Sermon preached on Luke 20:1-26 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/09/2022 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Here we have a faceoff between Jesus and the chief priests, scribes, and elders, at Jerusalem. They stand in opposition against Jesus here. Given that they were in Jerusalem, many, if not all of these were surely part of the Great Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was the chief ruling body among the Jews and it was made up of the chief priests, scribes and elders. While subservient to the Roman government, the Sanhedrin’s power as a council was still wide reaching, with authority in religious, civil, and criminal matters. In other words, these opponents here of Jesus were the top authorities among the Jews. That’s who is facing off against Jesus. So then, as we studied last week, Jesus had just entered triumphantly into Jerusalem for what would be his final week before being crucified. Jesus’ bold entry into Jerusalem, especially with actions like cleansing the temple, put things into motion to bring this conflict and confrontation with the religious leaders to a head. We see some of that conflict in today’s passage. Behind this, is the question, of who is really in charge of God’s people? These religious leaders? Or Jesus as the Messiah?
We begin in our first point to consider verses 1-8. There, we find Jesus being confronted by these religious leaders while he is teaching. Notice that they do this publicly while Jesus is teaching the people. We see throughout this passage that they are afraid of the people. They aren’t happy with Jesus, but are afraid if they come down on Jesus then the people will be upset. Clearly, in this passage, these religious leaders are concerned that upsetting the people could be very bad for them. So, they seem to be trying to do what they can to discredit Jesus in front of the people. That would then allow them to take action against Jesus.
So, they come to Jesus asking of his authority. He’s been doing some very bold things recently as we saw last week. They asked Jesus who gave him the authority to do such things. Realize, since the ones asking them are the top local authorities, it’s effectively a way for them to imply that Jesus was acting without legitimate authority. That is, if you are only speaking of authority among humans. Since Jesus’ authority comes not from man but from heaven, it is an altogether different situation. But there lies the issue. Jesus knows that they won’t accept that answer. They are unwilling to accept such a possibility. Jesus knows this because that is exactly what just happened with John the Baptist.
So then, Jesus responds with his own question of authority that demonstrates this. Jesus asks them, “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” This is referring to John the Baptist and Jesus wants them to answer publicly where John’s authority came from. Was it from God and therefore legitimate, or for man, from John himself, and therefore illegitimate? To clarify, John the Baptist claimed that his authority was from God. So, they are being asked if they agree with that claim or not. Jesus’ question to them becomes a sort of “catch 22” type of question. They discuss it among themselves and realize that either way they answer it will be a problem for them. They can’t say John’s authority was from heaven, since they opposed John and rejected his ministry. Realize, that’s what they actually thought. But they didn’t dare say that publicly because, again, they feared the people. The people believed John. The people had received John’s ministry and baptism. If these leaders had answered that they didn’t believe John, that they thought his authority was just manmade, that that would have been an honest answer on their part. But they won’t admit that, because it would get them in trouble with the people. Notice in verse 6, that they are afraid the people would literally stone them. That if they, the authoritative religious leaders, go on record denouncing John the Baptist, that the people will pick up stones and kill them. Who’s the real authority here? But I digress.
So, the religious leaders decide this question has no answer they can give that will be good for them. So they choose to lie. They answer with an “I don’t know,” kind of answer. That is a lie because that is not what they actually thought. They incorrectly believed John was not sent from God. For them to say they don’t know was them not being honest. But it was them being pragmatic. To clarify, if you get asked a religious question and you don’t know the answer, it’s good to say you don’t know. But these religious leaders are just lying to try to save face.
Jesus then responds by saying that he won’t answer their question then either. Jesus knows and shows here that they don’t genuinely want to hear his answer. If they didn’t believe John’s testimony that he came with the authority of heaven, why would they believe Jesus’ testimony to the same? Maybe you’ve experienced this before, where people ask you a question but you know that when you tell them answer they aren’t going to believe you. You might wonder why they are even bothering to ask when they aren’t going to accept your answer. That’s what Jesus does here. He says he won’t answer their question if they won’t be willing to acknowledge John had been sent by God.
As some application here, realize this is such an important matter. We need to know the difference between true authority and false authority. If some religious authority is rooted solely in man, then we should reject it. But if some religious authority is ultimately from God, then we ought to receive it. That’s why as Christians we receive the authority of the Bible, but not of the Koran, or the Book of Mormon. It’s because the church has not recognized the authority of God in those other books, but has recognized it in the Bible.
