The parable of the tenants is a metaphorical presentation of salvation history. God took particular care of Israel, his vineyard. However, the leaders of Israel were unfaithful tenants who did not give God, the owner, the share of the produce in time. When God sent prophets as his representatives to them, they maltreated the prophets. God was patient and sent more prophets. However, the Israelites persecuted and killed them. Finally, God sent his only son, Jesus. The tenants killed him with the false hope that they could take over the vineyard. Instead, God destroyed the unfaithful tenants and entrusted the field to faithful stewards who would produce good fruits for God. Now we are the tenants of God and it is our responsibility to produce a good yield for His vineyard, the church.
(Matthew 21:33) Listen to another parable: “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a hole for the winepress, built a watchtower, leased the vineyard to tenants and then went to a distant country. (34) When harvest time came, the landowner sent his servants to the tenants to collect his share of the harvest. (35) But the tenants seized his servants, beat one, killed another and stoned a third. (36) Again the owner sent an even larger group of servants, but they treated them in the same way. (37) Finally, he sent his son, thinking ‘They will respect my son.’ (38) But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other: ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him and his inheritance will be ours.’ (39) So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. (40) Now, what will the vineyard owner do with the tenants when he comes?” (41) They said to him, “He will bring these wretched men to a wretched end, and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share at the proper time.” (42) And Jesus replied, “Have you never read what the Scriptures say? The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing; and we marvel at it. (43) Therefore I say to you: the kingdom of heaven will be taken from you and given to a people who will bear its fruits. (44) (Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and he on whom it falls will be crushed).”
Background of the story
We will better understand the parable of the tenants if we see what happened before Jesus taught this parable in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus entered the Temple of Jerusalem while people greeted him saying “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Mt 21:1-11). He cleansed the Temple by driving out all those who were doing business there (Mt 21:12-13). Jesus cursed the fig tree that did not produce any fruit (Mt 21:18-22) which symbolized the fruitless Jewish leaders. The chief priests and the elders questioned Jesus’ authority when he returned to the Temple (Mt 21:23-27). Then Jesus taught in parables directed at his opponents there. The parable of the two sons (Mt 21:28-32) preceded the parable of the tenants. In that parable, one son initially disobeyed the father but later changed his mind and obeyed. He represents the sinners who followed Jesus. The other son did the exact opposite. He symbolises the Jewish leaders.
The parable of the tenants was also a veiled attack on the Jewish elite. At the end of this parable, Matthew states how the listeners reacted. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard these parables, they realized that Jesus was referring to them” (Mt 21:45). So, this parable is a figurative representation of the salvation history of the past, present, and future. Its basis is the vineyard of the Lord in Isaiah 5:1-7 that ends stating: “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant vine. He looked for justice, but found bloodshed; he looked for righteousness, but heard cries of distress” (Isa 5:7).
(Mt 21:33) Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a hole for the winepress, built a watchtower, leased the vineyard to tenants and then went to a distant country.
Listen to another parable
The earlier parable was the parable of the two sons that was a defence of the sinners who followed Jesus and comment on the elite Jews who rejected him. So, the current parable is on how God nurtured Israel, the unfaithfulness of the Jewish leaders, how they persecuted the prophets down the centuries, and how they assaulted the Son of God. The story prophesied on how the then leaders would lose their position and how the new tenants will take over the vineyard, viz. the Church.
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard
According to Isaiah 5:7a, “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant vine.” So God is the landowner, and Israel is the vineyard. Like a responsible landowner, God provided everything needed for the protection and development of Israel. In Isaiah 5:1b-2 we read, “My beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up, cleared the stones, and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in the middle of it and hewed out a winepress. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only wild grapes.” Jesus presented God like a human who took exceptional care of his vineyard. Though God owned all humanity, his favourite land was his vineyard, Israel.
He put a fence around it
Stone hedges protected the vineyards from the intrusion of wild animals and thieves. Hedge in the parable stands for everything that God provided to separate and defend Israel from the rest of the nations. God set up natural defence like deserts, seas, rivers, and mountains to protect the Holy Land. He also provided Israelites strict laws and made a covenant with them to make them his own and to separate them from the idolatrous Gentiles.
