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A Cornerstone That Cannot Be Destroyed - The Parable of the Tenants in Luke 20:9-19

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

Rebelling against God is unbelievably foolish.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Luke 20:9-19

Jesus uses a parable to explain the what and the why for the cost of rebellion against God. He makes those who rebel against God out to be senseless, wicked men. And yet He also explains the incredible patience and mercy of God. And what happens next? The Jewish leaders do exactly what this parable said they would do.

‘This is the heir. Let’s kill him, so that the inheritance will be ours.’ Luke 20:14

Getting Started: Things to Think About

An Unbelievably Evil Character

You might have to get some internet help on this one (because these characters are mostly forgettable), but there is a category of villain that is so incredibly evil that it's almost funny. (I think it's lazy writing, but whatever.) This is not the "Laughably Evil" trope because this character isn't actually funny. It overlaps with the "Bumbling Henchman Duo" trope because the unbelievably evil character doesn't really think about the consequences of his evilness; he just does whatever is evil. So, I think of many of the villains in the old Batman show -- one-dimensional baddies who would hit the old lady crossing the street.

In Doctor Who, it's The Master. In Arrow, it's Damien Darhk. In Les Miserables, it's Thenardier. In Hamilton, it's King George. In Home Alone, it's the Wet Bandits. In Harry Potter, it's the Malfoys. In Star Wars, it's Palpatine. See where I'm going with this? Characters who are just the absolute worst.

Have you ever stopped to try to understand a character like that? If you think you can, or if you think your character has some sort of story arc, then they're not what I'm talking about. The character I have in mind has no redeeming qualities, no redemption arc, nothing. They're just bad. They exist to be loathed. Nothing more.

So here's your opening challenge. Think of the "worst" characters in your book/movie history and identify what makes them "the worst". Then, as we study Jesus' parable, see how well your character stacks up against the people Jesus describes.

The Sound of Inevitability -or- "Resistance is Futile"

If I'm on a media kick, I may as well give you another option to consider. Think about a story in which a character is about to be metaphorically bulldozed by a "change in the winds". This often has a negative connotation. After all, Karl Marx was the man who modernized the saying, saying that socialism was "inevitable" because of how scientific and intellectual it was. People in Russia who opposed them were simply killed.

Because I'm a nerd, I think of Darth Vader telling Luke that is was useless to resist the Emperor because he was too strong and would win. I also think of Agent Smith telling Neo that his doom was inevitable and that it was useless to fight the matrix. And of course, there's Thanos saying that he was inevitable -- that no one could stop him from destroying the universe. (Aside: I am Iron Man.)

Sometimes, this can be played for laughs, as when Steve Martin stops the bulldozing of his house at the last minute (Father of the Bride 2). Or when Ernest saves Camp Kikakee (Ernest Goes to Camp). But usually, it's something depressing, like the entire plot of Last of the Mohicans.

With those tropes, one of two things is often true: a brave resistance rises against the inevitable baddie, and that drives the plot; or, the resistance was futile and "progress" cannot be stopped. Well, that's not quite what Jesus was going after in our parable this week.

So here's what I want you to think of: a story where the good guy is the unstoppable force and the bad guy is helpless to resist. (Yes, this happens a lot, but often with a flawed hero, or only a temporary reprieve before the evil returns, or a nail-biting close battle. Can you think of a time when the hero was truly and completely good, winning a complete and permanent victory over evil?)

If you can think of one of those situations, you're ready to understand the parable Jesus tells us in this week's passage.

Where We Are in Luke

Remember, we've been going out of order to cover the Palm Sunday and Easter passages on their respectively celebrated days. Our passage this week occurs in between those two events. As best as we can tell, this event takes place on Tuesday of Holy Week.

  • Sunday -- the Triumphal Entry (Luke 19:28-44)

  • Monday -- cleansing the temple (19:45-48)

  • Tuesday -- lots of teaching in the temple (chs 20-21)

  • Wednesday -- quiet day in Bethany

  • Thursday -- the Last Supper and Betrayal (22:7-46)

Jesus taught in the temple on Tuesday. After the ruckus He caused on Monday, He was a target for the Jewish leaders. All three synoptic Gospels record this sequence:

  1. Sanhedrin officials challenge Jesus' authority -- Jesus responds with parables (Luke 20:1-19)

  2. Question about taxes to Caesar (20:20-26)

  3. Question about the resurrection (20:27-40)

  4. [Matthew and Mark include an additional question about commandments]

Because we are so close to the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, He definitely takes on an edge to everything He says -- He cuts right to the point, no matter how brutal it sounds. Our passage this week is a case in point.

