Why Jesus? – Part Eleven

(If you’re just joining us, you’ll need to start with Part One for the series to make sense.)

Last week we looked at Israel’s defining story, and their hope of a true return from exile when God’s promises to his people would finally be fulfilled. This week, we’ve seen how Jesus presents himself as the fulfilment of that hope – both by his words announcing the arrival of the kingdom and by his miraculous deeds fulfilling the prophetic expectations of the kingdom. Today, we continue this theme by looking at how his parables relate to this defining story of Israel – not only announcing the arrival of the kingdom, but also challenging Israel’s expectations of the kingdom, and subverting her story.

Jesus’ Parables

We’re not going to have time to cover everything that could be said about Jesus’ parables and the kingdom of God. Some of the important truths we’re not covering are:

  • Jesus’ parables reveal the kingdom to those who seek it, while hiding it from those whose hearts remain hard (see Mark 4:11-12, 33-34). Only some of the soil (or “land”) is good for growing the seed of the kingdom, but it will produce a bumper crop (Mark 4:14-20).
  • Jesus’ parables demonstrate the nature of the kingdom (e.g. something of supreme value – Matt 13:44-46; opposed to the rival kingdom – Matt 12:29).
  • Jesus’ parables demonstrate the values of the kingdom (e.g. generosity with wealth – Luke 12:16-22).

But sometimes Jesus’ parables challenge – even undermine – the Jewish understanding of their defining story. And it’s these parables that most show us how Jesus saw himself and his ministry in relation to Israel’s story. We’ll look at three famous ones today and tomorrow, asking two questions:

  1. What expectation of the return from exile and coming kingdom does this parable speak to?
  2. How does Jesus subvert or overturn this expectation?

The Wicked Tenants

Matt 21:33 “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 moved to another place.

By using the setting of a vineyard for this parable, you might just think Jesus is finding an image from everyday life. But there’s more going on than that. The vineyard metaphor has an Old Testament history of which his audience would have been well aware:

Isa 5:1-7 1 I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. 3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4 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? 5 Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. 6 I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” 7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

This text from Isaiah tells us that God is the vineyard owner, and his people are the vineyard. What’s more, there’s an ominous theme of judgement. Let’s read on in Jesus’ parable:

Matt 21:34-45 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. 35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. 38 “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.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

Doesn’t take much to see in this story the kind of treatment God’s people gave to the prophets God sent to call them back to himself. Or a reference to their treatment of Jesus. But the next bit is where the story really gets subverted. Jesus asks his audience:

40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 “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. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.

We see a reference to Psalm 118 (the rejected cornerstone going off to start a whole new building) and to Nebuchadnezzar’s prophetic dream in which the “stone” of God’s kingdom that crushes all other kingdoms (Daniel 2:35, 44-45.) The message is this: God isn’t going to keep sending messengers. He’s going to start again with a new people. And this was clear to the leadership (verse 45) who heard the parable. (This parable, by the way, is probably one of the triggers that led to Jesus’ arrest and execution.)

So to our two questions:

  1. This parable “lives” in the vineyard metaphor, which described God’s people living in God’s land under God’s rule. In exile, they were away from the vineyard – which, if you remember the Isaiah reading earlier, had its protective hedge taken away and was trampled. In Jesus’ day, they were back in the vineyard (sort of), but still not able to run it properly. The return-from-exile expectation would be that God would once again allow their vineyard to be fruitful; that Israel would indeed listen to God’s messengers and live up to her calling as tenants (or image-bearers) of his vineyard.
  2. The subversion is that Israel could be replaced if they kept ignoring God’s messengers. Indeed, by their rejection of Jesus, the Jewish leaders ensured that would happen. The vineyard would be given to a new people (which, in the coming decades, would include even the Gentiles, and come to be known as the Church.)

 

Ouch. And that wasn’t the only parable Jesus told that gave an unexpected – and unpleasant – twist to Israel’s defining story. We’ll look at two more tomorrow.

To think about

Has your understanding of how Jesus’ parables function changed at all? If so, how?

If parables aren’t abstract moral lessons, but teach about the kingdom of God and challenge Jewish

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