It was morning, and Jesus and His disciples were walking from the town of Bethany on the Mount of Olives across the valley into Jerusalem. As they went, the Lord explained that because of their faith in Him, His disciples could feel confident that God would answer their prayers in breathtaking ways…they could cast a mountain into the sea if they only believed.
As Jesus spoke, did His disciples look up at the Mount of Olives? Did they trace the path from the mountain to the Dead Sea, which lay off in the distance, shining in the morning sun?
Jesus was making it very clear that the Most High God was on their side, ready to answer the prayers of His faithful servants. There was great reason to hope. Yet the Lord reminded them that in the midst of those prayers for great works of God, there was another great work necessary on the part of His disciples. It was the work of quiet obedience in the deepest places of their souls. They had to maintain hearts of sincere, unrelenting forgiveness towards others. How gently Jesus dealt with the deep struggles of human brokenness.
As they reached the Temple courtyards, Jesus began to preach to the people. As He was speaking, the scribes and chief priests and elders came rushing down on Him, confronting like a force: “‘By what authority are You doing these things, or who gave You this authority to do these things?’”
What they meant was, “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” It was an insult, and attempt to shame Him into silence in front of everyone. These were the men who were in charge of the nation…what right did this scrappy radical have to mess with their Temple? Just the day before He had entered the Temple grounds in a parade of celebration. People were waving palm leaves, there were claims of remarkable healings all around, and the children sang of this Jesus as if He was the Messiah. Then He drove out the businesses who had sold sacrificial animals in the Temple courtyard. Where did He get the gall to take over with His healings and teachings? THEY were the ordained religious rulers of the nation. WHAT BUSINESS DID THIS CARPENTER HAVE MESSING WITH THE SYSTEM?
So they asked: If Jesus did have authority to do these things, who gave it to Him?
They had no true interest in His answer. Their real concern was not really about protecting the Temple. It was to hold on to their own positions of power and prestige…and those goals smothered any longing to find out if He was truly from God. It choked their ability to hope that maybe He was the One they had been waiting for. It destroyed their ability to be amazed by the miracles. And so now, they were trying to catch Jesus in a trap. They had to get Him to say something they could arrest Him for. Jesus far out-mastered them:
“‘I will ask you one question, and you answer Me, and then I will tell you by what authority I do these things.
“‘Was the baptism of John from heaven, or from men? Answer Me.’”
Wow. Jesus made them quite an offer. If they answered Him, He would reveal His true identity. It was the answer they had been seeking for three years. There was only one problem. They couldn’t answer His question. As the religious leaders gathered together to discuss how to answer, they said:
“‘If we say, “From heaven,” He will say, “Then why did you not believe him?”
“‘But if we say, “From men,” we fear the multitude, for they all hold John to be a prophet.’”
Once again, Jesus, ever the Master of Truth, caught them in their own manipulation and deception. He had turned the situation entirely around. Suddenly, the religious leaders were having to answer for their own rejection of God’s prophet. John the Baptist had called them a brood of vipers, and they had refused to repent. Now they were treating God’s Son with the same contempt. The religious leaders didn’t shake with fear that they might be offending God, but they certainly were afraid of offending the people. Their chief concern was holding onto their positions and power. They said, “‘We don’t know.’”
So Jesus replied, “‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’”
If they weren’t going to honor the ministry of John, they were not going to receive the truth of Christ, for both came from the same God.
Jesus went on to tell some parables that made the truth shine even more brightly. In the first story, He said:
“‘What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, “Son, go and work today in the vineyard.”
“‘“I will not,” he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“‘Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, “I will sir,” but then he did not go.
“‘Which of the two did what his father wanted?’”
The people said that the first one was the son who truly obeyed.
“‘I tell you the truth,’” Jesus said, “ ‘the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom ahead of you. For John came to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.’”
Wow. Can you imagine the scandal of what Jesus just said? He declared that the prostitutes and corrupt tax collectors that repented when they heard John the Baptist’s message were better off before God than the religious leaders that were standing there confronting Jesus. If we think about the power these men had, how they could intimidate the entire population, Jesus’ words were stunning and bold.
They had come declaring that Jesus had to prove His authority, and Jesus turned it right around and demonstrated that they were the ones whose authority was in question. They were in need of serious repentance. They had rejected John the Baptist, the man God Himself had given authority to declare truth to the nation. But Jesus wasn’t finished:
“‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his beloved son to them. “They will respect my son,” he said.
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.” So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’”
Wow. Can you see how the tenants are like the religious leaders? They had been given temporary rule over God’s nation. The servants were the prophets of God, men like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Elijah and John the Baptist. Over the centuries, they had come speaking the truths of the Most High God to His sinful nation, and the corrupt kings and religious leaders of Israel hated them for it. Now God had sent His one and only Son, and the religious leaders were plotting to kill Him. They were on the wrong side of Israel’s history. They were on the wrong side of God’s plan!
Jesus described what God was going to do to those who mistreated his servants in the parable. They would be utterly destroyed, and the vineyard would be given to others. Then Jesus gave an ominous warning:
“‘Have you never read the Scriptures:
“‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes”?
Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who fails on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.’”
As the Pharisees and chief priests listened these parables, they knew that Jesus was sending them a message. For you see, in Isaiah 5, the prophet uses the metaphor of a vineyard to represent the nation of Israel. It begins by poetically declaring God’s lavish love for her:
“I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones,
And planted it with the choicest vines…”
In this first section, the vineyard is given tender care from the very beginning in order to insure it’s fruitfulness. This was just how God cared for the nation of Israel when He rescued the people from slavery in Egypt and brought them into the Land of Promise. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. In the middle of the Song of the Vineyard, the prophet declares:
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard,
Than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
Why did it yield only bad?”
As a consequence of the bad fruit, by end of the Song, God declares:
“Now I tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard:
…I will take away its hedge and it will be destroyed…
I will make it a wasteland…”
The chief priests and Pharisees knew these verses very well. There was only one thing that a reference to a vineyard would mean in Jesus’ parable…it was the nation of Israel, and when Jesus condemned it’s leaders, it was a very bold and clear though indirect condemnation of them.
The religious leaders seethed with their desire to arrest Him, only they couldn’t. The crowds were in the way. If they tried to arrest him, there would be a riot. The crowds were filled with hope that Jesus was a prophet…and perhaps the Anointed One of Israel.
What is precious in this story is that Jesus does not end this parable with the destruction of the vineyard. Instead, He says that God is going to pass the privilege of tending to His vineyard…or His Kingdom, to those who would bear good fruit. When Jesus died and rose again, He passed the message of God’s redeeming work in the world to His disciples. They, in turn, passed it on through the power of the Spirit, and so the Christian Church was born. All who put their faith in Christ are a part of that Universal Church, and we all share in the privilege of bearing fruit for the vineyard of God.