Luke 20:9-19 – A Vineyard’s Murderous Tenants


Luke 20:9-19


While teaching in the Jerusalem Temple and frustrating his opponents’ attempts to entrap him, Jesus tells a parable that depicts him as God’s unique emissary to Israel and characterizes the aristocratic Jewish leadership in Jerusalem as rebellious against God.


From Luke 20:19 it is clear that Jesus means this parable as an indictment of the scribes and chief priests. His telling of the parable is one of many scenes in a longer series of stories set in the Temple, in which he frustrates and accuses various leaders within Jerusalem’s religious establishment (20:1-21:4). Given its place within the flow of the Gospel narrative, the parable offers an interpretation of Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem and the opposition there that will bring about his cruel death.

The vineyard represents Israel or, more particularly, Jerusalem. It is likely that Jesus composes the parable to recall another story about a vineyard, Isaiah 5:1-7. Isaiah’s song of the vineyard describes an unproductive vineyard that will be destroyed. In Jesus’ parable, however, the vineyard produces as it should. The problem is the keepers of the vineyard, the tenant farmers who will not give the vineyard’s owner his deserved share. These tenants, according to Luke 20:19, call to mind the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem. The parable implies that they are warring against God, refusing to return what is due to God. The “beloved son” of the parable represents Jesus, who is also called “beloved” in Luke 3:22. The parable depicts Jesus as one of a long line of people who have come to call Israel’s caretakers to fulfill their obligations to God, the vineyard’s owner. But, like those who come before him, the beloved son is rejected. Even more, he is killed in an attempt to keep the owner away forever.

Jesus announces that the owner of the vineyard will annihilate the tenants and give the vineyard to others. For Luke’s earliest readers, this may have recalled the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. Jesus never defines who are the “others” who will receive the vineyard, but there is obviously no reason to assume that he means Gentiles will take the place of Jews as God’s people. The parable is against members of Israel’s temple-based leadership (the tenants), not Israel as a whole (the vineyard).

Jesus’ final words, in Luke 20:17-18, do not relate smoothly to the story of the parable. In referring to Psalm 118:22, he claims that something rejected by the experts will in fact come to play a necessary role. Jesus implies that through his resurrection God will overturn Jesus’ rejection. The death of the son will not be the end of the Gospel’s story.