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Matthew 21:33-46

Lesson Focus

The parable of the Wicked Tenants calls us not to be like the Jewish religious leaders who failed to guide Israel toward righteousness and fruitfulness. Through this passage, we see God's unwavering love and patience despite human sinfulness.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand the significance of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants as a reflection of the Jewish religious leaders' rejection of God's messengers and their failure to guide Israel toward righteousness.

  2. Explore the theological themes of God's steadfast love and patience in the face of human sinfulness, as exemplified by the vineyard owner's actions in the parable.

  3. Reflect on the lesson of ownership and stewardship, emphasizing the importance of recognizing that all we have ultimately belongs to God and should be used for His purposes.

Catching up on the story

Jesus has just pronounced judgment on the Jewish religious leaders for not believing and obeying God. They sought to entrap Jesus, but instead, Jesus turned their questions around on them. In the previous parable, the religious leaders are the second son who says he will go into the field but never does, so they are left out as even the tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of heaven before them.

Last week’s parable, this parable, and the one that follows it (Matthew 22:1-3) all belong together thematically. They all illustrate how Israel’s religious leaders have missed something very important.

The Text

Those Jewish religious leaders who questioned Jesus about his authority now have to listen to another parable. The first parable, Matthew 21:28-32, regarding two sons, did not paint the religious leaders in a positive light. The parable under our consideration at the moment will not end well either. While the parable speaks a powerful word to the Jewish religious leaders of the day, it also has much to say to us. In this parable, we see God's steadfast faithfulness and love in the face of human sinfulness, as well as his judgment.

We find Jesus in the Temple complex surrounded by the religious leaders of the day and, perhaps, his disciples. Jesus has already told one parable and will now tell another. I can imagine him standing as people draw close to hear what he has to say,

pointing a finger at the religious leaders and forcefully uttering these words, "Listen to another parable!" It is important to understand that what is translated "listen" is a second-person, plural imperative. It is a command, not an invitation or a request. "You all, you listen really well to what I'm going to say!" The tone is a bit more forceful than the previous introduction.

Unlike the previous parables (and the following one) we have recently looked at, Jesus does not begin with the familiar phrase, "The kingdom of heaven is like…" Rather, he chooses to jump right into the story because the content of the parable does not refer to the kingdom of heaven, but the sad state of affairs here on earth.

There was a man who owned a plot of land. Because he owned the land, he decided to place on that land a vineyard. With care and love, the landowner begins to work. He plants the vines, puts a fence up to protect his tender shoots, digs a wine press in anticipation of the future fruit the vineyard will produce, and builds a watchtower. Keep in mind that from the time a vineyard is planted to the time it produces its first grapes, it can be close to seven years. The land owner is not seeking to gain a quick buck on his work. No, he has lovingly invested himself in the vineyard, knowing that he will not see fruit for a long time. Finally, he leases the vineyard and sets off on business in another country.

Most commentators believe that the language at the beginning of this parable is meant to invoke the beginning verses of Isaiah 5.

Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard:

My beloved had a vineyard

on a very fertile hill.

2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,

and planted it with choice vines;

he built a watchtower in the midst of it,

and hewed out a wine vat in it;

he expected it to yield grapes,

but it yielded wild grapes.

Indeed, Israel is often referred to in the Old Testament as a vineyard that God has lovingly worked so hard to plant.

In faith, God selected a few to be the workers who would exercise care over the vineyard. These farmers, tenants in the text, have been chosen by God to bring the vineyard to fruitfulness. The much-expected harvest time has come, and the owner, knowing there should be fruit, sends a messenger, one of his slaves to collect the fruit. But the farmers, rather than doing what the owner desired, beat one slave and then killed the next one the owner sent.

By now, a clearer image of what Jesus is getting at should be emerging. The vineyard owner is God. The vineyard that God has worked so hard to plant is Israel, God's chosen people. The tenant farmers who were to guide Israel to fruitfulness are the Jewish religious leaders. Lovingly, God has brought Israel into existence; he has provided for them and set leaders over them to guide them. Israel, however, throughout their history, did not always produce fruit. So, God would send prophets to Israel to call them back to faithfulness. Time and time again, the prophets would speak the word of God only to be beaten and killed.

In the parable, the owner keeps sending slaves. Each time he sent a slave, the slaves were treated worse than the ones who preceded them. From this repeated sending of messengers, we get a rather astounding image of God. If you and I were in the position of the vineyard owner in the parable, would we be so lenient with the tenant farmers? I imagine that after the first tenant was beaten or killed, we all would have taken appropriate measures to ensure that those who had acted so violently would be dealt with. Yet God, in his love and faithfulness, exhausts all possible resources before executing judgment.

Remember that God, over and over again throughout Israel’s history, swears his steadfast love and faithfulness to Israel. The prophet Hosea paints for us a picture of God’s struggle with Israel:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called my son.

2 The more I called them,

the more they went from me;

they kept sacrificing to the Baals,

and offering incense to idols.

3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,

I took them up in my arms;

but they did not know that I healed them.

4 I led them with cords of human kindness,

with bands of love.

I was to them like those

who lift infants to their cheeks.

I bent down to them and fed them. [Hosea 11:1-4]

And a few verses later,

8 How can I give you up, Ephraim?

How can I hand you over, O Israel?

How can I make you like Admah?

How can I treat you like Zeboiim?

My heart recoils within me;

my compassion grows warm and tender.

9 I will not execute my fierce anger;

I will not again destroy Ephraim;

for I am God and no mortal,

the Holy One in your midst,

and I will not come in wrath. [Hosea 11:8-9]

Finally, in the parable, the vineyard owner decides to send his son, believing that the son will be respected. The presence of the son will be like the presence of the owner himself. So, the owner sends the son, and he meets the same fate as the other slaves. In a twisted fit of logic, the tenant farmers seize him and believe they will receive the son's inheritance once he is gone.

Of course, the son in the parable is Jesus. God, after having all of his messengers rejected and most of them killed, he sends his son. Now, we might stop and ask ourselves, Is God so ignorant that he believes that any different outcome might be achieved by sending his son? Perhaps this is where the direct correspondence with actual characters ends. At the same time, however, we know that God is not ignorant or stupid, but that because of his faithfulness and love, he will go to the extreme to restore his beloved's relationship.

Next, Jesus asks the religious leaders, "Now, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" In an ironic twist the religious leaders speak their own judgment. The vineyard owner will come personally and put those nasty tenant farmers to a miserable death. He will then give the vineyard to another tenant, who will hand over the fruit the field yields.

In response to the leader's pronouncement of judgment, Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23. According to Bruner, in this Psalm, Israel was the stone that had been rejected by other human authorities, but God had restored the stone through the return from Exile. Jesus is undoubtedly referring to himself as the stone that the builder rejected. Only this time, the rejection comes from Israel's religious leaders, not from the gentile nations (Bruner 381). Even though these religious leaders will reject Jesus, he is the cornerstone through his death and resurrection.

In the previous parable, Jesus pronounces judgment on the Jewish religious leaders by declaring that even the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom before them. In this parable, Jesus goes a step further. These religious leaders, because of their unwillingness and incompetence in guiding the people toward righteousness and fruitfulness, the kingdom of God will be taken away from them! Their place in the kingdom will be given to other people (in Greek, "people" is actually “nation” or “gentiles”).

These people are the church, comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, who turn