I'm kind of sad that we skip the rest of Jesus' responses in chapter 20. He unleashes His wit on the hapless Jewish leaders, and it's so one-sided as to be pathetic. Do not challenge Jesus in some kind of battle involving words! No wonder Jesus kept silent at His trials -- they would have stood no chance!

But again, make sure you catch this: the context of our parable is a challenge to Jesus' authority.


Part 1: The Servants (Luke 20:9-12)

9 Now he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, leased it to tenant farmers, and went away for a long time. 10 At harvest time he sent a servant to the farmers so that they might give him some fruit from the vineyard. But the farmers beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 He sent yet another servant, but they beat that one too, treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. 12 And he sent yet a third, but they wounded this one too and threw him out.

It's helpful when the authors inform us Jesus was telling a parable.

We start with a vineyard. This seems to be a direct callback to Isaiah 5:

1 I will sing about the one I love, a song about my loved one’s vineyard: The one I love had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2 He broke up the soil, cleared it of stones, and planted it with the finest vines. He built a tower in the middle of it and even dug out a winepress there. He expected it to yield good grapes, but it yielded worthless grapes.

[Matthew makes that connection clearer by including the details of the winepress and watchtower (and even a fence!).] So, let's talk about Isaiah 5.

You might remember from when we studied Isaiah last fall that this is in the first section of Isaiah: "Trusting God or trusting yourself". It's a bunch of cycles of hope and judgment, generally following this idea:

  • God offers hope, but you must be realistic about your current trajectory toward judgment. It's only when you acknowledge and repent of your wickedness that God's hope can apply to you.

Specifically in Isaiah 5, the vineyard owner discovered that his grapes were bitter, even after giving the vineyard the best chance for success. It's quite likely that this judgment has not been passed for 4-5 seasons -- no hasty or unrealistic expectations. Isaiah then poses the rhetorical question, "What should be done with a worthless vineyard?" God's answer is that He will tear down the protective wall and allow his enemies to trample the vineyard, making it a wasteland (which is literally what happened).

Does that sound like a message the Jewish leaders needed to hear? Does that sounds like a message that they wanted to hear? Remember, Jesus' intended audience would have known exactly what He was referring to. (And if it sounds like history is going to repeat itself with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, well, it is.)

[Caution: remember that parables are not metaphors or allegories. There's no one-to-one correspondence, only a final, overall meaning.]

Let's start with the vineyard. Jesus' audience would have assumed He meant "God's people" with this image because that is how they had understood it in other uses (Psalm 80, Isaiah 5, Isaiah 27:2-3, Jeremiah 2:21, Hosea 10:1). But when Jesus says "give the vineyard to others", that kind of renders that meaning unintelligible. So, what did Jesus mean by introducing us to a "vineyard"? I think He's giving us a subtle but critical distinction that goes all the way back to Isaiah. Remember when we studied Isaiah that much of God's messages to them were along the lines of "don't think that you have immunity from your sin just because you're descendants of Abraham"? I think Jesus is playing that here. The vineyard is not "the people of God" but "the kingdom of God". In the parable, the inhabitants of the vineyard discover that they can be removed from the vineyard. Likewise, the Jews were the epicenter of God's kingdom, but by rejecting Jesus they would be removing themselves from this parabolic vineyard. Again, there doesn't have to be a clear one-to-one correspondence here, but I think Jesus is definitely using the vineyard image in a way that reinforces the messages of judgment in Isaiah.

[See below for more.]

Anyway, for His purposes, Jesus says that this vineyard was leased to tenant farmers, and the owner went away for a long time. If the owner is God, then why would Jesus say that God went away? This is where it's helpful to remember that this is a parable. The point of that statement would be to set up the appearance of representatives to the tenant farmers. Don't get caught up in certain details -- we can come up with all sorts of possible meanings, but they tend to break down if we push them too hard.

So, the owner sent a servant to collect some of the harvest (which is how tenant farming worked! see below). Obviously, by "servant" Jesus was pointing us to God's prophets. "Servant" is actually a common term for a prophet -- see 1 Kings 14:18, 2 Kings 9:36, Ezra 9:11, Isaiah 20:3, Jeremiah 26:5.

