Matthew 21:33-46 The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007, 00.159.139_PS2.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10957416

Matthew 21: 33-46

Parallel Mark 12: 1-12; Luke 20: 9-19

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

The imagery of the vineyard in this and the preceding parable, combined with the fig tree in the prophetic sign prior to the parables and the great banquet in the closing parable of this trilogy all work together in ways that reinforce Jesus’ answer to the chief priests and the elders. Even if the hearers of the previous parable did not catch the imagery of the vineyard representing Israel, now Matthew (and Mark beforehand) include the references of digging a wine press in it and building a watchtower which show that Isaiah 5 provides the imagery for this parable:

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 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. Isaiah 5: 1-2

Yet, even as the imagery of Isaiah 5 is used, some important transformations are made which recast the imagery into a new image to fit the context of Jesus’ interactions with the chief priests and elders in the temple. Into the midst of the space between the beloved (the LORD of hosts in Isaiah) and the vineyard (Israel in Isaiah) the parable introduces workers responsible for the care of the vineyard of the ‘house master.’[1] Many modern commentators have missed the point of this parable by assuming the that the ‘housemaster’ is neglectful of the vineyard, and this is not helped by the NRSV and other translations adding ‘to another country’ which is not in the Greek. The ‘housemaster’ merely departed on a journey after hiring workers to care for the vineyard during the time the ‘housemaster’ is away.[2] The imagery in this parable, pulled from Isaiah, explicitly links the vineyard as Israel and God as the master of the vineyard (Isaiah 5:7), and even though in the Hebrew Scriptures the LORD is the God of Israel, the LORD is not only the God of Israel but the God of the entire earth and who watches over the Gentiles (the nations) as well. The people of Israel’s relationship with the land is contingent upon their relationship with their God, and they are reminded:

the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Leviticus 3:23

While the people of Israel are ‘aliens and tenants’ on land that is owned by God, here Israel is also the vineyards and the ‘tenants’ or ‘vinedressers’ are the leaders. Jesus stands in a long prophetic line of criticizing the leaders of Israel (both political and religious) who have led the people away from the way of the LORD. One example of this is both Jeremiah 50: 6-7 and Ezekiel 34 criticizing the ‘shepherds’ who have led the sheep astray. The language that Jesus is using is understood by the chief priests, elders, Pharisees as well as the crowds who are present with him in the temple. The slaves of the ‘house master’ who come to collect the fruit in this parable and who invite to the banquet in the following parable are the prophets and messengers of God who have come to Israel and have often been abused or killed. Jesus tells this parable in Jerusalem, a city whose leaders have often not heeded the prophets when they came. The parables follow the question of the chief priests and the elders about the authority of Jesus to do these things, and now, in parable form, the answer is presented by his identification with the son of the ‘house master’ who the ‘house master’ believes the tenants will respect but whom they see as a hindrance to their continued control and possession of the fruit of the vineyard. The ‘house master’ has shown incredible forbearance with these recalcitrant tenants who have abused and killed his servants, but with the death of the son outside the vineyard the response of the ‘housemaster’ is given not by Jesus but by those he is speaking to.

Irony is at work in the scene as these religious leaders call for the condemnation of the ‘tenants’ speaking their own condemnation, much like the scene where king David condemns the man in the prophet Nathan’s telling only to be told, “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:1-15) Yet, for David there was repentance and mourning after his condemnation but for these leaders their desire is to remove this pesky prophet. Instead of being righteous who are “like trees planted by streams of water, who yield their fruit in its season”(Psalm 1:3) they find themselves in the place of the wicked who “will not stand in the judgment,”(Psalm 1:5) Throughout scriptures the desire of God is for repentance, just like the ‘house master’ who continues to send slaves for the harvest even when they have been met with hostility in the past. Just as the religious leaders were unable to acknowledge God’s work in the ministry of John the Baptist, they remain unable to acknowledge their positions as ‘tenants’ before the son.

Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 118:22 changes the metaphor from tenants and slaves/sons/’housemaster’ to builders and cornerstones, but the central point remains the same. The leaders are charged with rejecting that which is central, and while they have been a stumbling block preventing others from recognizing the kingdom of heaven’s work in their midst, now they will stumble over this stone they rejected. The chief priests and the Pharisees, now introduced to the Jerusalem narrative, perceive that they are the targets of these words, but they are constrained by fear of the crowds who have gathered around Jesus.

Although this has often been used to support a reading where Israel is bypassed for the Gentiles, that is not the intent of Matthew. In the parable it is not Israel, the vineyard, who is replaced, but rather the leaders, the tenants. While, ironically, they can realize they are the focus of Jesus’ parables, they also speak their own judgment. If, like most scholars believe, that Matthew is written after the war with Rome in 66-73 CE it is apparent that Matthew understands the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome in 70 as a part of God’s judgment on these leaders who have not produced the fruits of the vineyard. But the ‘house master’ is seeking better sons to work in the vineyard, better tenants to produce the fruits at the appointed time, and as we will soon see in the final parable those who respond to the summons to the long awaited great banquet.


[1] This is the Greek oikodespotes which links this passage with the parable in 20:1-16 and Matthew is the only gospel which titles the owner of the vineyard as a ‘house master.’ See the fuller discussion of oikodespotes in my comments on Matthew 20:1-16

[2] The Greek apedemesen is depart on a journey, the addition of to another country attempts to harmonize this telling with Luke’s version of the story, but the departure for another country is not there in the Greek in Matthew and Mark.

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