jesus meant in his parable. The key idea of "vineyard" may have tipped them that Israel was the subject. Perhaps the plots swirling around Jesus and the people's belief that he was the Messiah contributed to their understanding. Even Jesus' Israelite enemies "knew he had spoken this parable against them" (v. 19).

But Jesus, amazingly, rejected the people's spur-of-the-moment, merciful impulse in v. 17 when he asked them the meaning of this Scripture: "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." Jesus is clear that Scripture must be fulfilled, in this case with the destruction of God's enemies.

The Son's Father, the owner of the vineyard, will be fully justified in destroying the leaders and giving their leadership positions to others. In this context, those who'll replace the leaders are non-Jewish Gentiles! Jesus is saying that he's the Son of God, that he came in God's authority, that they'll kill him, but that God won't only destroy them, he'll give their leadership to the Gentiles. The response of the Lord's hearers is predictable: "God forbid!" This is the only place in the gospels that this expression, common to Paul, appears. It's a thought almost too horrible to consider. Jesus has lowered the boom on his opponents.

Becoming the Cornerstone (vv. 17–18)

In v. 17, Jesus extends this "stone becoming the cornerstone" concept to the builders of Judaism, the leaders who've become his arch enemies. The word "rejected" is apodokimazo, "reject (after scrutiny), declare useless." The rulers didn't just make a quick judgment error on the spur of the moment; they had the opportunity to examine the "stone" carefully before they'd reject it after examination. Whether the word "stone" in this parable refers to the "cornerstone of a building" or the "capstone above the door or porch," the point is that while it was rejected by the builders, it ultimately was placed by God in one key position of the entire structure.

Keeping in mind "the rejected stone becoming the capstone," Jesus connects it with v. 18's two-part messianic passage taken from Psalm 118:22–24. (Part 1 is from Isaiah 8:14–15, referring to stumbling on that Stone, while part 2 is from Daniel 2:34–35, 44–45, which refers to being crushed by it.) Jesus continues with, "Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed" (v. 18).

Jesus' words concerning the destruction of the Messiah's enemies are sober ones: The word used twice in v. 18 as "falls" is the common Greek verb pipto; the word translated "broken to pieces" is Greek sunthlao, "crush (together), dash to pieces," to crush in such a way that an object is put in pieces; the word translated "crushed" or "grind to powder" is the Greek verb likmao. These words portend a terrible fate for the Messiah's enemies.

The son — rejected, put to death — is the Son of God who'll rise from the dead and return to earth to establish his kingdom. The Son is in one sense a "stone of stumbling" to the Jews. This was our Lord's role then. In a "passive" way (since the stone didn't move, men stumbled over it), Jesus was a stumbling block to men who refused to acknowledge their sin and their need of a Savior. But this passive "stone of stumbling," whom the builders (i.e., the leaders of the nation) rejected, will also be an "active" agent in their destruction. He's viewed now as a moving, falling stone that crushes and grinds his enemies.

Angry and Afraid (v. 19)

This parable aside, Jesus' dispute with his enemies has gone beyond the philosophical stage; it's become deadly serious. We ought to look at today's parable in light of our own tendency to rebel against God's will. We prefer things our own way. Too often there are issues with which we become angry with God, e.g., an untimely death, a financial reversal, a loss from which we can't seem to recover. We have no more excuse to rebel against the Messiah than Israel's leaders had. If we place ourselves against God, we declare ourselves to be his enemies. If we allow ourselves to stumble over Christ's will for us, then we must be willing to face the awesome punishment of being crushed to powder by the Stone. Father: Forgive us and take away our shame when we rebel against our Master, amen.

[You can see in Warren's commentary on Jesus' Parable of the Wicked Trustees/Tenants how Jesus presents the Jewish leaders who heard God's warning but ignored it, instead charging ahead ruthlessly, which wouldn’t end well for anyone.]

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  Who are the builders and why did they ultimately reject Jesus after studying him carefully? (v. 18)
  • Q. 2  Can you detect when your heart is rebellious against God? What's the fix?

This Week's Passage
Luke 20:9–19 (Lukas)

New International Version (NIV)
[To view it in a different version, click here; also listen to chapter 20.]

 Watch this passage-specific video clip from Jesus Film Project titled "Parable of the Vineyard and Tenants."

The Parable of the Tenants

9He went on to tell the people this parable: "A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. 10At 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. 11He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. 12He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.

13"Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.'

14"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.' 15So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

"What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others."

When the people heard this, they said, "God forbid!"

17Jesus looked directly at them and asked, "Then what is the meaning of that which is written:

      "'The stone the builders rejected
        has become the cornerstone'?

18Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed."

19The 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.