It was the Passover, the greatest and most important feast of the Jewish year. Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey to the praise of the crowds, who laid cloaks and palm branches before him on the road. Before him stood the Temple—a magnificent structure of beautifully-carved cream-colored stone. The gates in its outer walls opened into the the Court of the Gentiles; a low wall separated that from the Court of the Women. Past that wall no Gentile could pass who had not been circumcised, on pain of death. Within that was the Court of Israel, from which women were barred, and then the Court of the Priests, forbidden most of the year to all but priests and Levites. Inside the Priests’ Court stood the great altar, and the Holy of Holies.
When Jesus entered the temple, he found that—as had happened before—the high priest, Caiaphas, had set up a market in the outer court, turning it from a place for Gentiles to worship God into an opportunity to make money off all the Jews coming to pay the tithe and offer their sacrifices. Once again, Jesus drove them out; more, he refused to let anyone carry anything through the temple. Apparently, given the disrespect the high priest had shown the temple, the people of Jerusalem had started using its outer court as a public street. Jesus put a stop to that—which must have meant taking control of the entire 35-acre complex, for at least a few hours.
Needless to say, the authorities were infuriated, and demanded to know by what authority he presumed to do such a thing. Instead of an answer, they got a parable about a man who planted a vineyard, then rented it out while he went off to a far country. The harvest came, and he sent a servant to collect the rent—a share of the crop—but instead of paying, the renters beat the servant and told him to go away. This was a grave insult to the owner, but he sent another servant; this time, they not only beat the servant, they publicly humiliated him. Yet a third servant was sent, whom they hurt even worse and then physically threw out of the vineyard.
This is all a huge public insult to the vineyard owner, who is no doubt rightly furious—less for the financial loss than for the dishonor done to him. Honor demands that he avenge the injustice to his servants and the insult to his name. He has every right to ask the authorities to send the army to retake the vineyard and punish the tenants for their wickedness; no one would expect anything else. But he doesn’t do that.
One night in the early 1980s, King Hussein of Jordan discovered that a group of army officers were meeting nearby to plot a military coup. His chief of security requested permission to seize the barracks and arrest the plotters, but the king refused; instead, he flew by helicopter to the roof of the barracks. He told the pilot, “If you hear gunshots, fly away without me,” then walked down two flights of stairs, unarmed.
He appeared without warning in the room where the officers were meeting and said, “Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that you are meeting here tonight to finalize your plans to overthrow the government, take over the country and install a military dictator. If you do this, the army will break apart and the country will be plunged into civil war. There is no need for this. Here I am! Kill me and proceed. That way, only one man will die.”
Kenneth Bailey tells this story, having confirmed it from an American intelligence officer; he reports that “after a moment of stunned silence, the rebels as one rushed forward to kiss the king’s hand and feet and pledge loyalty to him for life.” They had been planning to kill him, but the nobility of King Hussein’s act in making himself totally vulnerable, putting his life in their hands for the sake of their country, changed their hearts.
This is the approach the vineyard owner chooses. He sets his anger aside; rather than retaliate, he humbles himself and risks far greater loss at the hands of his tenants for the sake of one last attempt at reconciliation. He sends his beloved son to the vineyard in the hope that when they see him, their hearts will be moved to shame at their behavior, and they will regain their honor. Of course, it doesn’t happen, and judgment comes.
This is what God does. Jesus tells this parable against the chief priests and the Pharisees—Israel is the vineyard; they are the tenants who think they own the place—but we could just as well apply it to all of us. God created a beautiful world and gave it to us to care for, and what’s the first thing we did? We decided being tenants wasn’t good enough, we wanted to own the place. And really, we’ve been on about that ever since. God raised up Israel, and he sent the prophets, and there were some who listened, but most didn’t—even within Israel itself, there were often few who feared the Lord. God could have done as he said he would do in the parable in Isaiah—he could have loosed his wrath and wiped us out. Instead, he set his anger aside, and he set his glory aside, and he made himself vulnerable to our hatred. He sent his son down among us, unarmed.
That’s what God does. And we killed him, because that’s what we do. And his enemies on Earth celebrated, and maybe the Devil celebrated . . . but it only happened because God chose it.