Ever since my sophomore year in college, I’ve lived in houses which I’ve rented from several different landlords. I’m familiar with what it’s like to be a tenant. It’s only in the last few months, however, that I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to be a landlord. I’ve been working for an apartment management company, and while most of our tenants are well behaved, it’s the 10 percent that misbehave who give us 90 percent of our headaches. Nearly every day, I come home with new stories about irresponsible or clueless tenants.
But it’s tough to complain when you read about tenants like these.
It’s not hard to see who Jesus is pointing the finger at. His opponents, the religious leaders of Israel, recognize themselves right away as the tenants. After all, the prophet Isaiah had also compared Israel to a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1–7), and they saw themselves as tenants of that vineyard. Speaking through Isaiah, the Lord had condemned Israel for its rebellion, and now Jesus specifically condemns the religious leaders who have opposed him.
The tenants in the parable are traitors. They have been given great responsibility to care for the landlord’s vineyard and produce a crop for him. However, they don’t want to serve him; they want the vineyard for themselves. So they humiliate and beat and kill the messengers he has sent, just as the religious leaders of Israel have rejected the prophets whom God has sent, all the way up to John the Baptist. And when he sends his only son, whom he dearly loves—an act of mercy and madness!—they kill him, too, hoping that his inheritance would end up as their own.
Jesus is shredding the righteous disguise of his opponents. They appear to be doing the work of God, but in reality they are opposing his Messiah, the anointed King he has sent to rule Israel. They want control; they want to rule God’s kingdom for themselves.
Even though these leaders have been trained in the Old Testament scriptures from childhood, Jesus challenges them, “Have you not read this Scripture?” He quotes Psalm 118:22–23:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Why would the builders of a palace or temple reject a stone carved out of a quarry? Obviously, it’s because they see some sort of defect in it. It doesn’t fit into their blueprint for how the structure should look. The Psalmist felt like such a stone; he was rejected by his enemies as unfit to be one of them. Yet he and his allies marveled as the Lord delivered him, turning the rejection upside down and giving him victory over his enemies.
Jesus is the culmination of this pattern of deliverance. He is to be rejected, betrayed, and crucified by the powerful and influential men of his day. Then, despite their best efforts to destroy him, the almighty God will raise him from the dead and give him “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).
Jesus doesn’t fit into the plans of the religious leaders. He is a threat to their positions of power. If he is put in charge, they can no longer have authority over Israel; they can no longer demand that people follow their traditions; they can no longer run their lives the way they want to.
When the rejected stone is made the cornerstone of the building, then the blueprint must be changed, and the building plans must be altered to fit the new cornerstone. This means that Jesus will not “fit in” to our pre-existing lifestyle. No, Jesus demands thorough and foundational change from you and me. He will not be added as an extra ingredient in your life to make you feel spiritually fulfilled. He insists on being your foundation; he insists that you reorder your dreams and goals and values and morals around him. You must shape your life around him as the center. If you and I do this, his triumph will be “marvelous in our eyes.”
If you and I will not do that, then we appear in this parable as the wicked tenants, attempting to kill Jesus so that we may usurp his throne. But “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mark 8:35)—the Lord will bring about a great reversal, our kingdoms will be flattened, and his eternal kingdom will be built over their ruins, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone.
So are you a faithful tenant of the Landlord? Or will you oppose him until he comes, inevitably, to reject you?