When a proprietor has determined to appropriate as a vineyard a portion of ground which had previously lain waste, or been employed for some other purpose, his first care is to plant the vines. As some time must necessarily elapse before the young plants begin to bear fruit, he may prosecute the other departments of his undertaking at leisure. In due time, accordingly, he constructs a fence around the field to keep out depredators, whether men or beasts; digs a vat for receiving the juice, and prepares an apparatus above it for squeezing the clusters quickly in the hurry of the vintage; builds a tower as at once a shelter for the keeper and an elevated stand-point for the watcher by night or day.
In the case which this parable represents, the owner did not continue to reside on the spot and cultivate his own vineyard; "he let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country." This lease, granted by a non-resident proprietor, throws an interesting light on the habits of the place and the time. In regard both to the tenants and the terms, the information, though very brief, is very definite. The vineyard was let not to one capitalist, who might employ labourers to do the necessary work, but to a kind of joint-stock company of labourers who proposed to cultivate the property with their own hands for the common benefit. It was stipulated, moreover, that the rent should be paid not in money but in kind. It is the system known in India at this day as ryot-rent; the cultivator undertakes to give the owner a certain fixed quantity yearly from the produce of the farm, and all that is over belongs to himself.
The structure of the parable in its later stages presupposes a country in which the central government is paralyzed, and the will of the strongest has usurped the place of law. With us it requires an exercise of imagination to conjure up a scene in which these events could possibly occur; but in those regions such anarchy was not uncommon then, -- is not uncommon now. It is probable that the annals of our own empire in India could supply some parallel conflicts between the privileged superiors and the actual cultivators of the soil.
The proprietor, being personally absent from the country, employed agents to demand his stipulated share of the produce at the proper season from the tenants in possession. The tenants, presuming on the distance of the superior, and the difficulty which he must necessarily encounter in any attempt to enforce his rights, not only refused to fulfil the conditions of their lease, but also assaulted the messengers who made the demand; they beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. Obviously, they determined from the first to retain the whole produce of the vineyard for themselves. They do not seem to have laid their plans with much care: there is more of passion than of policy in their conduct. It is the ordinary practice of those who break the laws of God or of man, to grasp madly a present pleasure, and refuse to think of coming vengeance. Having heard of the treatment which his agents had received, the proprietor despatched another party more numerous, with the view probably of overawing the refractory peasants by a display of strength; but the second mission was as cruelly and contemptuously rejected as the first. The proprietor, still unwilling to bring matters to an extremity, adopted next an expedient which he hoped would subdue the rebellion, without imposing on him the necessity of punishing the rebels. Keeping out of sight for the moment his rights and his power, he appealed confidingly to their hereditary reverence for the family of their chief; he sent his son, and sent him unarmed, unattended.
The conduct of the husbandmen at this point is unintelligible, if you suppose that the country enjoyed a regular government, and that the men had deliberately adopted a plan. In order to account for the circumstances, you must suppose that the central government was paralyzed, and that these men were as stupid as they were wicked. Great criminals are often blind to their own interests: their blunders generally lead to their conviction.
The murder of the heir by these greedy tenants, in the vague hope of obtaining the property, is a probable event. To show that the scheme was not skilfully devised, does not by any means prove that the crime was not actually perpetrated. The owner was absent; no display of irresistible power was made to their senses; they were not in the habit of nicely considering the remote consequences of an act, and an overmastering passion completely paralyzed at that moment a judgment which was feeble at the best.
From this point the close of the tragedy is self-evident; the Lord accordingly does not further prosecute the narrative. Here the Pharisees are invited to pronounce judgment upon themselves; nor do they hesitate to accept the challenge. Whether in simplicity, as unconscious of the Teacher's drift, or in exasperation as knowing that by this time his drift appeared to the whole company all too plain, may not be certain; but in point of fact they gave the answer without abatement and without ambiguity: "He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard to other husbandmen which will render him the fruits in their season."
No serious difficulty occurs in the interpretation of this parable, and, consequently, no considerable differences of opinion have arisen among interpreters regarding it. The main lines of the lesson cannot be mistaken; but there is need of careful discrimination in some of the details.
