The Parable of the Tenants (21:33–46)
The parable contained in these verses was spoken with special reference to the Jews. They are the farmers described: their sins are set before us here as in a picture. Of this there can be no doubt: it is written that "he was talking about them" (verse 45).
But we must not flatter ourselves that this parable contains nothing for the Gentiles. There are lessons laid down for us, as well as for the Jews. Let us see what they are.
1. Special Privileges Bestowed by God on Some Nations
First, we see what special privileges God chooses to give to some nations.
He chose Israel to be a people special to himself. He separated them from the other nations of the earth, and bestowed on them countless blessings; he gave them revelations of himself, while all the rest of the earth was in darkness; he gave them the law, and the covenants, and the oracles of God, while all the world beside was let alone. In short, God dealt with the Jews as a man deals with a piece of land which he fences out and cultivates, while all the country around is left untilled and waste. The vineyard of the Lord was the house of Israel (Isaiah 5:7).
And have we no privileges? Beyond doubt we have many. We have the Bible, and liberty for everyone to read it; we have the Gospel, and permission to everyone to hear it; we have spiritual mercies in abundance of which five hundred millions of our fellow-men know nothing at all. How thankful we ought to be! The poorest person in our country may say every morning, "There are five hundred millions of immortal souls worse off than I am. Who am I, that I should differ? Bless the Lord, O my soul."
2. Bad Use Made of National Privileges
Second, we see what a bad use nations sometimes make of their privileges.
When the Lord separated the Jews from other people, he had a right to expect that they would serve him, and obey his laws. When a man has taken pains with a vineyard, he has a right to expect fruit. But Israel did not give a proper return for all God’s mercies. "They mingled with the nations, and adopted their customs" (Psalm 106:35). They hardened themselves in sin and unbelief. They turned aside to idols. They did not keep God’s commands. They despised God’s temple. They refused to listen to his prophets; they ill-used those whom he sent to call them to repentance; and finally they brought their wickedness to a height by killing the Son of God himself, namely Christ the Lord.
And what we are doing ourselves with our privileges? Truly this is a serious question, and one that ought to make us think. It may well be feared that we are not, as a nation, living up to our light, or walking worthy of our many mercies. Must we not confess with shame that millions amongst us seem utterly without God in the world? Must we not acknowledge that in many a town and in many a village Christ seems hardly to have any disciple, and the Bible seems hardly to be believed? It is vain to shut our eyes to these facts. The fruit that the Lord receives from his vineyard in our own country, compared with what it ought to be, is disgracefully small. It may well be doubted whether we are not just as provoking to him as the Jews were.
3. God’s Reckoning with Nations Who Abuse Their Privileges
Third, we see what an awful reckoning God sometimes has with nations and churches which make a bad use of their privileges.
A time came when the long-suffering of God towards the Jews had an end. Forty years after our Lord’s death, the cup of their inquiry was at length full, and they received a heavy chastisement for their many sins. Their holy city, Jerusalem, was destroyed; their temple was burned; they themselves were scattered over the face of the earth. "The kingdom of God" was "taken away" from them and "given to a people who will produce its fruit" (verse 43).
And will the same thing ever happen to us? Will the judgments of God ever come down on this nation because of her unfruitfulness under so many mercies? Who can tell? We may well cry with the prophet, "O Soveriegn Lord, you alone know" (Ezekiel 37:3). We only know that judgments have come on many a church and nation in the last 1900 years. The kingdom of God has been taken from the African churches; the Muslim power has overwhelmed most of the churches of the East. At all events, it becomes all believers to intercede much on behalf of our country. Nothing offends God so much as neglect of privileges. Much has been given to us, and much will be demanded.
4. The Power of Conscience
Third, we see the power of conscience even in the wicked.
The chief priests and elders at last discovered that our Lord’s parable was specially meant for themselves: the point of its closing words was too sharp to be escaped. "They knew he was talking about them."
There are many hearers of the Gospel in every congregation who are exactly in the condition of these unhappy men. They know that what they hear Sunday after Sunday is all true; they know that they are wrong themselves, and that every sermon condemns them: but they have neither will nor courage to acknowledge this. They are too proud or too fond of the world to confess their past mistakes, and to take up the cross and follow Christ. Let us all beware of this awful state of mind. The last day will prove that there was more going on in the consciences of hearers than was at all known to preachers. Thousands and ten thousands will be found, like the chief priests, to have been convicted by their own consciences, and yet to have died unconverted.