The Parable of the Vineyard Owner

Following is chapter 12 of The Kingdom According to Jesus. You may order the entire study from a number of the nation’s leading booksellers.

Matt. 21:33-46 (HCSB)

33 “Listen to another parable: There was a man, a landowner, who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. He leased it to tenant farmers and went away.
34 When the grape harvest drew near, he sent his slaves to the farmers to collect his fruit.
35 But the farmers took his slaves, beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.
36 Again, he sent other slaves, more than the first group, and they did the same to them.
37 Finally, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
38 But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance!’
39 So they seized him and threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
40 Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers?”
41 “He will completely destroy those terrible men,” they told Him, “and lease his vineyard to other farmers who will give him his produce at the harvest.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This came from the Lord and is wonderful in our eyes?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing its fruit.”

44 [“Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder!”]
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they knew He was speaking about them.
46 Although they were looking for a way to arrest Him, they feared the crowds, because they regarded Him as a prophet.

This parable also appears in Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19.

The context

Jesus has entered Jerusalem triumphantly on Palm Sunday. He has cleansed the Temple complex, overturning the money changers’ tables and driving out those who are turning the “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves” (Matt. 21:13). He has healed the blind and the lame and has received the praises of children. After spending the night in Bethany, He curses a fig tree on His way back to Jerusalem, and the tree – a symbol of Israel – withers. Returning to the Temple, Jesus is confronted by the chief priests and elders and challenged about His authority. He responds with a question about John the Baptist’s baptism, whether it is from God or from men. When the Jewish leaders are not able to answer, Jesus tells the parable of the two sons, stating that “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31). He then tells the scathing parable of the vineyard owner – a parable so pointed that it prompts them to intensify their efforts to do away with Him.

Central theme

The central theme of this parable is that the stewardship of the kingdom of heaven will be taken away from Israel and given to the church. Matthew Henry comments: “This parable plainly sets forth the sin and ruin of the Jewish nation; they and their leaders are the husbandmen here; and what is spoken for conviction to them, is spoken for caution to all that enjoy the privileges of the visible church, not to be high-minded, but fear.”

Central characters

The central characters in this parable are the landowner and the vineyard. The landowner pictures God the Father; the vineyard, His kingdom on earth entrusted to the Jews. Note what God has done in establishing and furnishing the kingdom:

  • He has planted the vineyard. God took the initiative to establish His kingdom on earth, a work of design and creation for which He assumed full responsibility.
  • He has put a fence around it. God protected His kingdom from those who opposed it and sought to destroy it. As one commentator writes, “He will not have his vineyard to lie in common, that those who are without, may thrust in at pleasure; not to lie at large, that those who are within, may lash out at pleasure; but care is taken to set bounds about this holy mountain” (Matthew Henry Unabridged).
  • He has dug a winepress and built a tower. The altar was the winepress upon which atonement was made for man’s sin and fellowship with God maintained; Mark’s account refers to the pit under the press, where the wine gathered after being crushed out of the grapes. The watchtower was His constant vigilance over a nation and people He established to exalt His great name; some say this is the Temple, in which the divine presence is manifested.

In the context of this parable, God has carefully and lovingly established His kingdom on earth – a vineyard fully furnished to produce a great harvest to be richly enjoyed by God and His people.

Details

The owner leases out his vineyard to tenant farmers and goes away. This is a common practice in Jesus’ day. The farmers occupy the vineyard, tend it, enjoy its fruits, and pay rent to the owner by sharing the harvest with him.

The tenant farmers in general are the Jews, whom God has graciously and freely entrusted with His kingdom. To them, Paul says, “belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4). God raised up the nation of Israel as the vehicle by which He would bless the whole world (Gen. 12:3). The farmers in particular are the Jewish religious leaders. Once God establishes the nation, reveals His purpose, gives the Jews the law and provides a homeland for them, He goes away. This does not mean He abandons them; rather it means there are fewer manifestations of His divine presence, while the law, prophets and sacrificial system are given to the nation until the time of the harvest.