Frequently in the Scriptures the seed of Abraham, called by God and endowed with many peculiar privileges, are compared to a vine, or to the aggregate of vines in a vineyard. I shall here point to three examples of this usage, in order to show that, notwithstanding an obvious general resemblance, they differ from each other and from this parable in the specific purposes to which they severally adapt and apply the analogy: --
1. Isa. v.1-7: "Now will I sing to my well-beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My well-beloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill. And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down. And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry."
The vineyard, with its slope to the southward, and rich soil, and careful cultivation, and secure defences, and convenient apparatus, represents the people whom God chose and cherished. The drift of Isaiah's parable is to show the exaggerated wickedness of that favoured nation. The vineyard brought forth wild grapes, -- those sour grapes which set on edge the teeth of him who tastes them (Ezek. xviii.2). Israel lived like the heathen, and thus the care bestowed upon them was thrown away. As a punishment for its ungrateful return, the vineyard was laid waste; the kingdom and polity of Israel were destroyed by the decree of God, and through the instrumentality of the king of Babylon.
2. Ezek. xv.2-5: "Son of man, What is the vine tree more than any tree, or than a branch which is among the trees of the forest? Shall wood be taken thereof to do any work? or will men take a pin of it to hang any vessel thereon? Behold, it is cast into the fire for fuel; the fire devoureth both the ends of it, and the midst of it is burnt. Is it meet for any work? Behold, when it was whole, it was meet for no work: how much less shall it be meet yet for any work, when the fire hath devoured it, and it is burned?"
Here Israel is compared, not to a vineyard, but to a single vine; and the special characteristic selected for purposes of instruction is the uselessness of the vine tree as timber. Cultivated only for the sake of its fruit, if it prove barren, it is not only no better than the trees of the forest, but much worse. Forest trees are useful in their own place, and for certain purposes; but a vine, if it do not bear fruit, is of no use at all. No man can make a piece of furniture from its small, supple, gnarled stem and branches. The wood of the vine is fit for nothing but to be cast into the fire, and, therefore, a fruitless vine takes rank far beneath a forest-tree; thus an apostate and corrupt Church is a viler thing than the ordinary secular governments of the world. Such obviously and notoriously is ecclesiastical Rome to-day.
3. Ps. lxxx.8-15: "Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt; thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it. Thou preparedst room before it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars. She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river. Why hast thou then broken down her hedges, so that all they which pass by the way do pluck her? The boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it. Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine; and the vineyard which thy right hand hath planted, and the branch that thou madest strong for thyself."
Again Israel is represented as a vine; but in this case the features brought into prominence are its former flourishing condition and great extent compared with its present desolation. By the removal of the protecting fence, the wild beasts of the forest were permitted to trample at will on its feeble and lowly boughs. The picture sets forth the ruin of Jerusalem through the withdrawal of God's protecting hand, and the consequent irruption of hostile nations.
In all these cases the vine, or aggregate of vines, represents the privileged persons who constituted the kingdom of Israel or Church of God, as it then existed in the world. In the first example, the wickedness of Israel is represented by the bitterness of the fruit which the vineyard produced; in the second, the unprofitableness of Israel is represented by the want of fruit on the vine; and in the third, the sufferings of Israel are represented by the inroads of the wild beasts upon the wide spread, tender, unprotected vine.
Our parable differs from all three as to the point where its lesson lies. It is not a case in which a favoured vineyard produces bad fruit; it is not a case in which a vine bears no fruit; it is not a case in which a vine that might otherwise have been fruitful is trampled down by wild beasts for want of a fence. It is a case in which, after the vineyard has brought forth its fruit, the cultivators who have charge refuse to render to the owner the portion of the produce which is his due. The difference is important: it determines clearly the main line in which the interpretation of the parable should proceed.
