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The Bad Tenants: A Parable About Jesus's Death & the Dangers of Greed

And he began to tell the people this parable: "A man planted a vineyard, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, that they should give him some of the fruit of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant; him they also beat and treated shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third; this one they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; it may be they will respect him.' But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir; let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.' And they cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others." When they heard this, they said, "God forbid!" But he looked at them and said, "What then is this that is written: 'The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner'? Every one who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one it will crush him." (Luke 20: 9-18).

This passage of scripture is important to us for two main reasons. The first reason is because it is a nice little summary of the Bible as a whole, and it helps us to better understand the over arching storyline of scripture. And the second reason that this passage is important is because the context within which this parable takes place and the economic implications that surround it are incredibly profound and eye opening.

First point: how is this passage a summary of the Bible? You see, the owner of the vineyard represents God, the tenants on his vineyard represent mankind, and the servants that he keeps sending represent the prophets of the Old Testament. For you see, one can understand this parable as God giving mankind the earth (i.e. his vineyard) so they can sustain themselves with the fruits of their labor, and then he sends messengers (i.e. his servants) into the world to see how we are doing, which is to say, if we are living in his land in the way that he instructed. And sure enough, mankind rejects God’s ways and decides to keep everything for himself. God then decides, in his mercy, that man must not have understood that these servants he sent were his messengers, so he decides to send his son to them instead, because surely they would recognize him and treat him better than the prophets. Nonetheless, the tenants (i.e. mankind) kill God’s son as well.

This parable shows us that rejecting God’s son is the ultimate wrong, for this action results in the loss of everything for the ones who rejected him. Furthermore, what is truly amazing about this is that Jesus is telling this parable about his death before his death, because he felt the tenants creeping in, so to speak. He is at once prophesying what will happen to him, through this story, while also simultaneously confirming exactly who he is, through his acute understanding of the vengefulness and hatred stirring up against him inside of the minds of his enemies as he was encroaching on their vineyard as it were. This is what leads us to the second reason that this passage is so important: the economic implications and power dynamic.

It is not difficult to see how this parable encapsulates the overarching storyline of the Bible –- God gives man the earth, and he sends us Prophets to help us live up to his ideals, yet mankind continues to sin, until God finally sends his Son, who is likewise rejected, which leads to God punishing those who rejected him -- but this passage must also be placed in scriptural context in order that we see exactly why Jesus was telling this parable in the first place.

This parable takes place in Chapter 20 of Luke’s Gospel. Chapter 19 ends with Jesus driving out “those who sold” in the Temple. At which point, we are told that the scribes and chief priests then sought to destroy him (Luke 19:47). So you see, it wasn’t him healing or teaching that made them vengeful and violent against him, but rather it was when he threatened their money, and the economic status quo. That is to say, many people often mistakenly think that it is just because people claimed Jesus was the Messiah that he found himself in trouble with the powerful people of his time. That is only part of the story. The truth is, his death had less to do with religion and more to do with greed and man’s grotesque need for power.

This is confirmed for us as Jesus finishes telling his parable, and the scribes and chief priest decided then and there to try to catch him saying something wrong about money, so that they could use it against him. We read, “So they watched him, and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere so that they may take hold of what he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. They asked him, ‘Teacher, we know that you speak rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar or not?’ But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, ‘Show me a coin. Whose likeness and inscription has it?’ They said, ‘Caesars.’ He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’ And they were not able to catch him by what he said; but marveling at his answer they were silent’” (Luke 20: 20-26).

The reason that claims of Jesus being the Messiah were threatening to the people in charge is because they had a deep misunderstanding of the Kingdom that he was talking about. For the Jewish Leaders, they were happy with the status quo and the powerful position they held in society, and in no way were they going to allow some supposed “King of Israel” to threaten that in any way. Nonetheless, Jesus’s teachings, healing, and miracles were only a minor nuisance for them; as long as he didn’t seize their power, he was not a real threat to them. That viewpoint changed however when he went into the temple and drove out those who were making money. This was a direct threat to their power. It was then and there that they felt that they must move against him. They figured that if they could somehow pass their concern about this man threatening their money and power over to the controlling Romans, by invoking taxes and Caesar, they would be able to use the mighty power of Rome against him and stop this man before he did anything else that might threaten their lavish lives. Jesus, however, saw right through their greed, deceit, and machinations. For you see, his kingdom was never about this world, and the money of this world is of no value in his kingdom.

Furthermore, the reason that scripture says that the scribes and chief priests were “marveling at his answer” is because Jesus undercut their power -- and by extension the money that gives them that power -- by reducing it to nothing. By pointing out that Caesar’s face is on a coin, Jesus shows us that Caesar is the one that made it and is therefore in control of it, so if he wants his coins back give them to him. It is a “who cares about money?” kind of attitude. Roman taxes upset everyone, so for Jesus to be so flippant about it is very powerful. What is more, if Caesar can control what happens to the coins that he had made, then likewise, God can control what happens to his creation as well. This was Jesus’s way of reminding the chief priests, where true power resides, and why the coins that they are so obsessed with mean essentially nothing to him. God’s economy is vastly different from theirs, and likewise who actually holds power is quite different as well.

Two things should be pointed out here. The first is that when the chief priests eventually levied charges against Jesus to Pilate, they claimed he said that people shouldn’t pay taxes to Caesar. Which is a blatant lie, and it reveals the kind of people they were. And second, when Judas betrayed Jesus, it was explicitly in exchange for money. Nevertheless, despite his newfound wealth, Judas never felt so worthless as when he turned Jesus in. Judas would soon hang himself in shame for his greedy action. So like Jesus’s parable teaches, when we do things out of greed and selfishness, and do not follow his word and love each other, it is a certainty that our outcomes will be tragic.

The power of Jesus’s parable is profound.

All at once he:

- He teaches us the overarching story of the Bible

- He sums up the Bible and his unique role in it

- He prophesizes his own death

- He undercuts the selfish and greedy actions of his enemies

It is a remarkable passage of scripture and from it we learn: we should accept the Son of God and his teachings about Love, and we should always be on the lookout for the servants that the Lord might send us, so that we can show him that all that we have we have thanks to Him.


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