Matthew 21:33-46 :: The Parable of the Tenants
Story Setting & Culture
- 33 AD in Jerusalem, which is under the oppression of the Roman Empire
- Jerusalem is buzzing with Jewish travelers from all over the Mediterranean region coming into the city to celebrate the Passover
- Jesus has recently entered the city of Jerusalem, during Passover week, being hailed as Messiah and the Savior King. The Jews are hoping Jesus is the king that will restore Israel to the glory days of David and Solomon and end Roman oppression.
- Although Jerusalem is a large city the nation of Israel and the surrounding area is predominantly an Agrarian society and farming is essential to the livelihood of people.
- A parable or illustration about a vineyard would have been well understood by the hearers of Jesus’ parable and talk about vineyard, tenants, and fruit is common Old Testament language God often uses when talking about the nation of Israel. Jesus uses a parable that resonated with his hearers, which is important for us to share the Story of God in a contextual language of our community.
Matthew 21:33-46 - “Now listen to another story. A certain landowner planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, dug a pit for pressing out the grape juice, and built a lookout tower. Then he leased the vineyard to tenant farmers and moved to another country. 34 At the time of the grape harvest, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. 35 But the farmers grabbed his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. 36 So the landowner sent a larger group of his servants to collect for him, but the results were the same.
37 “Finally, the owner sent his son, thinking, ‘Surely they will respect my son.’
38 “But when the tenant farmers saw his son coming, they said to one another, ‘Here comes the heir to this estate. Come on, let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves!’ 39 So they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard, and murdered him.
40 “When the owner of the vineyard returns,” Jesus asked, “what do you think he will do to those farmers?”
41 The religious leaders replied, “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.”
42 Then Jesus asked them, “Didn’t you ever read this in the Scriptures? ‘The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see.’
43 I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit. 44 Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.”
45 When the leading priests and Pharisees heard this parable, they realized he was telling the story against them—they were the wicked farmers. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, who considered Jesus to be a prophet.
- A parable is a common day illustration or story meant to communicate or provide a bridge to understanding a deeper spiritual truth. Jesus often uses parables when teaching large groups of people, and parables always require an explanation. Jesus wants people to ask questions because this is how relationships and conversation begin.
- To the Jewish listener this parable would have immediately reminded them of an Old Testament prophet who gave a similar illustration.
Isaiah 5:1-7 - Now I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a rich and fertile hill. 2 He plowed the land, cleared its stones, and planted it with the best vines. In the middle he built a watchtower and carved a winepress in the nearby rocks. Then he waited for a harvest of sweet grapes, but the grapes that grew were bitter. 3 Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah, you judge between me and my vineyard. 4 What more could I have done for my vineyard that I have not already done? When I expected sweet grapes, why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes? 5 Now let me tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will tear down its hedges and let it be destroyed. I will break down its walls and let the animals trample it. 6 I will make it a wild place where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed, a place overgrown with briers and thorns. I will command the clouds to drop no rain on it. 7 The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. The people of Judah are his pleasant garden. He expected a crop of justice, but instead he found oppression. He expected to find righteousness, but instead he heard cries of violence.
- Time and time again God uses the illustration of a vineyard for the nation of Israel, himself as the landowner and the fruit of the vineyard is the righteousness of the people who are to be walking in the Lord’s ways.
- In ancient times, and even still today, wealthy landowners would build and plant vineyards and then lease them to tenants. The owner would expect a certain percentage of the fruit during harvest season as payment for the lease of the vineyard. Think of loans or tenant leases today and you pay rent or interest on the money or resources you are able to borrow.
- Unfortunately in this parable we immediately recognize something is wrong! The tenants are abusing, beating and even killing the landowner’s servants. These servants clearly represent the Old Testament prophets who were constantly being abused, beaten and even killed by God’s own people.
- After sending a number of servants, simply to collect what the landowner was owed, the result was the same. All the prophets of God were rejected and their warnings were rarely heeded. In God’s grace he continued to pursue his people.