Dug a hole for the winepress
The winepress was to squeeze the grapes for making wine. Israel’s winepress was the tabernacle and later the Temple of Jerusalem. The wine was divine worship and charity that flowed from the Temple and the worshippers.
Built a watchtower
Tower in the vineyard was for observation and defence against the attacks of robbers. Jerusalem was on a mountainous place with God’s representatives watching over the Israelites to protect their covenant relationship with God.
The details of arrangements made for the vineyard show how well God cared for Israel and they lacked nothing from God’s part for its flourishing and safety. In Isaiah, 5:4a God asks: “What more was there to do that I have not done for my vineyard?”
He leased the vineyard to tenants
God assigned the leaders of Israel, who were the tenants in the parable, to take the responsibility to cultivate their faith and produce fruits of piety and devotion to God.
He went to a distant country
God travelled with the Israelites during their 40-year journey in the desert to the Promised Land. He manifested to them at Mount Sinai, journeyed with them leading them in the form of cloud and a pillar of fire, provided them manna from heaven, gave water from the rock, and healed them of snakebite. Once they reached their destination and settled in the Promised Land, God withdrew, giving them the responsibility to take care of themselves and bear spiritual fruit.
(34) When harvest time came, the landowner sent his servants to the tenants to collect his share of the harvest
When harvest time came
According to Leviticus 19:23-25, the fruits of the first three years of a tree were uncircumcised and no one should eat them. “In the fourth year, all the fruit shall be dedicated as an offering of praise to the LORD” (Lev 19:24). The priests and the owner ate the fruits at the Temple area. Only from the fifth year, the owner could eat its fruits or sell for profit. So, God waited four years for the fruits of the vineyard that the Israelites had to bring to the Temple. Similarly, God waited for the spiritual fruits of Israel.
The servants of the landowner in this parable stand for the prophets God sent to Israel. The produce of the vineyard stands for their virtuous deeds. God sent his prophets from time to time seeking the spiritual outcome of God’s people.
(35) But the tenants seized his servants, beat one, killed another and stoned a third
According to Isaiah 5:7b, God who gave exceptional care for Israel, “looked for justice, but found bloodshed; he looked for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” They fell into idolatry and rebelled against God and his representatives. The Israelites persecuted prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and many others. Just before the martyrdom of Stephen, he said: “Was there a prophet whom your fathers did not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One whom you have now betrayed and murdered” (Acts 7:52). When Jesus Christ came, the leaders of Israel had deviated from their call and were misguiding the people. In this parable, Jesus implies that these leaders are the unfaithful and murderous tenants of the parable.
(36) Again the owner sent an even larger group of servants, but they treated them in the same way
Though Israel maltreated God’s servants in the past, God was patient and continued sending more prophets. That lasted until John the Baptist’s mission. Thus God gave Israel several opportunities to repent. However, their cruelty continued.
(37) Finally, he sent his son, thinking ‘They will respect my son’
At last, God sent his son Jesus Christ seeking the spiritual fruits from God’s vineyard. Instead of respecting God’s son, they plotted to kill him and take over the inheritance. Jesus was predicting what would happen to him.
(38) But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other: ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him and his inheritance will be ours’
At least some enemies of Jesus knew that he was the Messiah. They could not accept his teachings or could not acknowledge him in public. Jesus’ teachings were a threat to the Jewish leaders’ selfish lifestyle. So, by killing him, they assumed that they could win the people, claim the vineyard of God, and do whatever they wanted. Thus, their ambition was to upgrade themselves from tenants to the lords of the vineyard.
(39) So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him
Jerusalem was the vineyard of the Lord. Jesus was predicting how his enemies would take him outside the city of Jerusalem and kill him referring to what the tenants did to the son. Thus, Jesus predicted his death.
(40) Now, what will the vineyard owner do with the tenants when he comes?
Here the Lord allowed the listeners, including the chief priests and the Pharisees (Mt 21:45), to judge what would happen to themselves. That was the fulfilment of Isaiah 5:3, “Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.”
The listeners of Jesus found two offences of the tenants: They did not give the owner what was due from the produce. Second, they maltreated his prophets and even killed his son. Thus, Jesus presented the upcoming God’s punishment on the unfaithful Jews.
