“Hear another parable.
There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country.
When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them.
Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? (Matthew 21:33-42)
Jesus tells this parable in the context of asking some of the religious authorities what they thought about certain situations and what judgment they would render. These same officials had been putting Jesus to the test with their questions, but then Jesus reversed the process and asked them to render their own judgments and opinions.
Jesus set the scene – the owner of a vineyard knows harvest time has come and he wants to collect some of the reward from having a vineyard. But the tenants working for him rebel and decide to keep the profits for themselves. Jesus asks the religious leaders, what do they think the owner of the vineyard should do with his rebellious tenants. The leaders come down on the side of retributive justice, declaring the rebels are to be rightfully put to death.
But if we go back and think about the parable, is there any indication that the vineyard owner is at all a man of retribution and punishment? None.
The owner’s initial reaction to his servants being killed and beaten, is not retribution nor punishment. He simply decides to send more servants. The larger group of servants is also not shown any respect by the tenants but rather are treated the same, some being murdered, others being physically driven away.
But again, the owner does not react with anger or revenge, rather he now sends his own son to the tenants, still looking for and hoping for a good response from his tenants. The owner continues to treat the rebel tenants with respect. But the tenants do not respond in kind, but rather become irrational declaring if they kill the heir, the inheritance will be theirs. That claim makes no sense at all. No just law would give the inheritance to the murderers of the heir. The bloodthirsty tenants have lost their minds and proceed to murder the owners son.
No where in the parable does Jesus ever give us the sense that the owner of the vineyard is cruel and terrible, or that he is vengeful, or would seek retributive justice. The rebellious tenants of the parable may have deserved such treatment, but note it is not Jesus who ever says this, but rather it is the conclusion of the opponents of Jesus.
Jesus is using the parable to reveal to his opponents what is in their hearts and on their minds. They think in terms of retribution and punishment. But if that is their idea of God, then why don’t they live accordingly? Why don’t they live in total fear of the God who they think is nothing but perfectly just and exacting? If they believe God is so absolutely just as to punish every sinner, why don’t they themselves see their own need for repentance and the need for their own salvation? The measure they give is the measure they will get – at least that would be consistent thinking. Why then are they so unafraid to reject God’s prophets and God’s word?
It is a questions we might ask ourselves. Are we exactly like those opponents of Jesus who teach and demand absolute retribution and punishment for all other sinners (except ourselves, of course!)? Do we condemn the rebel tenants exactly like those opponents of Christ did and feel righteous indignation at the rebels behavior? Do we find ourselves agreeing with Christ’s enemies?
Then whose side are we on?
Or, do we too reject the stone which is the head of the corner and favor the position and teachings of the enemies of Christ?
Do we, like Christ’s enemies, believe in retribution and justice only for others but not for ourselves?
Is Christ offering us a different idea about our Creator, the God who so loves the world?