The two related pieces of this text force us to examine a Jesus with sharp edges. The New Testament is clear that Jesus comes as judge -- but our normal picture of what this means, of Jesus sitting on a throne saying "This one's a sheep ... this one's a goat ... sheep ... goat ... goat ... sheep" is incomplete at best, and probably messes us up in some significant ways. In these eighteen verses we see a clear example of how Jesus judges people and what that looks like. If we're paying attention, we might find out something about our own call to "judge" and what it looks like for Jesus-followers to act as judges over the world.
First section: Verses 1-8:
The Jewish leaders (who are nervous about protecting their own authority) come to Jesus to challenge him. They want to know how come he sees his own teachings and actions, which are often critical of the current leadership, as legitimate. Where does his authority come from? Jesus recognizes that it's not an honest question, so he poses a question in return, asking about the legitimacy of John's prophetic movement and his practice of baptizing people who came to repent and align themselves with what God was doing. The leaders had stood at a safe distance evaluating John's movement, of course, so they couldn't answer either way, and they realize it. Recognizing their unwillingness to be judged, Jesus refuses to answer their question. And in their actions, in their unwillingness to side with Jesus even if he is legitimate, they judge themselves. (For a longer, but extremely provocative take on this, read C.S. Lewis' excellent book The Great Divorce and get multiple examples of what it looks like when people judge themselves.) They reveal the state of their unrepentant hearts. Jesus doesn't need to say, "See? You're a bunch of unholy jerks." Their self-protection, their motives, their unwillingness to interact honestly with the truth, are all visible for anyone with eyes to see.
Second section: Verses 9-18:
So Jesus tells a story not to scold them, but to put their actions in context. He chooses the familiar imagery of a vineyard (see Isaiah 5, for example), a common way of speaking figuratively about God's chosen people. The question is, have you who are in authority been faithful tenants? Have you recognized the rights and supremacy of the owner rather than just serving yourselves? Through Jesus' story, the lesson finally starts to sink in. When Jesus tells what will happen to the tenants of the vineyard, the leaders hear him speaking their future, and they respond "Surely not!" If all Jesus is doing is telling a story, why does it matter? But Jesus is telling their story, making their actions clear for all to understand.
The question we have to ask, then, is this: What authority has God given you? What is the vineyard God has entrusted to you, and are you honoring him in the way you manage it?
Lest we read this selfishly and make it all about ourselves -- "Someday Jesus will come back ... maybe any day now ... and then this will be fulfilled!" -- know that Jesus' words very literally came true about forty years later. The vineyard that was Israel was gutted and the current systems of leadership were completely destroyed. What wasn't completed in the Jewish War of 66-70 AD was mopped up in the Bar Kochba revolt another sixty-five years later. From that day on, Jewish leadership in the world was radically changed. It is also arguable that the primary vehicle God uses to communicate his presence and character to the world shifted from Second Temple Judaism to the fledgling Jesus movement that spread like wildfire through the Roman Empire and beyond.
History is important, because we might be able to see in these events some indicators of our own situation. We live in one of the great shifts of the Christian movement, what some have described as a shift past the "Christendom" where Christianity enjoyed status and privilege and power, into something we don't know how to define yet but for the moment we're just calling "post-Christendom." Is it possible that for decades and even centuries Christian churches got complacent serving themselves rather than recognizing and participating in the mission God had for them? And is it possible that in our day, God is giving that "vineyard" to Jesus-focused movements that are more true to his mission?
It's worth pondering.
In the next few verses we'll be seeing Jesus' own perspective on living in tension with culture -- especially religious culture -- and how to interact with a wider society that is opposed to God's rule. Hang on for the ride!