The Parable of the Tenants

by J. C. Ryle

And he began to speak to them in parables. “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. So they left him and went away. Mark 12:1-12

The verses before us contain a historical parable. The history of the Jewish nation, from the day that Israel left Egypt down to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, is here set before us as in a mirror. Under the figure of the vineyard and the husbandmen, the Lord Jesus tells the story of God's dealings with His people for fifteen hundred years. Let us study it attentively, and apply it to ourselves.

Let us observe, in the first place, God's special kindness to the Jewish Church and nation. He gave to them peculiar privileges. He dealt with them as a man deals with a piece of land which he separates and hedges in for "a vineyard." He gave them good laws and ordinances. He planted them in a goodly land, and cast out seven nations before them. He passed by greater and mightier nations to show them favor. He let alone Egypt, and Assyria, and Greece, and Rome, and showered down mercies on a few million people in Palestine. The vineyard of the Lord was the house of Israel. No family under heaven ever received so many signal and distinguishing privileges as the family of Abraham.

And we too, who live in Great Britain, can we say that we have received no special mercies from God? We cannot say so. Why are we not a heathen country, like China? Why are we not a land of idolaters, like Hindostan? We owe it all to the distinguishing favor of God. It is not for our goodness and worthiness, but of God's free grace, that England is what England is among the nations of the earth. Let us be thankful for our mercies, and know the hand from which they come. Let us not be high-minded, but humble, lest we provoke God to take our mercies away. If Israel had peculiar national privileges, so also has England. Let Englishmen mark this well, and take heed lest that which happened to Israel should happen also to them.

Let us observe, in the second place, God's patience towards the Jewish nationWhat is their whole history as recorded in the Old Testament, but a long record of repeated provocations, and repeated pardons? Over and over again we read of prophets being sent to them, and warnings being delivered, but too often entirely in vain. One servant after another came to the vineyard of Israel, and asked for fruit. One servant after another was "sent away empty" by the Jewish husbandmen, and no fruit borne by the nation to the glory of God. "They mocked the messengers of God, and despised His words, and misused His prophets." (2 Chron. 36:16.) Yet hundreds of years passed away before "the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, until there was no remedy." Never was there a people so patiently dealt with as Israel.

And we too, who dwell in Great Britain, have we no patience of God to be thankful for? Beyond doubt, we have abundant cause to say that our Lord is patient. He does not deal with us according to our sins, or reward us according to our iniquities. We have often provoked Him to take our candlestick away, and to deal with us He has dealt with Tyre, and Babylon, and Rome. Yet His patience and loving-kindness continue still. Let us beware that we do not presume on His goodness too far. Let us hear in His mercies a loud call to us to bear fruit, and let us strive to abound in that righteousness which alone exalts a nation. (Prov. 14:34.) Let every family in the land feel its responsibility to God, and then the whole nation will be seen showing forth His praise.

Let us observe, in the third place, the hardness and wickedness of human nature, as exemplified in the history of the Jewish people.

It is difficult to imagine a more striking proof of this truth, than the summary of Israel's dealings with God's messengers, which our Lord sketches in this parable. Prophet after prophet was sent to them in vain. Miracle after miracle was wrought among them, without any lasting effect. The Son of God Himself, the well beloved, at last came down to them, and was not believed. God Himself was manifest in the flesh, dwelling among them, and "they took Him and killed Him."

There is no truth so little realized and believed as the "desperate wickedness" of the human heart. Let the parable before us this day be always reckoned among the standing proofs of it. Let us see in it what men and women can do, in the full blaze of religious privileges — in the midst of prophecies and miracles — in the presence of the Son of God Himself. "The carnal mind is enmity against God." (Rom. 8:7.) Men never saw God face to face but once, when Jesus became a man, and lived upon earth. They saw Him holy, harmless, undefiled, going about doing good. Yet they would not have Him, rebelled against Him, and at last killed Him. Let us dismiss from our minds the idea that there is any innate goodness or natural rectitude, in our hearts. Let us put away the common notion that seeing and knowing what is good is enough to make a man a Christian. The great experiment has been made in the instance of the Jewish nation. We, too, like Israel, might have among us miracles, prophets, and the company of Christ Himself in the flesh, and yet, like Israel, have them in vain. Nothing but the Spirit of God can change the heart. "We must be born again." (John 3:7.)

Let us observe, in the last place, that men's consciences may be pierced, and yet they may continue impenitentThe Jews, to whom our Lord addressed the solemn historical parable which we have been reading, saw clearly that it applied to themselves. They felt that they and their forefathers were the husbandmen to whom the vineyard was let, and who ought to have rendered fruit to God. They felt that they and their forefathers were the wicked laborers, who had refused to give the Master of the vineyard His dues, and had "shamefully handled" His servants, "beating some, and killing some." Above all, they felt that they themselves were planning the last crowning act of wickedness, which the parable described. They were about to kill the well-beloved Son, and "cast Him out of the vineyard." All this they knew perfectly well. "They knew that He had spoken the parable against them." Yet though they knew it, they would not repent. Though convicted by their own consciences, they were hardened in sin.

Let us learn from this dreadful fact, that knowledge and conviction alone save no man's soul. It is quite possible to know that we are wrong, and be unable to deny it, and yet to cleave to our sins obstinately, and perish miserably in hell. The thing that we all need, is a change of heart and will. For this let us pray earnestly. Until we have this, let us never rest. Without this, we shall never be real Christians, and reach heaven. Without it we may live all our lives, like the Jews, knowing inwardly that we are wrong, and yet, like the Jews, persevere in our own way, and die in our sins.

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