So then, Jesus wouldn’t answer their question here because they proved they wouldn’t have accepted it anyways. And yet, while it is true that he didn’t explicitly answer their question, he actually did go on to answer their question implicitly. What do I mean? Well, that leads us to our second point to consider verses 9-18 and this Parable of the Wicked Tenants. Here, Jesus effectively answers their question, if they would have ears to hear it.
So then, the parable is about a distant landowner renting out his vineyard to tenants. As essentially rent, the tenants were to pay the landowner some agreed upon share of the fruit. This was a common enough arrangement back then, so people could understand the parable’s circumstances. But when it came time to collect the landowner’s share, the tenants repeatedly rejected his servants who were sent to collect. Ultimately, the owner sends his very own son, thinking they will respect him. But instead they murder him thinking the inheritance will be theirs, that if there is no legal heir, their possessing the land as tenants might result in that case with them coming to inherit the land themselves.
So then, here’s who I believe each party in this parable is intended to liken. The vineyard is surely God’s people. Israel in the Old Testament was regularly likened to God’s vineyard, so that would be a proven metaphor. The owner of the vineyard is surely likened to God. The wicked tenants then would be likened to the religious leaders among God people, the very chief priests, scribes, and elders who are here opposing Jesus. The servants whom the owner had sent to collect are the prophets of God. In other words, people like John the Baptist and all the prophets before him. Like how the tenants in the parable reject and afflict these servants, that is what the religious leaders had done to John the Baptist, and what Israel’s leaders had done in the past with the other prophets. So then, who does the son in this parable represent? Surely, it’s Jesus! And like how the religious leaders had rejected all those prophets, they now are rejecting Jesus. And not only rejecting Jesus, but like in the parable where the tenants kill the son, so too the religious leader’s would be killing the son of God.
So do you see, how this parable is actually an answer to the question they had asked Jesus? While he didn’t give them an explicit answer, this is definitely an answer. If you have ears to hear and understand the parable, Jesus is saying that he is the Son of God. That he comes in the authority of God himself, not just as a servant sent from God, but as a son sent from God. Yet, he also here prophesies that the religious leaders will reject him and kill him.
There is one more part to the parable that I didn’t yet comment on. It’s the ending where Jesus speaks of how the owner will come and destroy the tenants and lease out the vineyard to others to care for. Notice that this sparks a big response from the religious leaders in verse 16. They say, “Surely not!” This is the strong language of negation that we see Paul use in Romans when he says, “May it never be!” Same language in the Greek. This is emphatic negation. What are these religious leaders denying? I think what is going on here is that they realize Jesus is using this parable to speak against them. In fact, verse 19 says that they perceived this. They were right! And so, when they say boldly “No way!” they are surely denying the application Jesus is making against them. These religious leaders realized that Jesus’ parable was saying that God was going to punish them and take the leadership of God’s people away from them. That when they say “Absolutely, no way!” They are rejecting Jesus’ application of this parable against them. Yet they were wrong. Indeed, what Jesus predicted for these religious leaders has already happened – they are no longer leaders over God’s people. God would ultimately use his twelve apostles to establish new leadership under the new covenant. Same vineyard but new leadership.
So then, in response to their, “Surely not,” Jesus then doubles down on his application. They had pushed back on his lesson, and he in turn pushes back on them. He quotes Psalm 118 in this line that says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” We recently had studied Psalm 118 in a Community Group and observed that it was describing how God’s king would be rejected and opposed, even by leaders in the community, but would ultimately be vindicated and restored into a place of glory and reign. Jesus references that psalm, the very one that last chapter we saw people quoting when he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem. He says that line about the builder rejecting the stone is about how the religious leaders would reject Jesus. But as the psalm describes, ultimately that stone would become the central stone. Jesus then explains that this will be bad for those who have rejected the stone. In verse 18, Jesus gives this proverbial sounding statement that basically says the religious leaders will be destroyed in their attempts to destroy Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah, and yes, as prophesied, they will reject him and even kill him. But Jesus will be victorious even over that, and ultimately it will be to the judgment and condemnation of these religious leaders. But for us who have received Jesus as Messiah, his resurrection from the dead and ascension is marvelous in our eyes. So then, this parable still gives application today. It is both a warning against rejecting Jesus and a call to receive him as Lord and Savior.