By the vineyard with all its privileges, I understand the ordinances of Israel as appointed by God, and the people of Israel in as far as they were necessarily passive in the hands of their priests and rulers. The husbandmen manifestly represent the leaders, who at various periods had usurped a lordship over God's heritage. Extraordinary ambassadors were sent from time to time in the owner's name, to demand the stipulated tribute, -- prophets such as Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, men not of the number, or in the confidence of the ordinary rulers, but specially commissioned by the Supreme, to approach them with reproof and instruction. The established authorities of the nation, exercising their office for their own pleasure or profit, rejected the counsel and assaulted the persons of the messengers. Some were imprisoned, some driven into exile, and some put to death. Successive embassies, sent in successive ages, met with similar treatment, until, in the fulness of time, Christ the Son became the messenger of the covenant. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. Already those Jewish rulers who listened to this parable, were laying their plans to cast this greatest prophet out of the city, and to crucify him.
The owner of the vineyard said, "They will reverence my son." The expression is natural and appropriate in the lips of a human proprietor; but obviously when it represents the purpose of God, it means only that such reverence was claimed, and such reverence was due. The omniscient knew beforehand that the Jewish rulers would not yield even to this last and tenderest appeal. The expectation of the husbandmen that when they should have murdered the heir, the property should become their own, does not point to any definite, well considered plan by which the wicked expect to gain a permanent portion by rejecting the Gospel; it indicates merely the blunt determination of the carnal mind to grasp and enjoy God's bounties while it despises and rejects his grace. To crucify Christ by the hands of the Romans, or to crucify him afresh through unbelief, was and is a short-sighted policy.
When the Lord of the vineyard cometh he will destroy those wicked men, and will let out the vineyard unto others. The interpretation of this turning-point is given to the Jewish rulers in full, and without concealment. "The kingdom of God shall be taken from you and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof" (ver.43). The polity of the Jews was crushed by the Romans, and the charge of the Church fell into other hands. The "nation" that has succeeded to the kingdom is constituted on a different principle, and held together by different bonds. It is not after the flesh, but after the spirit that citizenship is obtained in the Christian commonwealth; henceforth, the partakers of Abraham's faith are the seed of Abraham to whom the covenant of promise pertains. The worship and ordinances of God's house were transferred to the apostles and their followers, neither as Jews nor as Gentiles, but as the disciples of Christ. A new nation ([Greek: ethnos]) is constituted of those who are born again; of those the kingdom consists, and under their charge its affairs will be carried on until the Lord come again.
The personal and permanent application of the lesson is obvious.
A rich vineyard, planted and fenced to our hand, has been let out to us by the Maker and Owner of the world. Civil and religious liberty, the Bible and the Sabbath, the Church and its ministry, have been provided and preserved for us by our Father's care. We are permitted to enjoy all for our own benefit, under deduction of a tribute to the Giver. Our offerings cannot directly reach him, but he has made them payable to the poor.
When Christ the messenger of the covenant stands at the door and knocks, a worldly heart within refuses to admit him. The carnal mind is enmity against God, and therefore resists the claim which the Mediator bears: its language is, "We will not have this man to reign over us."
The lesson bears also upon the gradual corruption of the Christian Church in the first centuries, and the absolute apostasy of the lordly hierarchy at Rome. At the Reformation the kingdom was in part taken from that faithless priesthood; but they retain vast multitudes in bondage still. The Lord reigneth; and the time will come when every yoke shall be broken, and the Church set free to serve the Lord alone. The vineyard will one day be delivered from the tyranny of usurping tenants, and its fruit fully rendered to its rightful Lord.
Ah, my country, I dread the punishment of thy unfaithfulness! The same righteous God, who cast out the Jews and admitted the Gentiles, reigneth still. On the same principle he has taken the kingdom from Asia Minor and Greece, and given it to this island of the sea. Alas, if we render not to him the fruits of his vineyard, he may take our privileges in judgment away, and give them to another nation, perhaps to Italy -- emancipated, regenerated Italy (Rom. xi.19).
