Cliff Richard owns one. As does Prince Charles, Brad Pitt, Nick Faldo, and David Beckham. Some are solely for personal use and an investment. Others can offer tax benefits and become lucrative businesses. Yet, the trend of celebrities owing vineyards is not a recent development. In ancient Greek and Roman times, the leading philosophers, playwrights, politicians and generals often owned a vineyard. Although not a celebrity, even Noah planted a vineyard and Naboth was killed for his.
Of course the extensive vineyards of Southern France and Italy today are beautiful, inspiring picture postcards and hundreds of paintings. A thistle makes us think of Scotland. The national flower of England is the rose. Shamrock’s make us think of Ireland. Can’t leave out the Welsh – theirs is the daffodil. In the same way, a kind of national symbol for Israel in the OT was the vineyard. Isaiah writes a song about one:“My friend had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug the soil and cleared it of stones; he planted the finest vines. He built a tower to guard them, dug a pit for treading the grapes. He waited for the grapes to ripen, but every grape was sour.” (Is.5:1-2).
The lesson of this song of the vineyard shows that God’s chosen people have to bear fruit – to carry out His work, to uphold justice. Sadly His chosen nation did bear fruit, but the fruit was bad. So God eventually had to lay it to waste. This brings us to today’s parable of the tenants as adopted by Christ as an allegory to make a similar point. Some of its words recall Isaiah. But the application is new and startling.
A man, says Jesus, planted a vineyard, and when he had got it functioning, let it out to some tenants before he moved away. Before he went, he made a bargain with his tenants on a crop-sharing basis. At harvest time they were to pay him as rent part of the produce. It’s totally reasonable. It’s his land, his vintage. So, when the season came, he sent one of his servants to collect it. But the tenants were devious. They seized the servant, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. A second man was sent but they treated him just as shamefully and a third servant they killed. And so on. The situation was desperate there was only one more person to send. That was his son: “They’ve treated my servants badly, but surely they must respect my son?” he thought. But the tenants were wickeder than he imagined. When the son appeared, they whispered to each other, “This is the heir. If we get rid of him, the vineyard will be ours.” So they killed him too, threw his body outside the vineyard, and seized the property.
It’s relatively easy to understand this parable. It’s a satire of Israel’s history. Like a precious vineyard, God (the landowner) had given His people the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. In favourable seasons much wine was produced and harvests were plentiful. He blessed the nation with His grace, His laws, priests and prophets – they are the servants who were sent on His behalf. But as a nation, Israel rejected many of her prophets Elijah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist. Her tenants – the chief priests, scribes, elders and rulers down the centuries were so wicked that eventually the landowner sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ Himself, as their Messiah.
In the previous chapter the religious leaders had questioned Jesus’ authority. It’s now no wonder they realized “He had spoken this parable against them” (12:12). The penny had dropped. It was satirical but definitely not fictitious! It was revealed before their very eyes. God sent His only Son to His people, making His last appeal, and soon they would nail Him to a cross, outside Jerusalem. The vintage, the gleaning of the grapes had failed as “No one who drinks the old wine wants the fresh and the new. ‘The old is better they say.’” (Lk.5:39).
They may have killed the owner’s son, but they did not end His life! That’s why we can’t dismiss this old story today for it concerns us. The worldwide Christian Church has inherited Israel’s place. As the new Israel we have received wonderful privileges from God. We are blessed to see and hear things that the prophets did. We are blessed to receive forgiveness of sins through Christ’s blood. We are blessed to continue Christ’s ministry through the work of the Holy Spirit. We are God’s tenants now and He looks for our fruits of faith, love and obedience by building on the stone that the original builders rejected. Dare we say that we are producing these fruits?
There are a lot of places in scripture where God’s people are called “His vineyard”, and He desires to enjoy its fruit. Often though we neglect the privileges of being tenants:-
• We complain and turn away from God time and again.
• We take grace for granted as we sin, and do not seek forgiveness.
• We come into conflict with each other.
• We make no time to read the Bible.
• We make little effort to spread the precious Gospel.
But only repentance bears true fruit and only faith produces good works in God’s sight. So Jesus asks a rhetorical question to emphasize that this parable speaks in judgment: “What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do?” (12:9). God has every right to judge us because He created the world. He is the Owner. We are accountable. But even though His servants are treated harshly the parable shows His patience as “He is not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet.3:9).
Consider this alongside these words of Jesus, read them with me: “I am the real vine, and my Father is the gardener. He breaks off every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and he prunes every branch that does bear fruit, so that it will bear more fruit…Those who do not remain in me are thrown out like a branch and dry up; such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, where they are burned.” (Jn.15:1-2,6). If you want life it must be in the vine! If we think we have some sort of right to live rent-free, taking our myriad of blessings for granted, then God will take away those blessings and give them to someone who appreciates them: “The righteous will flourish like palm trees”, says Ps.92, “They will bear fruit in old age and are always green and strong.” (vs.12,14). Dead branches though are another thing. They are thrown into the fire. So the question to ask is this: Are you alive in Christ, the Son who gave His life for you?
It’s totally absurd to our feeble minds. What owner of a vineyard would sacrifice His only son, to get the harvest? And why would the son go when he knew others had perished? It seems ridiculous to human understanding – yet it was fulfilling the plan and purpose of God. Jesus is the final word from a merciful compassionate Father, the last in the line of obedient servants and prophets. To reject the Lord Jesus, the foundation stone of the church, is to reject God and invite His judgment upon yourself.
If we have been given the vineyard, and God wants everyone to be there. Therefore, it’s simple: we can’t copy the behavior of those wicked tenants.