READ : Mark 12:1-12
Most people are interested in a religion that is gentle and aesthetically pleasing ? humanitarianism with an easy-going, all-accepting “Higher Power.” Biblical Christianity offers a crucified Christ and a hard choice: make him the cornerstone of your life, or he will be a stumbling block that makes you fall, a rock that crushes and destroys you.
According to the New Testament record, two things brought the hatred and fear of the leaders in Jerusalem to a boiling point and made them finally decide it was time to get rid of Jesus for good. The first was Jesus’ miracle of raising his friend Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38-44). The news of this astonishing deed swept through the city and its environs like a desert brush fire, causing a near panic among the members of the ruling council in Jerusalem. “What are we to do,” they asked themselves, “for this man performs many signs? If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him.”
The solution was proposed by Caiaphas, the chief priest, who observed in his famous though unwitting prophecy that it was expedient for one man to die for the people. “So from that day on,” writes John in the fourth Gospel, “they took counsel how to put him to death” (John 11:45-53).
The other thing that made the rulers in Jerusalem determine to kill Jesus without further delay was triggered by an incident that we call the cleansing of the temple. Mark’s Gospel tells how Christ entered the holy city triumphantly on Palm Sunday to great public acclaim and the next day went to the Temple where, in a furious rage, Jesus overthrew the tables of the money changers and drove out all the commercial interests. “You have made my Father’s house a den of robbers,” Jesus cried.
Mark tells us that in response to this act on Jesus’ part the chief priests, elders and teachers of the law confronted him and challenged him. This was a significant development. The fact that Mark mentions both priests and teachers of the law combining in opposition to Jesus means that the entire Jewish power structure, comprising both Sadducees and Pharisees (two normally antagonistic parties), had banded together in an informal alliance to deal with Jesus. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they demanded (Mark 11:28). In other words, what right did Jesus have to walk around the temple like he owned the place? But, of course he did own the place! The temple was his Father’s house, and Jesus had the run of it.
To make this point, Jesus (and if you have been following this series of programs, by now I think you’ll know what’s coming) told another story. This one is called the parable of the tenants.
A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes”?
And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them.
Mark 12:1-12, esv
Jesus’ parable about the tenants and the vineyard is his reply to the Jerusalem establishment. The authority which Jesus has to criticize them and their religion belonged to him as the Son of God. When he finished telling his parable the authorities knew exactly what Jesus was saying. “Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them” (v. 12). The die was cast. Despite the risks involved in arresting a popular figure like Jesus when the city was crowded with Passover visitors, the leaders were determined to seize and kill him without further delay if they could only find a way to do it quickly and quietly.
A History of Israel
What does the story of the tenants in the vineyard say to us? We might note to begin with that this story, like all of Jesus’ parables, is drawn from real life. Palestine, and especially Galilee in the north, was filled with farms or estates owned by absentee landlords and run by tenant farmers. There must have been many instances where the real-life tenants behaved like Jesus’ fictional ones: when the owner was long gone and far away, they decided to take all the produce for themselves. Messenger after messenger is driven off or disposed of. At last, as a final attempt to reason with the rebellious tenants, the owner’s beloved son is sent, only to meet a tragic end.
Unlike many of the parables in the Gospels, this one is actually an allegory. While many of the stories Jesus told have just one primary point and the details are not significant, in this one all the details do stand for something else. That’s why it is allegorical. Furthermore, while Jesus’ parables were sometimes obscure to his audience and they struggled to understand what he meant, in this case his meaning came through loud and clear.
And the story was instantly understood. Everybody recognized it because the story he told was a familiar one. It was based on the Old Testament allegory from the fifth chapter of Isaiah which portrayed Israel as God’s vineyard. So the people knew just who was who.
The vineyard was the nation, the people of God; the tenants were the leaders of the nation, especially the contemporary priests and scribes and Pharisees, the experts in the law. And the servants sent by the owner were the prophets of the Old Testament. Finally the son, of course, was Jesus himself.
So the story this parable tells is really the story of the Bible; it is a history of Israel in parabolic form. As such, it is a history of persistent goodness on God’s part met by persistent rejection on the part of his people. God sent messenger after messenger to his people, all of them asking for the return which was due to him by right, namely, the fruits of repentance: love, gratitude, faithfulness, obedience. But most of the time, by most of the people, God’s message was spurned and his messengers shamefully rejected. How could the Lord continue to send prophet after prophet, and in the end to send his only Son? Doesn’t he realize what is going to happen? And yet still he speaks his word of grace.
Mercy, said the great Bishop John Charles Ryle, is God’s darling attribute. But mercy, broad and deep as it is, is not forever. Persistent rejection eventually meets with hard judgment. In the end those who have rejected the Son face a stern reckoning. For the chief priests, the rulers, and teachers of the law, that day of reckoning was close at hand.
We know what happened to the Son of God, and we also know that history confirmed Jesus’ warning. Within a generation of his death, the city of Jerusalem was utterly destroyed and its leadership was crushed. (But we also know from the rest of the New Testament that even now God’s mercy towards his Old Testament covenant people is not exhausted, and that their loss is a temporary one to be followed in some mysterious way by a reincorporation into the people of God, but that is another story. See Romans 11.)
Stumbling Block or Cornerstone?
Jesus’ listeners were so caught up in this one that they put themselves into the middle of the story. They had ceased to be merely an audience; they had themselves become participants in the tale. Something like that needs to happen to each of us as well. We must read this parable not just as a story about ancient Israel, but as a confrontation with our own personal destiny. Put simply, Jesus’ message is this: your fate will be determined by your attitude toward Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. The Lord drives his point home with a quotation from Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
The cornerstone of a building is the one on which the whole structure is aligned; remove that one stone and everything goes out of whack. But a rejected cornerstone also becomes a stumbling block, with destruction as the result. So the stone is at one time either cornerstone or stumbling block, depending on whether it is accepted or rejected, and Jesus Christ is both those things (see 1 Peter 2:4-8).
It all comes down to this. Is salvation really through faith in Jesus Christ and him alone? Must everyone accept the Lord Jesus in order to be saved? “Why should that be?” so many ask today. “Why just him, why only one way? Why can’t you find God in your way, and I’ll find him in mine? Why this insistence on the cross, and the blood, and personal faith?
Most people are interested in a religion that is gentle and aesthetically pleasing humanitarianism with an easy-going, all-accepting “Higher Power.” But biblical Christianity offers a crucified Christ and a hard choice: make him the cornerstone of your life, or he will be a stumbling block that makes you fall, a rock that will crush you and destroy you. When all is said and done there is only one unpardonable sin, and that is to reject the Lord Jesus Christ. He is either the stumbling block or cornerstone of each human life. Which is he for you?