Luke 20:9-19

Jesus Under Surveillance
Luke 20:9-19
Intro: This parable has traditionally been called, “the parable of the wicked vinedressers,” but considering the context of the story, it is clear who the main characters are. They are not the vinedressers. So, we will call it “the parable of the noble vineyard owner and his son.” The reasons will become clear as we examine the parable together. The vineyard owner is the hero of the story because he exhibits “makrothymia.” This is a profoundly rich word in the original language. It means something like “he puts his anger far away.”  Restraint is the key.

A classic example of this virtue can be seen in David as he stands over the sleeping body of Saul with his spear in his hand. Saul has come to kill David, and yet David has infiltrated Saul’s camp and can easily kill him.

David’s bodyguard wants to take vengeance, but David shows great “patience/restraint.” He puts his anger far away and refuses the request. The vineyard owner in the parable does the same thing.

This teaching from Jesus follows on the heels of His confrontation by the temple leadership. They asked Him a loaded question intended to trap Him. He answered their question with one of His own, and they faltered, claiming they did not know the answer. 

Jesus, therefore refused to answer their question, but He did tell a story. 

Scene 1 – Introduction to the story

Luke 20:9 Then He began to tell the people this parable: “A certain man planted a vineyard, leased it to vinedressers, and went into a far country for a long time.

Jesus begins by introducing the owner of the vineyard and a group of workers who have rented the vineyard for labor. While the grapes are growing, the owner intentionally goes away.

The owner expects a harvest that benefits both he and the workers who have leased his property. Should be a win-win.

The OT does not contain as many parables as the NT, but there is a very famous parable in Isaiah 5. It is called “the Song of the Vineyard.”

In that song/parable God plants a vineyard and spares no effort/expense to see that it will produce good grapes. But, it only produces wild grapes that were worthless for eating or making wine. 

The vineyard owner judges the vineyard to be a failure. He opts to tear it down completely.

Isaiah 5:5 And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; and break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.

“The Song of the Vineyard” (Isaiah 5) and “the Parable of the Noble Vineyard Owner” contain similar imagery. But there are important differences. Yet clearly, Jesus is retelling the Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah 5 and putting a new spin on it.

In the days of Jesus’ ministry, the wealthy often lived some distance from their farms/vineyards. Therefore, the social setting of the parable was familiar to Jesus’ hearers. They could easily picture what was happening.

Scenes 2, 3, & 4 show a revolting digression of mistreatment. The servants are sent to the vineyard at harvest time to receive some of the produce to share with the master of the vineyard. Each one is violently turned away with nothing to take back to the owner.

The violence escalates with each approaching servant. It gets more severe each time. To Jesus’ hearers, this is a shocking and unexpected twist in the story.

Scene 2 – 1st servant sent and beaten

Luke 20:10 Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that they might give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the vinedressers beat him and sent him away empty-handed.  

This was simple defiance of an authority figure.

Scene 3 – 2nd servant sent and is both beaten and shamed

Luke 20:11 Again he sent another servant; and they beat him also, treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed.

Personal honor is held in high esteem in the ancient near east. Theirs is an honor/shame culture, and this servant is “treated shamefully.”

This act of violence was more than simple defiance. It was an honor challenge to the owner of the vineyard. Retaliation was expected by both the vinedressers themselves and the community once the word spread.

Scene 4 – 3rd servant sent and beaten twice, both coming and going

Luke 20:12 And again he sent a third; and they wounded him also and cast him out. 

The last servant is “wounded” and “cast out.” Some physical harm came to him not only as he arrived but also when he was expelled from the vineyard. 

The first two servants were “sent away.” The third was “cast out.”

There is no doubt that these scenes point to the fates of various prophets from Israel’s history who were sent to the people by God.

How much violence and insult against his servants will the owner of the vineyard tolerate? What response is expected? What will the owner choose to do? 

The 5th scene provides the answer.

Scene 5 – The owner decides to send his son

Luke 20:13a “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? 

