Jesus ended the parable by posing a question to the crowd and council: What will the owner of the vineyard do to them? (20:15). When Jesus asked this question, the atmosphere on the temple mount must have turned tense.
It was clear from Isaiah’s prophecy that the owner of the vineyard represented God and that Israel was the vineyard (Isa. 5:3-7). Throughout the Old Testament, prophets had been known as the Lord’s “slaves” or “servants,”; so the slaves in the story most likely symbolized the many prophets that God had sent to Israel. The beloved sonwas none other than Jesus. Twice already, God the Father had identified Jesus as His beloved Son—first at His baptism, then later when He was transfigured on the mountain (Luke 3:22; 9:35).
But who did the tenants symbolize? Who were these faithless farmers, more concerned with their own authority than with cultivating lasting fruit for their Lord?
The tenant farmers represented the religious leaders of Israel—and these leaders knew it. “The scribes and the chief priests … knew,” Luke noted only a few verses later, “He had told this parable against them” (20:19).
Past leaders of Israel had killed the prophets that God had sent (11:47; Acts 7:52). The scribes and priests of Jesus’ own generation were preparing to follow in their forefathers’ footsteps. Already, they were looking for a chance to destroy Jesus (19:47).
When Jesus asked what the owner of the vineyard would do, what He was really asking was what God would do to the scribes and priests of Israel. The answer that Jesus gave to this question would set the religious leaders even more strongly against Him.
20:16-19. Jesus’ prophetic response shocked His first hearers: He will come and destroy those farmers and give the vineyard to others. The crowd’s reply reflected their deep horror at this possibility: No—never! (20:16).
In the Old Testament, in the decades that followed Isaiah’s prophecy about a vineyard, God had used the rulers of another nation to punish His people’s rebellion (2 Chron. 36:15-21; Isa. 5:13-30). Now, according to Jesus, God was preparing to repeat this pattern—but with an important twist. This time, the result would not be exile. Instead, Jesus would endure exile in place of His people (threw him out of the vineyard, 20:15). The religious leaders (those farmers) and their authority would be brought to an end. In the meantime, God would raise up new leaders to oversee those who would become His people (give the vineyard to others, 20:16).
All of this happened precisely as Jesus predicted.
Before the greatest week in history was over, the ruling council would exile Jesus from the community of Israel, turn Him over to the Gentiles, and have Him crucified (threw him out of the vineyard and killed him, 20:15; see Heb. 13:12-13). After Jesus rose from the dead, God would give the vineyard to others by raising up apostles and elders to shepherd God’s new covenant people (Acts 15:2-6,22-23; 1 Pet. 5:1-3; see also Jer. 23:4). During the conflicts that resulted the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, every chief priest of Israel would die or be sentenced to die in prison, and the power of these religious leaders would come to an end. In this way, God did indeed destroy those farmers (20:16).