But the tenant farmers physically abuse and cast out the servant. And then a second. And then a third. The tenants' behavior is absolutely despicable.

[Because I don't think that I need to say a whole lot about this parable, I'll use that extra space to give a section on Old Testament prophets. See the very end of this post.]

This is where the "unbelievably evil" character trope comes in. Jesus' audience would have been flabbergasted by this behavior. No tenant farmer would do this. First, nobody was that wicked. And second, nobody was that stupid. Did these tenants not think that the owner would come in with an army and wipe them out? Jesus' hearers would have all been thinking that that's what would and should happen.

But that's not what happened. (Yet.)


Aside on Tenant Farming and Ancient Vineyards

Actually, I just noticed that we covered Matthew's version of this parable back in 2017:

[and I'm reading back through it to see what I might have a different perspective on . . . . . nope it's fine. I really like my "wisdom from the farm" section :).]

In that post, Part 1 basically covers vineyards and tenant farming. If you want to learn more, you can check that out.


Part 2: The Son (Luke 20:13-16)

13 “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What should I do? I will send my beloved son. Perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 “But when the tenant farmers saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir. Let’s kill him, so that the inheritance will be ours.’ 15 So 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 kill those farmers and give the vineyard to others.”

Rather than immediately and justifiably wipe out the tenant farmers, the owner does something incredibly gracious. He doesn't just give the tenants another chance -- He gives them the most obvious chance in history. By sending his son (His Son), the owner was making it clear that there would be another chance to make things right, no funny business.

Luke records the phrase "What should I do?" on two other occasions -- the parable of the rich fool in 12:17, and the parable of the shrewd manager in 16:3. In each case, a turning-point decision is about to be made. In this case, it's the decision to send his son.

And this is where things get stupidly, comically weird. In what way did the tenant farmers think they would get the inheritance by killing the son? What did they even think the inheritance was? Did they think he carried it around with him? (Btw: this is another parable detail that has no direct correspondence.) It's such a shortsighted, reckless, wicked decision that Jesus' audience would have no choice but to see exactly where this parable was going.

And here's the thing: the behavior of the tenant farmers could not be justified or excused in any universe. It made no sense. It was unforgivable. Jesus' audience would have no category for this kind of bad actor.

And that's exactly what the Pharisees and Sanhedrin was about to demonstrate being, isn't it?

Think about it. Jesus quite literally did nothing wrong. The Sanhedrin would have to violate many of their own laws to try Him. (Check out Part 2 of our study on the Trial of Jesus from Matthew 26.) And yet the Sanhedrin did everything they possibly could to make sure that Jesus was killed -- outside the city. Jesus eviscerates the Pharisees in Matthew 23 (and not in a parable); we can use that passage to understand exactly how Jesus saw the Pharisees as fulfilling the role of these tenant farmers. Consider these verses:

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30 and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we wouldn’t have taken part with them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors’ sins!
33 “Snakes! Brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell? 34 This is why I am sending you prophets, sages, and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 So all the righteous blood shed on the earth will be charged to you, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all these things will come on this generation.
37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks[o] under her wings, but you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’!"

Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

Jesus has presented us some comically evil characters in this parable, and yet it turns out that the people He based them on were even more wicked. This should be a real eye-opener for us. The Pharisees and other Jewish leaders were not misguided or mistaken; they were in direct and open rebellion against God.

Jesus then re-asked the implied rhetorical question from earlier: what would the owner do? There could be absolutely no doubt what the owner should do; no hearer could deny it. But when they thought about the implications of this decision for themselves, they were horrified. There are three amazing statements here:

  1. First, their God would come to them. But this is more in the feel of "Prepare to meet thy God" from Amos 4.

  2. Second, their God would kill them. It would be the just decision, and it echoed the result in so many other parables (The Two Debtors, Luke 7; The Wedding Feast, Luke 14; The Talents, Luke 19; and many more).

  3. Finally, their God would give their special place to someone else. This would probably be the most shocking. The Pharisees well-understood the history of Israel earning God's judgment, but God always brought them back. Not this time.*

[*Let me clarify. Any Jew who trusted in Jesus would be a part of this new vineyard arrangement, but the Jews as a people would no longer be given that special privilege. Now, the privilege belonged to anyone to listened to and followed Jesus.]