The owner has the right to contact authorities, who at his request will send a heavily armed company of trained soldiers to storm the vineyard, arrest the violent renters who have mistreated his servants, and bring them to justice.

The abusing of his servants is an insult to his person, and he is expected, indeed he is honor bound, to deal with the matter.

What will he do with the anger generated by the injustice he and his servants have suffered?

illus: There is a midrash by a certain rabbi on the story of Moses and the 10 plagues in Exodus.  For whose sake did God reveal Himself in Egypt? For the sake of Moses. Rabbi Nissim told the following parable about a priest who owned an orchard of fig trees, near an unclean field. It would defile a Jewish man for temple worship if he accidentally ventured into the field on the way to the orchard. When the priest wished to eat some of the figs, he told one of his men to go and say to the renter, “The owner of the orchard bids you bring him two figs.” He went and told him; whereupon the tenant replied: “Who is the owner of orchard? Go back to your work.” Then the priest said: “I will go myself to the orchard.” His men replied: “Will you go to an unclean place?” He said: “Even if there be a hundred forms of uncleanness there I will go, so that my messenger may not be put to shame.”

So when Israel was enslaved in Egypt, God said to Moses: “Come now, therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh” (Ex 3:10), so he went and was asked: “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice?...I do not know the Lord; Get back to your work!” Then God said, “I will Myself go to Egypt.”…Whereupon His angels said: “Will You go to an unclean place?” The reply was: “Yes, so that My messenger Moses may not be put to shame.”

The reader of this midrash knows that when God says, “I will Myself go to Egypt,” the purpose of His going was to carry out the 10th plague, which killed all the firstborn males in Egypt.

Now we know what Jesus’ hearers expect when the owner of the vineyard asks in the parable, “What shall I do?” after his servants are not only put to shame on his behalf but also are insulted, beaten, and thrown out, three times in a row.

If God is willing to go in person to inflict widespread death on the Egyptians for the verbal slight of His servant Moses by Pharaoh, what violent acts will the vineyard owner in Jesus’ parable impose after his servants are beaten and insulted one after another?

Thus far, (1) in the song of the vineyard in Isaiah, God utterly destroyed the vineyard and even commanded the clouds to no longer rain on it, (2) for the Egyptians the 10th plague was also devastating beyond words. 

How are we to understand the decisions made by the owner in Jesus’ parable?

illus: In Luke 14 Jesus told the parable of the great banquet. It has some of the same features as this parable. A wealthy man gives a great banquet and invites many. At the time of the banquet, he sends his servant to the homes of the guests to inform them that the banquet was now ready. One after another (3 in total) they refuse to attend, offering fabricated, paper-thin excuses. The host is insulted 3 times over. His honor has been precluded. He becomes angry. At that point the host of the banquet faces the same problem as the owner of the vineyard: What will he do with his anger? 

To the amazement of the reader, his anger does not escalate to violence, it decompresses into grace.

He sends the servant back out to invite the outcasts in the community to his banquet.

In the same way, the owner of the vineyard chooses grace over vengeance. He chooses peacemaking over reprisal.

As we read verse 13, we feel an obvious dramatic pause after the question, “What shall I do?”

He processes his anger, frustration, and desire for revenge into loving restraint. It is a costly kindness.

Luke 20:13b … I will send my beloved son. Probably they will respect him when they see him.’

To the hearer’s total surprise, the owner sends his son to the vineyard unarmed hoping to make peace with the renters.

Esau took 400 armed men with him to meet his brother Jacob (Gen 33:1). Yet even with the images of the humiliation and the suffering of his servants fresh on his mind, this noble owner decides to send the son that he loves. 

That son travels with no escort, to meet the vicious men who were anxiously awaiting his father’s response to their last outrage. 