Let us turn now to our third point for today and consider verses 19-26 as we see Jesus address the question about paying taxes to Caesar. The context is given in verse 19. These religious leaders realize that Jesus told that parable against them, so they want to get rid of Jesus. In other words, they want to kill Jesus exactly like the parable just warned them against doing! But they won’t just come out and openly arrest and kill Jesus because they fear the people. So, they have a strategy. They employ deception, pretending to be sincere inquirers of Jesus. They formulate a question that they want to ask him in front of the people. They design a question that they think is another sort of “catch 22” type of question. That they think there will be no good answer for him to give, that any answer he gives will get him in trouble. Do you see, how this section mirrors the first section of our passage? In the first section, the religious leaders were given a question by Jesus that seemed like it had no good answer, and so they said they didn’t know how to answer. And so now in this section, they ask Jesus a question of the same sort.
So the question is, as we see, whether it is lawful or not to pay taxes to Caesar. Here’s why this might have seemed to them to be a situation where there was no good answer for Jesus. If Jesus said, yes, you should pay taxes to Caesar, you had the many among the people who hated the Romans and hated paying taxes to Caesar. Caesar claimed to be divine, and the taxes went to support this occupying Roman government that effectively enslaved them as subservient to them. Many patriotic Jews loathed paying taxes and some even thought it morally wrong to do so. And surely many of them assumed that once the Messiah came, he’d be putting an end to Roman occupation of the Jews and surely these Roman taxes would be the first thing to go. On the other hand, if Jesus said, no, you shouldn’t pay taxes to Caesar, they would be able to get him in trouble with the Roman government. That would be treason against Caesar. Rome had a lot of tolerance for what the people did, but not when it came to taxes! So, the religious leaders thought this was a perfect “catch 22” type of question, where either answer Jesus might give would get him in trouble in some way. Either he could end up discredited before the people, or in trouble with Rome.
Yet, Jesus does have an answer. It is a wise answer. It is an honest answer. And it is a correct answer. All things that the religious leaders had failed to do with Jesus’ question to them about John the Baptist. He points out to them how the denarius they have been using has the likeness and inscription of Caesar on it. By their use of it, it shows they have participated in a system and government ran by Caesar using even the coinage of Caesar. Therefore, they have matters of obligation to Caesar. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But Caesar is not supreme. Caesar does not own everything. There are then even higher obligations that humans have than to Caesar. For whose image is on us? It is God’s image and likeness that each of us have been stamped with. Therefore, let us give to God what is God’s.
That brilliant answer has much ongoing application for us today. While God is supreme and we owe him our ultimate allegiance, there are various institutions among man and spheres of human sovereignty that we find ourselves under. While each is ultimately accountable to God, as we find ourselves under their authority and under various obligations to them, we ought to show biblical submission and honor and fulfill our obligations. This is true even when the authority is not a godly one, as was the case with the Roman Empire. We still are commanded to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. To do so, is to obey Jesus. In other words, part of giving to God what is Gods is even to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But our obligations to human authorities is relatively limited compared to the obligation we have to God. Our whole lives belong to God, and so we owe him absolute allegiance and complete submission in all things. But we rejoice that our God is such a worthy God and such a benevolent God to serve!
Realize that how Jesus answers here not only solves the presumed dilemma that either answer would get him in trouble, but it also puts a question back on the religious leaders. Had they given to God what is God’s? Think of that question in light of the parable he had just used against them. In the parable, the wicked tenants hadn’t given the owner what was owed to him. Likewise, Jesus was saying that the religious leaders had been deficient in giving to God what was God’s. Jesus’ answer to their question actually turned it back on them to again challenge them on their failing in how they had been serving God themselves.
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, today’s passage has again pointed us to the authority of Jesus Christ. Let us not fall upon him, so to speak, in rejection of him. But let us indeed hail him as the king that he is. Let us serve him as our Lord. To recognize Jesus’ authority is to recognize God’s authority. To give our lives to follow Jesus is to rightly give to God that which is actually already God’s. So, today’s passage is about recognizing divine authority, and to recognize it as ultimate.
Elsewhere in the Bible, there is language of fearing God in terms of submitting to his authority. In this passage, however, we see that the religious leaders actually feared man over God. They were more concerned with what the people might think of them or do to them. The religious leaders thought it was a real possibility that the people might stone them to death if they didn’t do things right. But they thought there was no possibility at all that God would hold them accountable. They feared the people, but they weren’t fearing God. There is a time and a place to fear and honor men and human institutions. But in all things let us do so in service to our fear and honor of God.
While we might think now of our shortcomings in this area, may we remember that Jesus engaged in this conflict with these religious leaders in order to bring about the cross. So that we could be forgiven of all our shortcomings. Be reminded again of God’s grace in Christ for you in all the ways you will fall short of proper recognition of authority. But may then this passage inform us and spur us on in seeking to rightly give to both God and man what is properly due to each.
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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