Jesus is the beloved Son sent to God’s beloved vineyard, by whose death God provides the fruit of righteousness we did not yield and the inheritance we did not deserve. By God’s grace, we are the “others” who have been given the vineyard. In His rejection He has become the cornerstone, upon whom we fall in brokenness, contrition, and faith, confident that His will is not to crush us but to make us whole. That is the good news of this parable.
But the parable of Luke 20:9-18 is not merely (or primarily) a teaching of content. The parable does teach, but more fundamentally it is a living proclamation of God’s Word that does something to its hearers. Jesus speaks this parable to “the people” (20:9) who have been portrayed positively by Luke as those receptive to Jesus’ word (1:68; 7:29; 18:43; 19:48). But Jesus’ parable is also being heard by “the scribes and the chief priests” (20:19) who have rejected His word and have been seeking to destroy Jesus (19:39; 19:47).
Luke tells us how this parable impacted the latter group in 20:19: “The scribes and the chief priest sought to lay hands on Him at that very hour, for they perceived that He had told this parable against them.” I am struck by that word, “against.” I would have expected the word “about” instead of “against,” which probably reveals my tendency to read Scripture for content and teaching instead of more intentionally encountering the very voice of God at work through His Word. “About” feels more like a teaching moment or an illustration. “Against” carries force with it, and the scribes and chief priests felt that force.
I wonder what force “the people” felt. Luke does not explicitly say (though we get a glimpse in verse 16). And I wonder how we might help our people feel the force of Jesus’ words... perhaps against, but especially for them. This may take some decoding of the parable and referring to Isaiah 5. But I want to wrestle with how we might bring the force of Jesus’ words to our people beyond explaining the words as just teaching something.
And I wonder how we might help our people feel the force of Jesus’ words... perhaps against, but especially for them.
One approach to help our people feel the force of this parable would be to imaginatively enter into the characters of the parable and retell the parable from within. A second approach would be to hear the emotional distress of the people in verse 16.
The first approach of helping our people feel the force of this parable allows us to imaginatively enter into the characters of the parable and retell the parable from within. What do the tenants expect when they sign-on for the labor at hand? Are they scheming from the start, or did they begin with good intentions which faded over time? Can you imagine a dialogue between two tenants about the distant owner? Maybe they mistake his physical distance for not caring. Maybe they mistake his patience for forgetfulness. A preacher might take contemporary concerns or criticisms about God’s apparent absence and put them on the lips of these tenants, not as caricatures, but to create empathy and understanding.
What about the servants? Can you imagine the good owner calling a trusted servant to carry out the task of retrieving the expected fruit? Maybe he is thankful he can be of service. Maybe he is eager to see the progress of the vineyard. The tone is likely different when the second servant is sent. And what about the third? Does he try to negotiate with the master, or does he respond swiftly in obedience? Do his friends try to talk him out of it and point out the costs? Where does he get the resolve of Isaiah 6?
And then there is the son. Imagine the dialogue when the father asks the son to go. Neither of them is naïve. They see the danger. But something still compels the father to send and the son to obey. In this retelling, a preacher might even take on the character of one of them as the very clear Gospel moment of this sermon.
Our second approach would be to hear the emotional distress of the people in verse 16. When I first read this parable, I read 20:16 as the scribes and chief priests trying to get out of their just punishment. But then I realized Jesus was talking with the people who have been largely receptive. Their response to the owner’s just actions is, “Surely not!” in the English Standard Version (ESV). In Greek, it is “Μὴ γένοιτο..” This is the only occurrence of the phrase in the Gospels, though Paul uses it some thirteen times as his most powerful negation (see Romans 3:5-6, 6:1-2, 6:15, and 11:1-11).
Just as God takes no delight in the death of the wicked, so these faithful people take no delight in it either.
“God forbid!” “May it never be!” “Surely not!” Rather than seeing this as the scribes trying to dodge their punishment, I began to read it as the people grieving over all that is broken in the parable.
God’s people rejected a prophet. “God forbid!” Then they rejected another. “May it never be!” Then another. “Surely not!” So, God sent His Son. “God forbid! Don’t you know what will happen?” And they killed the Son. Then they received their just punishment. And to all this, the people Jesus is speaking to reply, “Lord have mercy! May it not be so.” Just as they grieve over the injustice done to God’s messengers and Son, they grieve like Jesus (19:41) over the fate of those who have carried out the injustice. May our hearts grieve like theirs over the same!
Just as God takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11), so these faithful people take no delight in it either. This word of Law, intended against the scribes and chief priests, has seemingly wounded the faithful people who heard it. God’s Law wounds and kills. And even when God’s Law is pronounced against someone else, it leads us all to repentance (Luke 13:1-5). This is what it looks like to encounter the justice of God, even when that justice is directed at someone else.
This living Word breaks and crushes. It comes down as crushing judgment on those who reject the Son. But it promises to heal and restore all those who fall on the Son broken, contrite, and in faith.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 20:9–20.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 20:9–20.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 20:9–20.