"A man planted a vineyard and rented it out to vine-growers [footnote: tenant farmers], and went on a journey for a long time. At the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers, so that they would give him some of the produce of the vine-yard; but the vine-growers beat him and sent him away empty-handed." (Luke 20:9,10, NASB) From here, the parable goes on to tell how the owner sent a second, then a third servant, but each was mistreated. Finally, he sent his son; but because he was the heir, the tenants killed the son so they could have his inheritance. (See Matthew 21:33-46 and Mark 12:1-12 for the parallel accounts of the parable.)
In order to understand this parable, we have to know who planted the vineyard, and what the vineyard itself represents. This is found in Isaiah 5:1, 2, "…My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. He dug it all around… and planted it with the choicest vine. And He built a tower in the middle of it and also hewed out a wine vat in it; then He expected it to produce good grapes, but it produced only worthless ones." Verse 7 of Isaiah 5 leaves no doubt as to the meaning of the vineyard. "For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel."
The Lord God had shown great care in providing Israel with prophets, priests, and instructors to guide them. He also protected them from their enemies when they were faithful. God had put His vineyard Israel into the hands of "tenant farmers" – religious rulers and teachers in positions of great responsibility. One would have expected "fruit" from Israel, especially from its leaders – love, obedience, humility, and gratitude to God. They should have been ready to follow the Messiah, God's Son, when He appeared.
But as Isaiah had foretold, the vineyard "produced only worthless [fruit]." Israel had mistreated God's prophets in the past, and now they would kill His Son.
When our Lord Jesus told his parable, He knew that in only a few days He would be dying for the hate-filled, selfish rulers to whom He spoke. Using Old Testament scriptures in the parable, He revealed to these rulers that He knew their intentions. And He prophesied that God's vineyard would be handed over to the Gentiles. (Luke 20:16) In verse 17 He also reminded them of Psalm 118:22: "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone," foretelling His future victory. Despite what should have been additional indication that Jesus was the Messiah, the scribes and chief priests went ahead anyway with their plans to kill the Son. But instead of possessing the inheritance, and continuing to rule the vineyard (Israel), they eventually witnessed the fall of Jerusalem; and the Gospel was preached to the Gentiles.