Your hearers are not first-century religious leaders in Israel. Neither are present-day pastors and church leaders. This is an important point for a sermon on this text, because Jesus is speaking to the people of Israel about their religious leaders. What he says in this parable has significance for us today, and needs to be preached. But the application is not direct and therefore should be done carefully.

The context is important for this parable, especially because the lectionary has been bouncing around in Luke for the last four weeks. Since entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in Luke 19:28-40, Jesus’ interaction with the religious leaders has been increasingly combative. Jesus wept over Jerusalem for their obstinacy (19:41-44), cleansed the temple (19:45-48), and defiantly returned their questions back against them (20:1-8). After this text things get even worse (see chapters 21-22).

In this text, however, Jesus speaks directly to the people. He tells them a “salvation history” story. It’s a big picture parable. With the image of a vineyard and some wicked tenants, he summarizes the story of God’s interaction with Israel up to the present moment. It’s natural to identify God with the owner, Israel with the vineyard, and the religious leaders of Israel with the wicked tenants. The servants in the story match up well with the prophets of old. The son is the Son, of course, and his rejection and execution in the story came to pass just a few chapters after this text and a few weeks after this Sunday.

Before preaching from this text it’s worth considering how this parable functioned among the people who first heard it. We know the effect it had on the religious leaders. They got the message and got ready to kill him (verse 20). What about the people? Luke doesn’t tell us how they responded, or what they took from it. But two observations seem reasonable, and they point the way toward potential directions for a sermon on this text.

  1. As I noted above, through this parable Jesus was giving them the big picture. Whether they got the message or not, the parable is a reminder that that God is the owner. Not only of the vineyard, but of everything—Israel, the world, the harvest, everything. Neither the tenants, nor the servants, nor the people then, nor the people today belong to themselves. All things belong to God. All are accountable to him.
  2. The parable also says something about how God deals with obstinacy and disobedience. In his divine wisdom, he deals with those who have turned against him by sending to them his Son. When their obstinate disobedience continues, and when they reject even his Son, the result is not good for them. They are either broken to pieces or crushed (verse 18). Jesus doesn’t explicitly mention the resurrection in the parable, but the reference to Psalm 118:22 in verse 17 invites the connection.

To this point I’ve focused on the parable itself. But what about us? Where do you and your hearers fit in this story? Since we come after Jesus resurrection, we aren’t in this story. Not directly, at least. The closest connection to us are Jesus’ words in verse 16 when he says that the owner of the vineyard will take it from the wicked tenants and give it to others (ἄλλοις). This isn’t good news for the religious leaders, of course. But for the “others”—for those of us who have been grafted into the vineyard, who have been graciously welcomed through their rejection (Romans 11)—the news is good. Very good. We have been brought under the gracious ownership and protective oversight of the Owner.

This doesn’t mean the Christian life will be easy, of course. Read together with Philippians 3:8-14, the sermon could call the hearers to share in the suffering of the Son as a prelude to a share in his resurrection. We should not be surprised when we suffer as the servants of God. But neither should we despair, for the Son has risen. Following the appointed Psalm 126, the sermon could also invite your hearers to a life of praise and rejoicing, even during Lent. In Christ, the Lord has done great things for us, too (126:3), and he will restore our fortunes (126:4) in full when the Son returns.

Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO, to assist you in preaching Luke 20:9-20.

Lectionary Podcast: Dr. Peter J. Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN, walks us through Luke 20:9-20.

Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 20:9-20.