Has the owner lost his better judgment? How could he be this idealistic? How could he be so reckless?

illus: In the final decades of the 20th century King Hussein was the beloved king of the nation of Jordan. His leadership in that very unstable region has become somewhat legendary. Many unforgettable stories still circulate about him. One night in the early 1980s, the king was informed by his security police that a group of about 75 Jordanian army officers were, at that very moment, meeting in a nearby barracks plotting a military overthrow of the kingdom. The security officers requested permission to surround the barracks and arrest the traitors. After a long pause the king refused and said, “Bring me a small helicopter.” A chopper was flow in. The king climbed in with the pilot and personally flew to the barracks, landing on its flat roof. The king told the pilot, “If you hear gunfire, fly away at once without me.” Unarmed, the king walked down two flights of stairs and suddenly appeared in the room with the plotters. He quietly said to them: “Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that you are meeting here tonight to finalize your plans to overthrow the government, take over the country, and install a military dictator. If you do this, the army will break apart and the country will be plunged into civil war. Tens of thousands of innocent people will die. There is no need for this. Here I am! Kill me and proceed. That way, only one man will die.” After a moment of stunned silence, the rebels as one man rushed forward to kiss the king’s hand and feet and to pledge loyalty to him for life. 

King Hussein opted for total vulnerability. He acted nobly, and by doing so he fanned into flame the dying embers of the rebels’ sense of honor.
Both King Hussein and the noble vineyard owner had the same hope: that violent men would sense extraordinary grace through physical vulnerability.

The parable implies that if the renters will only accept the authority of the son and pay their rent (produce from the vines), amnesty will apply. Such was also the assumption of King Hussein’s gesture.

English translations of v.13 usually read, “it may be that they will respect him.” But what is transpiring in the story at this point is far deeper and more profound than the question of respect.

The owner is acting out of astonishing nobility, and he sincerely hopes that his choice of total vulnerability will awaken a long-forgotten sense of honor in the hearts of the violent men who are waiting in the vineyard. He is willing to take the risk.

His servants had already been beaten and wounded. Yet, he will risk an even greater loss. 

Most Arabic versions of the Bible of the last 1,000 years have translated this verse, “they will feel shame in his presence.”

“Probably they will respect him when they see him” = “Perhaps they will feel shame in his presence”

To retaliate is not the only way. Returning violence for violence or evil for evil would likely only trigger further bloodshed.

Scene 6 – The last act of violence against the noble vineyard owner is to expel his son and murder him

Luke 20:14 But when the vinedressers saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.’
Luke 20:15a So they cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. 

They drag the son outside the vineyard because if they kill him on the inside, their grapes will become defiled and worthless to future buyers.

But the key phrase is “that they inheritance may be ours.” What does this mean?

There is a ruling in the Mishnah that outlines what we would call “squatters rights,” i.e. when someone has possessed the land/farm of someone else for long enough, maintaining and protecting, it changes ownership after a legally defined time period (3 years).

The renters believe that if they can maintain physical possession for three years, they can secure ownership of the vineyard.

They forgot that they were renters and began to assume that they were owners!

Through the channel of this parable, Jesus expresses His understanding of the conflict between Him and the temple leadership. It is an expose’ of how much the temple enterprise had drifted away from God’s holiness. 

Like the vineyard, God’s house had been hijacked evil men who would kill the owner’s son without any conscience.


Scene 7 – After the vinedressers blatantly despise His vulnerable grace, the owner reclaims his honor

Luke 20:15b Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do to them?
Luke 20:16a He will come and destroy those vinedressers and give the vineyard to others.” 

Not only will the evil renters receive justice for their crimes, but “others” will take over their privileges in the vineyard. 

The parable was directed against the scribes and priests, and they knew it. Something is to be taken from them and given to others.

It was the inheritance promised to the patriarchs, except it had nothing to do with the land of Canaan. The inheritance is the eternal kingdom of God. It is everlasting life. 

Psalm 16:6 The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Yes, I have a good inheritance.

This everlasting life is manifested after the final judgment when all unbelievers like the vinedressers are destroyed.

Luke 20:19 And the chief priests and the scribes that very hour sought to lay hands on Him, but they feared the people — for they knew He had spoken this parable against them.