Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

The Evil Farmers

Evil Tenant Farmers

Luke 20:9-16: 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 also they 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.”

Tenant farming was a big enterprise in Israel. Landowners, not wanting to do the work themselves, would partition out tracts of land and lease them out to others to work. Typically the landowner would get money up-front (in case the crops were bad that year) and a share of the profits after harvest.

The farmers, on the other hand, would do massive amounts of work then have to live on whatever they were fortunate enough to get at the end of the season. Additionally, to get the crops in quickly before they went bad they would have to hire day workers to help bring in the harvest, money out of their pockets.

What we have here is a particularly disgruntled bunch of farmers. They feel their take is too low, so they refuse to hand over what they bargained for at the beginning of the season. This is especially interesting since we are told that the landowner (probably his son and servants as well) did all the work of tilling the soil and planting the grape vines, the farmers were left with weeding, pruning, and watering the vineyard during the growing season, then harvesting the grapes at the end. Here they conspire to not hand over the landowner’s share, beating his servants and then, ultimately, killing his son in the hopes that they would inherit the land, probably assuming that the landowner would just hand it over to be done with it, as there was no law that would allow them to inherit the land.

Luke tells us that when Jesus told this parable the chief priests and scribes were assembled, primarily to catch him in something they could use against Jesus. Jesus is in Jerusalem at this time, his final visit, and the authorities are looking for any reason to accuse him of something for which he could be tried. This parable was directed squarely at the priests, though they didn’t catch on until later.

God is the landowner, the servants were the Patriarchs and Prophets who did all of the work tilling the ground, fertilizing it, planting the grape vines, and caring for them until they were ready to produce fruit. Vines don’t produce right away, it takes years of caring, trimming, and training before a decent crop is produced. In this parable we are told that when the landowner left he was expecting a viable crop, so it is with Israel. God spent hundreds of years nurturing Israel for his work to begin producing fruit. Now it is ready and God sends his Prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zachariah, finally John the Baptist, all put to death by Israel’s leaders. Now God sends his beloved Son, and before the priests Jesus tells how even the son will be put to death, and what will be the result? Here Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem and the transfer of the inheritance from Israel to the gentile nations. All that work and effort, and the prize to be lost over their greed and arrogance.

But, is all lost? No. For this landowner is all forgiving, even the remnants of Israel can be saved if they return and seek forgiveness. We need to be cautious as well, for the parable does not say that the next group of farmers will be guaranteed the inheritance. We can lose the treasure just as easily if we do not return to God the harvest he expects from us. Our inheritance can be handed over to yet other farmers.

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