Suppose there was a landlord who rented out his house to others. One day he sends a messenger to collect rent, and the tenants not only refuse to pay, but physically abuse the messenger and send him away empty-handed.
Instead of summoning the police, the owner sends another messenger. After all, this may have simply been a case of mistaken identity. This new messenger will have all of his credentials in order. But this second messenger is likewise abused.
Yet the landlord is still reluctant to evict the tenant, much less to call the police. Instead he sends a third messenger, and this one gets murdered. Still, the landlord holds out hope that one more messenger will do the trick, and get the tenants to pay the rent they owe. So he sends messenger after messenger, some of which are murdered, all of whom are abused and rejected.
Finally he sends his son—his only son—thinking that he will command the respect of the tenants, but instead they of course think, “if we murder the son, then there is nobody to charge us rent, and we can live here forever!”
Well, the ending of the story is both obvious and inevitable. The son is murdered, the father then shows up with the law, the tenants are executed and the house is renovated (expanded even!) and given to others. As far as property values go, the whole thing is an improvement for the landlord, but it is a pity about his son and all, to say nothing of the all those disposable messengers.
But the question is this: what does this story tell us about the morality of the landlord? What kind of person would send so many messengers to their death, all for the sake of rent? Certainly the landlord has at the very least some negligent liability in this, doesn’t he?
The answer to that question is found in the nature of a parable. You have to remember that parables are fiction. This landlord doesn’t really exist. In fact, no landlord like that exists. Any human landlord would have come with the sword long before he ran out of messengers, much less sons.
But that is exactly Jesus’ point in telling this story (Mark 12:1-12). God has a patience with people unlike any human patience. He holds out a super-human love for his tenants, and he keeps holding on to his love for them. He really wants them to turn from their murderous ways and be saved, and so he continually sends them messengers asking them to be reconciled to him. Despite the fact that those messengers are rejected, abused, and martyred, he still sends more. In other words, the Lord may be slow to bring his wrath, but it is only because he “is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Nevertheless, there are still those who are frustrated with this story. Obviously in Jesus’ telling of it, the vineyard is the nation Israel; the tenants are the religious leaders who have martyred every prophet from Abel to Zechariah, as well as the Sanhedrin—who make their ancestor’s murders their own through their rejection of Jesus. The messengers in Jesus’ story correspond to the prophets who were rejected. And the point of the parable is simply that God is extending this last call for Israel to come and be saved through giving the Son the honor he is due.
Still though there are some that want the blame for the murders to be spread among both the tenants and the landlord. After all, certainly the landlord knew what would happen to the messengers he sent, and should bare the blame for their deaths.
I find that view astonishingly short-sighted. Not only does it represent an over-interpretation of the parable (remember that parables mostly serve to make one point, and can’t be stretched in every detail), but it also misses that the main point is the landlord’s patience with the tenants. The reason he kept sending messengers is because in some very real way he did not want to put the murderers to the death that they deserved. He would rather send a messenger to his death than slaughter those that deserved it—not because he didn’t love the messenger, but because of how much he loved the tenants.
And this simple fact should cause us to marvel at God’s patience toward us. That while we were still dead in our sins and trespasses, God did not execute us. But instead he showed us patience by sending us the gospel. God allowed the world to continue, he allowed missionaries to be martyred around the globe, he allowed Christians to be scorned and rejected, all while waiting for you to come to faith. God did not tarry justice out of neglect to the messengers as much as out of love toward us.
And with that said, it is worth remembering as well that those messengers went carried out their duty while sharing their master’s love for the tenants. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, et. al. all loved Israel because God loved Israel. Today (and I think this parable does indeed jump the dispensational division to the NT and that Peter applies this same truth to the church age) there are missionaries and believers that risk death to take the gospel to those that refuse to render to God the honor he deserves—and they do so out of love for the lost. Some will be martyred this week—and they will go to their graves under the sovereignty of God, but also without blaming God for sending them. Rather, they go because they share the father’s love for the lost.
For those that are not yet believers and are bothered by the apparently callous attitude the landlord has toward the fate of his messengers, the least you can do is recognize that in this parable the longsuffering of the landlord is really about his love for you. And a person who is rescued from destruction should certainly not be bitter at the efforts of those who risked their lives to rescue them.