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This parable is remarkable for the codicil taken from the Old Testament and attached to it by the Lord on the spot and at the moment. The picture of the tenant vine-dressers usurping possession -- driving off the owner's servants and slaying his son, although transparent in its meaning and pungent in its reproof, does not contain all that the Lord then desired to address to the Pharisees. It pleased him to employ that similitude as far as it reached; but when its line had all run out, he seized another line that lay ready in the Scriptures to his hand, and attached it to the first, that by the union of the two he might make the reproof complete. The first type taken from human affairs is not broad enough to represent the kingdom of God at a crisis of its conflict. The son whom the proprietor sends on an embassy to the vine-dressers, points to Christ sent by the Father to his own Israel. The terrestrial fact serves to show that the son was put to death by the rebels in possession, but there its power is exhausted; it has no means of exhibiting the other side of the scene, -- that this son rose from the dead, and now reigns over all. The parable, when it came to its natural conclusion, left the lesson which it had begun to teach abruptly broken off in the midst, -- left a glory of the Lord unrevealed, and a terror to wicked men unspoken. That he might proclaim the whole truth, and leave his unrepenting hearers without excuse, the Lord proceeded then and there to demand of them, "Did ye never read in the Scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner?"
The parable of the husbandmen has already shown that the Son was rejected by the favoured people to whom he was sent; and this grand text from the Old Testament Scriptures, which the Scribes well knew, shows further that he whom the official but false builders rejected and cast down, was accepted and raised up by God. Whom they refused, dishonoured, and slew, him God raised up and made King upon his holy hill of Zion. It is a dreadful discovery for those husbandmen to make, that the Son whom they murdered lives, and has become their Lord. Nothing is more appalling to criminals than to be confronted with their victim, -- living and reigning. Hence the agony of Joseph's faithless brothers when they discovered that Joseph was their judge. Herod beheaded the Baptist in the intemperate excitement of a licentious feast, that he might keep before his nobles the word which he had rashly pledged to a fair, false woman: but Herod was not done with John when John's body, tenderly buried by his disciples, lay silent in the grave. Many times by night and day the king saw that gory head again lying on the charger -- it would not go out of his sight. The creaking of a door, or the sighing of the wind among the trees, seemed the footfall of the Baptist stalking forth to reprove him. When an attendant reported to Herod the miracles of Christ, reporting at the same time that some took Jesus of Nazareth for Elias, and some for another prophet, he had his own opinion on the point; he knew better, and in a whisper, with pale face, and starting eye-balls, and trembling limbs, he said to his informant, -- "It is John the Baptist whom I beheaded" (Mark vi.14).
 What wise one of this world, -- what human reason would have conceived, under the cross, that this man suspended between two malefactors, and despised by all, would one day receive the worship of the whole world? This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes. -- Heubner in Lange.
It is a fearful thing for his murderers to fall into the hands of this living God. It is a fearful thing to see him whom you have crucified afresh coming in the clouds to judge the world in righteousness.
Further expanding this conception regarding the chief corner stone, the Lord transfers from another scripture (Isa. viii.14, 15), the prophecy spoken of old on this very point, -- "And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder." We seem to mark here a change in the character of Jesus. Sterner and more stern he becomes, as in his prophetic office he approaches the subject of his own kingly judgment. His eyes pierce these hypocrites, and they quail before him. As his witnessing approaches its close, he draws the two-edged sword from its sheath and holds it before the time over the naked heads of his enemies, if so be they may even yet fear and sin not. For his own holy purposes he lays aside for a moment his gentleness, and appears as the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The last days of the Mediator's ministry on earth are now running: it must now be decided whether his own will receive or reject him. The leaders of Israel stood before him, with all their crooked purposes revealed to his eye; the plot was ripening to take his life away. Laying aside the style of a meek Beseecher, he assumes the aspect of a just Avenger; already we seem to see the wrath of the Lamb gathering on his brow. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry; as yet, his wrath is kindled but a little; in that day, it will burn like fire. Why has it been kindled a little before the time? Mercy has lighted this premonitory fire. This terror of the Lord, like all the others that he sends in the day of salvation, is employed as the means of persuading men. He not only receives all who come at his invitation, but sends out foreshadowings of judgment to drive from their unbelief those who refuse to yield to gentler means. Many of the forgiven, on earth and in heaven, are ready to tell that after they had long resisted his tender invitations, they were overcome at last by gracious terrors launched against them by a loving Saviour.
The Jews were familiar with these ideas connected with the corner stone. The prophecy in the aspect of a promise they readily understood, but here the other and opposite side of it also is displayed.