Think about a time when your "day of reckoning" came. Maybe as a child, you knew you had been doing something wrong, and your parents were going to find out, but you kept trying to hide it as long as possible. Or maybe as a teen you had been hiding something from a friend, hoping they would not find out, and being very worried about what would happen if they did. The stakes for this kind of situation generally get a lot higher if you find yourself in this position as an adult. How did it go? What was the anticipation like?


Part 3: The Stone (Luke 20:16-19)

But when they heard this they said, “That must never happen!” 17 But he looked at them and said, “Then what is the meaning of this Scripture:
'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone'?
18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomever it falls, it will shatter him.” 19 Then the scribes and the chief priests looked for a way to get their hands on him that very hour, because they knew he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people.

I understand the people's terror. But wishing something away has never been an effective preventative measure.

For those who thought that this would not happen (that God would not reject His people), Jesus came back at them with a powerful scripture: the same Psalm the people had cheered when Jesus entered Jerusalem two days before. There was not a consensus on how these verses should be understood, which is why they made such an easy target for Jesus. He knew exactly what they meant, and the real reason the Jewish leaders had shied away from that interpretation was what it meant for them.

The word for "cornerstone" literally means "head of the corner", which ostensibly means that it could refer to a cornerstone, a keystone, or a capstone. Each one of those stones was critical to the stable construction of a building. Because of the reference to it falling, I tend to think of it as a capstone. Buildings would be built with a particular keystone or capstone in mind that would perfectly fit that stone and to which the stone would give stability. God's people were built with Jesus in mind. If they were to reject Jesus, the entire building would crumble. The consequences Jesus refers to are allusions to Isaiah 8:14-15 and Daniel 2:34-35. The exact analogy is not important -- the idea is that God's judgment cannot be resisted. Jesus will either be your Savior, or He will be your Judge.

And what was the Pharisees' response? True to form, they wanted to "get" Jesus. They were behaving exactly like the tenants in the parable.

In this, there's a bit of a warning for us. Those Jewish leaders obviously thought they were on God's side, that they were God's chosen people. But their actions demonstrated that they were far from God. Because of the call of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we are never farther away from God that our own repentance. When we feel distant from or antagonistic to God, we just need to stop and repent and allow God to bring us back to Him. But if we are completely cold toward God or His Word, perhaps that's a warning sign that we are not actually a Christian after all. There's an easy solution for that, as well -- repent and come to Jesus for salvation. Jesus is the first moment of our salvation, and He is every moment from then on. He is the cornerstone of our salvation, and He is the capstone.

This is also a reminder about the inevitability and severity of God's victory and God's judgment. God will one day "blow the whistle" and send Jesus back to the earth as the conquering King, and everyone who opposes Him will be crushed. If you have friends and family members who are not Christian, pray for them and ask God to give you an opportunity to share the good news that Jesus will save them.

Here is the Jesus Film enactment of Jesus telling this parable:


Closing Thoughts: The Old Testament Prophets

How did the Jews treat the Old Testament prophets? There's actually not a lot of biblical data on this (although there are tons of apocryphal works like The Lives of the Prophets, which compiles a bunch of folk histories; here's a representative chapter online). For example, there's a lot of early evidence that Jews believed Isaiah was killed by being sawed in half (which may be the source of Hebrews 11:37), but that's not actually said in the Bible. Why don't we know much about the deaths of the prophets? Because their role in history was to present the Word of the Lord to the rebellious people; how they died wasn't really important to their message. (Yes, that sounds harsh, but think about it.)

Jesus specifically mentions Abel (the first martyr in the Old Testament, Gen 4:8) and Zechariah (the last martyr in the Old Testament, 2 Chr 24:20). (It's just a coincidence that those names start with English "A" and "Z".) But the fact that Jesus speaks of what must be a large number of prophets who were killed by the Jews implies that the folk legends linked above might have some validity -- many of those prophets must have indeed been killed.

For example, in 1 Kings 18, we learn that Jezebel killed many prophets. In Nehemiah 9, the prayer mentions that many prophets were killed by the Jews.

But we don't have many specific details. We do know how badly treated Jeremiah was (that's a tough read based on how awful his life must have been).

This is one of those rare situations in which we can look to folk legend -- not to validate what Jesus said, but because it lines up with something Jesus said.


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