(41) They said to him, “He will bring these wretched men to a wretched end, and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share at the proper time”
The story’s conclusion comes not from Jesus, but his listeners. The unfaithful tenants who were “wretched” would face a “wretched” death. That happened after 40 years in 70 AD when the Roman army destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem and the Jews there. However, God restored his vineyard, the church and entrusted it to new tenants, the disciples of Jesus. They would give the produce at the proper time. Thus, Jesus implied the transition from the old to the new Israel that happened on the day of Pentecost. The Church is the new vineyard of God. We, the disciples must cultivate, bear good fruits, and hand them over to God.
(42) And Jesus replied, “Have you never read what the Scriptures say? The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing; and we marvel at it”
Jesus then shifted the metaphor of the vineyard to a building, the tenants to the builders, and the murdered son to a once rejected and later upgraded cornerstone. The focus of the allegory shifted from the unfaithful and murderous tenants to the Son of God, Jesus.
Jesus quoted from Psalms 118:22-23 that the early church used later as a prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection. The basis of this psalm is a stone that the builders of the Temple kept away from the site without knowing the chief architect’s plan. Later he used that as the chief cornerstone when he bonded the two walls of the Temple together. The Psalmist used this as a parable of David’s selection as the king, and Israel as the chosen nation out of all the nations in the world. Though the chief priests and the Sanhedrin who were the builders of the Temple rejected Jesus, he became the cornerstone of the new Temple, the church. God, the chief architect made Jesus as the cornerstone uniting two walls: the Jews and the Gentiles (Eph 2:19-22).
(43) Therefore I say to you: the kingdom of heaven will be taken from you and given to a people who will bear its fruits
Jesus gave the parable’s application here. He used the kingdom of heaven in the vineyard’s place. He told of those who rejected him and led him to the crucifixion that God would take away the responsibility of the Kingdom from them because of their unfaithfulness to God and rejection of the Messiah. After his resurrection, Jesus entrusted his church to the 12 apostles and confirmed it with the Holy Spirit’s descent upon them on the day of Pentecost.
(44) (Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and he on whom it falls will be crushed)
This is the same as in Luke 20:18 and has reference to Isaiah 8:14-15. Here the “stone” stands for Jesus and the “fall” stands for the destruction of those who feel the offence of him. In the olden days, farmers used stone for winnowing by threshing the grain to separate it from the chaff. At the end times, Jesus the stone will separate the righteous and destroy the evil.
It has reference to the imagery of Daniel 2:35 where Daniel interpreted the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a strange statue. Daniel said: “The iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold all crumbled at once, fine as the chaff on the threshing floor in summer, and the wind blew them away without leaving a trace. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” The stone in the dream is Jesus, who would finally destroy all the pagan kingdoms and rule the whole earth.
Stoning to death was the Jewish method of capital punishment. That involved throwing the culprit into a pit of stones face down and then stoning until the person died. Thus, the stone becomes an agent of destruction for the evildoers. At last, Jesus will destroy those who reject him and reward the faithful tenants. Let us always remain faithful to God and present fruits of our lifetime’s labour at the last judgement.
1. God takes care of us, as a landowner does for his favourite vineyard, by providing everything we need and protecting us from all harm. As children of God and as his tenants, we are accountable to God in submitting fruits of our Christian living.
2. We need to respect the representatives of God that include our parents, teachers, mentors, and our ecclesial leaders. They must lead us according to God’s plan for us. They are also answerable to God for their responsibility. When we respect them, we respect God. If we disregard them, we are doing the same to God.
3. A true representative of God must do what God wants in pastoral care rather than providing what the people demand. Aaron’s failure was that he pleased the people and angered God by yielding to the people’s demand for a golden calf to worship. Pastoral leadership is challenging. We need to pray for the pastoral leaders and missionaries.
4. Rejection and persecution in this world for the sake of the Kingdom of God is a gain in the Kingdom of Heaven.
5. God being tolerant, sent his son Jesus to allow us to repent and reconcile with Him. Jesus will gather us at the last judgement that would determine our reward or punishment depending upon how we respond to Jesus’ teachings. If Jesus selects us to be at his right side, he will present us as the fruits of his vineyard to God the Father.