- It is important for us to keep in mind Jesus is speaking directly to the religious leaders (delegation of the Sanhedrin Council) of Jerusalem. Jesus is calling out the sin of the nation of Israel’s leaders and comparing it to the sin of the previous leaders of Israel from Old Testament times.
- Last week we discussed ‘Authority’ specifically related to Jesus and the importance of his authority in our lives. Authority was significant in ancient culture and the landowner’s son would have carried the same authority as his father. The authority of Jesus is the authority of God.
- The response of the tenants is alarming on several levels:
- There is a clear recognition of the son, his authority and what he has come to collect for his father.
- There is no regard for the son’s authority and instead the tenants see an opportunity for personal gain… to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10) *Jesus has referred to the religious leaders as sons of the devil (John 8:44)
- If the son is the heir and the tenants think they will gain from murder there are a few possibilities of why they are thinking this way:
- Some scholars refer back to common ancient practice in the Jewish culture in that if a collection was not made in a four-year period the leasing tenants would become the new landowners.
- It’s possible the tenants (religious leaders) believe the father is dead and therefore the son’s death will bring them the vineyard.
- Either way the religious leaders are interested only in their own authority and are clearly unwilling to submit to the landowner’s authority.
- As the church are we more focused on gaining our own vineyard for personal gain or submitting to the authority of the landowner’s son with humility and joy?
- The son (Jesus) is dragged out of the vineyard just as Christ was taken outside of the city of Jerusalem and murdered. Seeking glory for self leads to murderous action.
- Question is to the religious leaders and they, not perceiving yet that this parable is about them, have a definitive answer!
- “Horrible death for the wicked” is the great judgment that is to come for those who do not repent of their sins and turn to God. The religious leaders judge themselves.
- “Lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after harvest” is God’s grace and promise being extended to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Israel will have God’s vineyard taken from them and it will be given to the Church. This is important because it is not excluding Jews but including Gentiles.
- Jesus’ second question is certainly insulting to the religious leaders and strikes the heart of their error. Of course they read the Scriptures, but they were blind to what the Bible said of the coming of the landowner’s son; the Messiah – Jesus Christ.
Psalm 118:22-24 - The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. 23 This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. 24 This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.
- Jesus’ reference to Psalm 118 is a direct communication to the religious leaders about his identity and authority.
- Jesus reveals that this Old Testament Scripture is fulfilled in Himself. He is the stone – cornerstone.
- When a structure was being built the cornerstone was the most important piece as it determined how all other stones would be aligned and where the building would face. The cornerstone was carefully selected by the builder and potential cornerstones with faults would be rejected and discarded. Jesus is the perfect cornerstone without fault, and yet was rejected by the religious leaders. This human rejection would not overrule God’s plan through Jesus.
- The language of stone or cornerstone would have reminded Jewish hearers of Daniel interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.
- Jesus reveals that this Old Testament Scripture is fulfilled in Himself. He is the stone – cornerstone.
Daniel 2:31-35 - 31 “In your vision, Your Majesty, you saw standing before you a huge, shining statue of a man. It was a frightening sight. 32 The head of the statue was made of fine gold. Its chest and arms were silver, its belly and thighs were bronze, 33 its legs were iron, and its feet were a combination of iron and baked clay. 34 As you watched, a rock was cut from a mountain, but not by human hands. It struck the feet of iron and clay, smashing them to bits. 35 The whole statue was crushed into small pieces of iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold. Then the wind blew them away without a trace, like chaff on a threshing floor. But the rock that knocked the statue down became a great mountain that covered the whole earth.
- The statue represents the Kingdoms of men (specifically of the Babylonians, Medes, Persia), which are laid waste by a massive rock not created by man. This rock, who is Jesus, crushes the kingdoms of men in order to establish his kingdom, rule and reign over the whole earth.
We have a choice: Do we welcome the son and submit to his authority or do we seek to serve ourselves and face judgment?