The picture -- for it is by itself a short parable -- represents a great stone at rest. In Alpine valleys, close by the root of rent, rugged, precipitous mountains, you may often see a rock of vast dimensions lying on the plain. In magnitude, it is itself a little hill; and yet it is only a stone that has fallen from the neighbouring mountain. Suppose a band of living men should rush with all their might against that stone, they would be broken and it would not be moved. If they retire and repeat the onset, the rock lies still in majestic repose, while their feeble limbs are mangled on its sides, and their life-blood sinks into the soil at its base.
The next part of the conception, which the imagination can easily form at will, is precisely the reverse of the first. The rock rises now into mid-heaven, hovers over the assailants for a while, and then falls upon their heads. Here, as in the other case, the human adversaries of this rock are destroyed, but their destruction is wholly different in degree and kind. In the first case, they were broken; in the second, they are grinded to powder. The words in the original are very specific, and the translation is remarkably accurate. The term employed to indicate the injury which men inflict upon themselves when they resist the Redeemer in the day of grace, conveys the idea of the crushing which takes place when a man strikes swiftly with all his force against a great immoveable rock; the term which indicates the overwhelming of Christ's enemies by his own power put forth in the day of judgment, conveys the idea of the crushing which takes place when a great rock falls from a height upon a living man. The one calamity is great in proportion to the weight and impetus of a man; the other calamity is great in proportion to the weight and impetus of a falling rock. Both the rejection of Christ by the unbelieving in the time of grace, and the rejection of the unbelieving by Christ when he comes for judgment, are bruisings; but the second is to the first, as the power of a great rock is to the power of a man. The first bruising, caused by a man's unbelieving opposition to Christ under the Gospel, may be cured; but the grinding accomplished by the wrath of the Judge when the day of grace is done can never be healed. There remaineth no more sacrifice for sin.
 The expression is chosen with reference to the mysterious stone in Daniel ii.34, 35, which grinds to powder the image of the monarchies; that is, to Christ who unfolds his life in the kingdom of God and grinds the kingdom of this world to powder. -- Lange.
There are only two ways. This stone lies across our path from edge to edge. It is not possible to be neutral, so as to be neither for Christ nor against him: we must either accept or reject the Son of God. In the prophecy to which the text refers (Isa. viii.14, 15,) it is intimated that "He shall be for a sanctuary, but for a stone of stumbling." The mighty one stands on our life path, and we cannot pass without coming into contact with him. If we flee to him for refuge, he is the sanctuary in which we shall be safe; if we fall on him, in a vain effort to escape, we shall stumble, and fall, and perish.
As a general rule, it is in the present life that he bears the weight of sinners striking against him; and in the life to come that those who rejected him here, must bear the weight of his judgment.
But some do not relish this doctrine; those who heard it directly from the lips of the Lord resented it keenly, and many resent it still when it is taught from the Scriptures. In our day men do not often expressly find fault with the teaching of Jesus as it is recorded by the Evangelists: they prefer to blame the ministers who take up and echo their Master's words. People fondly grasp one side of God's revealed character and use it as a veil to hide the other from themselves. The tenderness of God our Father is employed to blot out from view the wrath of God our righteous Judge. Since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were; where, therefore, is the promise of his coming?
A great rock is lying on the plain: the cultivators have ploughed and the cattle have grazed round it since the flood. Standing beside it, and reverting to its possible history, you give scope to your imagination and ask, What if it had fallen, or should yet fall on me? The bare conception makes you shudder: you are fain to shake off the reverie and compose yourself by the reflection that the rock, fixed to the spot by the laws of nature, cannot move to harm you.
But the Judge of the quick and the dead, though likened to a stone as to crushing power, is not like a stone in its silent still inertia. He liveth and abideth for ever. He bears now, -- has borne long. The Almighty God does not move himself to hurt those who are his enemies, any more than the rock which has slept half buried in the valley many thousand years. But he will not thus bear for ever: he will come to judge the world. He will come as the lightning comes: then blessed will all be who shall have put their trust in him, while he waited, through the Gospel, to be gracious. "When the Son of man cometh" the second time, "shall he find faith on the earth?" He will then find only the faith which his first coming generated; for his second coming creates no new faith. Then, it is not "believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved;" but "a fearful looking for of judgment."