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As a child and now as a parent, I have always enjoyed story time. I enjoyed hearing stories as a child, and I have received the special fun that comes from telling and acting out stories with a rich variety of voices for my children. There is something special about sitting on a parent's knee or watching a child's eyes light up as a story is read. Even more, if the story is a good one, it does more than just entertain: a lesson comes with it.
When Jesus turns to review Israel's history of response to God, he presents that history through a story, a parable. This final parable in Luke is really an allegory. Where a parable may have one to three points of contact with reality, an allegory has a whole set of correspondences to reality (Blomberg 1990). Since there are many points of correspondence between this story and the history of God's activity in salvation, it really is an allegory. Like many of Jesus' parables, it is a rebuke to Israel, especially its leadership (v. 19). But the people also reject the story (v. 16). So it is unlike a parent-child story time in that the message is not a pleasant one for the audience. Nonetheless, there is a point to the story, a lesson to be learned. Though the Son will be removed through death, the promise will not remain in the leadership's hands; it will go to others. They can destroy neither the Son nor the promise.
Jesus opens the story by referring to a vineyard. This image is rich with Old Testament and Jewish background, alluding to the presence of promise in Israel (Ps 80:8-13; Is 5:1-7; 27:2; Jer 2:21; Ezek 19:10-14; Hos 10:1; 1 Enoch 10:16; 84:6; 93:5). When Jesus places tenants in the story, he enriches the Old Testament imagery by setting up the role of the nation and leadership as caretakers for the promise. This addition is significant because the parable concludes with the vineyard given to others, a reference to Gentile inclusion in the promise.
The servants represent the series of prophets whom the nation rejected. This theme has been constant in Luke (11:47-51; 13:31-35; Acts 7). The concept builds on texts such as Jeremiah 7:21-28 and is Jesus' response to the plot of Luke 19:47. The nation is a poor tenant, lacking fruit and abusing those sent to check on its work (13:6-9). The calls for fruit and repentance for its absence have gone unheeded—in fact, they have been rejected and ignored. Three times the owner's representatives are cast out. There is no significance in the number three other than to point out that God sent prophets to the nation repeatedly.
The vineyard owner, God, decides to send "my son, whom I love" (3:22; 9:35), hoping that the stubborn tenants will at least respect him. The owner anticipates that his son's visit will be fruitful. But with logic that illustrates sin's blindness, the tenants decide that if they slay the son, they will inherit the land. When land belonged to someone without an heir, inheritance followed a certain custom: when the owner died, the land usually passed on to those who worked the land. Their scheme, of course, assumes that the murderers will not be discovered. There is a major blind spot in their thinking. Given their past track record with the owner's servants, wouldn't these tenants be among the first murder suspects? Hardness of heart does strange things. So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him, an allusion to Jesus' death outside Jerusalem. Jesus knows the leaders have rejected him so that death is his fate. In Luke's telling of the parable, the violence steadily increases as each messenger comes. The rejection is firmer all the time. The nation has gone the opposite direction from repentance.
So what will the owner do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. The vineyard goes to those outside the leadership, even the nation, as the promise will encompass many people of the nations. Acts fills in this part of the story, though it is also clear that Israel still has a place in God's plan (Acts 1:6-11; 3:18-22; Rom 11:25-27). The point of God's judgment on the nation is clear as the crowd responds, "May this never be!" The point is clear and shocking to all—this should never happen, they respond. Yet this very act of murder is days away from taking place!
A Scripture sums up the lesson. Jesus cites Psalm 118:22 and asks why it is recorded there: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone (NIV margin). This psalm, already cited in 13:35 and 19:38, indicates that God will vindicate his rejected leader. This building-stone imagery made a great impact on the church (Acts 4:11; Rom 9:32-33; 1 Pet 2:7). The psalm uses the symbolism of the foundation stone that is crucial to a building. Jesus is the foundation stone of God's plan. Though some may reject him, God will make him the centerpiece of his plan. Rejection by the Jewish nation is not the end of the plan. There is no replacing this precious and chosen stone.
In fact, judgment resides with "the rock." To fall on that stone is to be broken to pieces. When the stone falls on someone, it crushes. The point is clear: anyone opposing God's stone will be crushed by it. A Jewish proverb has a similar thrust: "If the stone falls on the pot, alas for the pot; if the pot falls on the stone, alas for the pot!" (Midrash Esther 3:6). Imagery for the passage does not allude to a specific text, though the concept is reminiscent of Isaiah 8:14 and Daniel 2:34-44. Rejecting the "beloved Son" has grave consequences—not for the Son, since he will be raised up by God, but for those who reject him. The parable is Jesus' statement regarding the source of his authority. He is the beloved Son, and God will vindicate him and exalt him. His death will be followed by resurrection and exaltation into a place of authority (Acts 2:22-39).
The leadership wanted to seize Jesus on the spot. They knew he had told the parable against them. They could not allow their authority to be challenged anymore. Still, the problem was Jesus' popularity. So opinion polls caused a degree of restraint but did not bring a change in resolve. They would find a way to get Jesus, despite his clear indication that the ultimate outcome would be their dashing themselves against God's precious cornerstone. You cannot kill a solid rock.