When the grape harvest “draws near,” the landowner sends his servants – a common occurrence in which the tenant farmers share a portion of the harvest with the owner as rent. The servants in this case are the prophets, who represent the Master Himself. But note how the tenants – especially the Jewish religious leaders – treat them: they beat one (scourge, flay, take off the skin), kill another, and stone a third. Those hearing the parable know full well that the Jews had beaten Jeremiah, killed Isaiah, and stoned Zechariah the son of Jehoiada in the Temple. And when the Lord sends other servants, such as John the Baptist, they are imprisoned or beheaded.

At last, the master of the vineyard sends his son, whom “they will respect” (v. 37). But instead they recognize him as the heir, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. What a picture this is of the Jewish leaders who refuse to receive Jesus as Messiah, take Him outside of the city and crucify Him. Matthew Henry comments: “Though the Roman power condemned him, yet it is still charged upon the chief priests and elders; for they were not only the prosecutors, but the principal agents, and had the greater sin” (Matthew Henry Unabridged).

As Jesus finishes the story, He asks the Jewish leaders, “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers” (v. 40)? They reply, “He will completely destroy those terrible men and lease his vineyard to other farmers who will give him his produce at the harvest” (v. 41). In effect, they have just condemned themselves and pronounced their own sentence. Within 40 years of this parable, the Roman armies will sweep into Jerusalem, destroy the Temple, kill more than 1 million Jews and scatter the rest throughout the known world. The nation of Israel will cease to have its homeland and its center of worship for nearly 1,900 years, when national Israel is restored after the close of World War II; the Jewish people still await the rebuilding of the Temple.

In contrast, a little over 50 days after this parable is told, the Holy Spirit comes on the Day of Pentecost and ushers in the church age, taking up residence in the “temple” of the new believers’ bodies (see I Cor. 6:19). Truly, God has temporarily set aside Israel and entrusted His kingdom to the church.

Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23 and alludes to Isaiah 8:14-15 when He says, “Have you never read the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This came from the Lord and is wonderful in our eyes” (v. 42)? Although many rejected Jesus, as a builder would reject one stone in favor of another, He would become the capstone, or cornerstone, of His new building, the church (see Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:7). Having referred to Himself (not Peter) as the rock upon which the church would be built (Matt. 16:18), He now states the consequences of coming into contact with Him. “He that runs against it – a cornerstone, standing out from other parts of the foundation – shall be injured, or broken in his limbs or body. He that is offended with my being the foundation, or that opposes me, shall, by the act, injure himself” (Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament).

Verse 44 is bracketed, meaning that some manuscripts omit it, but its imagery is significant. It’s a reference to the custom of stoning as a punishment among the Jews. A scaffold is built, twice the height of the person to be stoned. Standing on the edge of the scaffold, the one being stoned is violently hit with a stone by one of the witnesses. If the person dies from the blow and the subsequent fall, nothing further is done; but if not, then a heavy stone is thrown down to crush and kill the accused – a stone so heavy it often required two men to lift it. “So the Saviour speaks of the falling of the stone on his enemies. They who oppose him, reject him, and continue impenitent, shall be crushed by him in the day of judgment, and perish for ever” (Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament). This also seems to allude to the crushing of the Jewish state by the Romans and the subsequent dispersion of the Jews through all the nations of the world.

The chief priests and Pharisees clearly understand that Jesus is directing this parable at them. Yet instead of repenting of their unbelief, they plot His arrest. Within a matter of days, the Jewish religious leaders will begin to fulfill the parable, and within a generation they will see it come to pass – first with the birthing of the church, then with the destruction of the Jewish Temple and nation.

Spiritual application

Just as God set aside the nation of Israel for its poor stewardship of His kingdom, He will not hesitate to chasten and rebuke those in His church who fail to be faithful stewards of His vineyard. “For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17).

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