Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Pharisees and other Jewish officials continually ridiculed and rejected Him (e.g., see Luke 16:14). This conflict escalated after Jesus purified the temple, casting out the money-changers and animal sellers in a sign of divine judgment on the religious authorities (19:45–48). Christ began to have more contact with the religious leaders, for He was ministering in Jerusalem, the seat of their power, and was facing more direct challenges from them (20:1–8).
Jesus responded to these challenges, in part, by teaching the people about the sin of His opponents. We see an example of this in today’s passage in our Lord’s parable of the tenants. Borrowing imagery from Isaiah 5:1–7, Jesus speaks of a man who planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants to care for it and collect fruit for the owner. In light of the background from the book of Isaiah, the vineyard represents the Jewish nation or old covenant Israel, and the tenants represent the leaders of the people: the priests, elders, scribes, and others. Here we should note that in the history of God’s people, our Lord typically uses human instruments—qualified men ordained to church office—to oversee His covenant community. He by no means is required to do this, but under the old and new covenants alike, this is how He has been pleased to work. John Calvin comments, “God might indeed of himself, without the agency of men, preserve his Church in good order; but he takes men for his ministers, and makes use of their hands.”
What happens, however, when the community’s duly ordained leaders fail in their duty to shepherd the people in righteousness? That is really what the parable of the tenants is about, especially old covenant Israel, for it describes in short order the history of the nation. Over time, the owner of the vineyard sent several servants to speak to the tenants, to make sure that they were doing their job, and to gather a harvest. These were the prophets whom God sent to call Israel and its leaders to repentance. The people and their leaders, however, rejected these prophets, and the nation fell deeply into sin and came under the control of foreign powers (Luke 20:10–12; see 2 Chron. 36:15–16).
In sending Jesus, the vineyard owner—God—gave the leaders one last chance. He commissioned His only Son to call them to faith. Jesus foresaw, however, that they would not avail themselves of the opportunity to turn from sin but would kill the Son. Consequently, the leaders would lose their position entirely (Luke 20:13–16a).