Tag Archives: Parable of the Vineyard

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.

Matthew 20: 1-16 The Good House Master

the Parable of the Vineyard,by Andrey Mironov, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24843092

Matthew 20: 1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This parable, which is unique to Matthew’s gospel, expands on Jesus’ paradoxical proverb about many who are first being last and the last being first. In Matthew, this parable is the final parable prior to entering Jerusalem and is preceded by the parable of the lost sheep and the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18. The world imagined in the parable is jarring for those committed to the capitalistic worldview of our time or the worldview of the nations in Jesus’ time. Each of the three parables in Matthew 18-20 are told specifically in answer to the disciples’ questions about greatness or forgiveness and unlike earlier parables are not explained by Jesus. We are invited not only into the worldview of the disciples of Jesus, but into these short stories which are designed to challenge their assumptions as they begin to embody a different kind of society amidst the nations.

I am making several translational choices that make the story less readable to a casual modern reader but highlight some of the different assumptions and values of the world Jesus spoke to. Our imagination around land and time are different than the ancient world, especially for those who dwell in cities and whose primary place of income is a workplace that is no longer connected with agriculture. For most of history the home was the primary place where economics occurred, and the ‘house master’ was responsible for the stewardship of the economics of their land. What many translations render as a ‘landowner’ is the Greek oikodespotes (oikos- home, this is the word at the root of the modern idea of economy and economics and despot-where our modern word despot comes from, meaning ruler, lord or master) I am rendering more literally as ‘house master.’  Jesus has been referred to himself a ‘house master in 10:25 when he states, “If they have called the master of the house (oikodespotes) Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” This term will also appear in Matthew 24:43 in the context of Jesus warning his disciples to stay awake like a house master who does not know when a thief is coming.

While the house master is responsible for both household and land, this does not indicate that the house master will be wealthy or elitist. We may think in modern terms of a person with land and property as the master of an estate with servants to do their bidding, and while that might be the case of this house master we need not assume that it is the case. We only hear of one person who works directly for the house master in this parable, and while many interpreters assume that the house master is wealthy and going into the marketplace to hire workers would be below him, that is an assumption that the house master oversees a large household with many servants or slaves that work for him. It is worth remembering that a part of the Jewish hope is for everyone is to live securely in their own land. Whether 1 Kings 4: 25 is accurate that under Solomon everyone had their own vine and fig tree, the prophetic hope resonates with this image:

But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. Micah 4:4, see also Zechariah 3: 10

Regardless of the whether the house master is wealthy or merely owns a vineyard, we will see in the parable that this individual acts in a way that is very unusual in the disciples’ worldview and in ours.

In the modern western culture we imagine time in the way we measure it on a clock, watch or cell phone with the day broken into precise hours, minutes and seconds, and while many work hours outside of the eight hour, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. we often think of the forty hour week as a standard for work. The workday in the ancient world is constructed around daylight hours, and here in the world of this parable we have an approximately twelve-hour workday. The house master goes out during the fourth watch (before dawn) into the marketplace to find workers, and while some translations smooth the agreed upon wage to ‘the usual daily wage’ I believe most readers can understand the agreement for a concrete price, a denarius, even if they may not be able to precisely fix the value of this payment in modern equivalents. The agreement for a specific payment by both the house master and the workers is important to this story. To render the times when the house master returns to the market place as nine o’clock, noon, three o’clock and five o’clock assumes our precise relationship with time and can give the illusion of something resembling our normal workday, the more literal third hour, sixth hour, ninth hour, and the eleventh hour, reminds us that the workday is long and it may remind us that time was not measured by clocks, but by the movement of the sun.

A vineyard, unlike grain crops sown in a field, require constant tending. Most commentators assume that the house master has gone to bring in workers for the harvest, but that may not be the assumption of those in Jesus’ time hearing this parable. The reality that there are workers throughout the day who are without work (most English translations place a value judgment on their translations on the laborers when they state they are ‘standing idle’ but the Greek agroi literally means without work) the laborers answer that no one was hiring along with the quick agreement on a wage may indicate a time where the supply of workers exceeded demand. Also, as Amy Jill-Levine notes, “The householder continues to go to the market, but the parable makes no explicit mention of the need for more labor.” (Levine 2014, 226) Perhaps, something very strange is happening with this house master who continues to bring more workers into their vineyard to work. The harvest may indeed be great, or the house master may indeed be generous.

Sometimes this parable is quickly allegorized to talk about grace and ‘salvation’ or the assumption is made that those who are in the vineyard early are the Pharisees and/or Sadducees but reading the context of the story I want to suggest two different frames for this story. All of the parables in Matthew 18-20 are in response to the questions of the disciples, and this parable follows Peter’s question, “What then will we have?” so likely Matthew is not concerned with groups outside the followers of Jesus, but precisely the imagination and actions of those whom Jesus has called from the fishing boats, marketplace or wherever they have come from to follow him. But it is also helpful to remember that Jesus is using a commonly used image for Israel, the vineyard (see Isaiah 5, Jeremiah 7) to tell a very Jewish parable. Christians may be conditioned to continually question ‘what thing we might do to have eternal life’ (see my discussion of this question in the previous section) but rather than spiritualizing the parable to concern the afterlife, what if it is concerned with how members of the kingdom of heaven relate to one another. As Dr. Levine can again state insightfully, “To those who ask today, “Are we saved?” Jesus might well respond, “The better questions is, ‘Do your children have enough to eat?’ of ‘Do you have a shelter for the night?’” (Levine 2014, 216)

I am going against the grain assuming that the ‘house master’ is good, since many would side with the workers in the parable around issues of fairness or justice. When the parable is spiritualized to be about the afterlife is removes the scandal from the parable, but it also misses the fruit that is hanging from the vines to be gathered. When the house master orders his steward to pay the workers at the end of the day he is acting in accordance with the expectations of the law (Lev. 19: 13, Deut. 24: 14-15) and Deuteronomy 24: 15 is particularly worth noting in this context:

You shall pay them (poor and needy laborers) daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the LORD against you and you would incur guilt.

In our capitalistic worldview a person who works longer should receive a better payment, and the first should not be treated as equal with those who came last but should receive better compensation for more time spent in labor. When the lord (and the Greek here is kurios which is normally translated lord) of the vineyard calls his steward to distribute payment beginning with the last and going to the first we receive a verbal cue that something is about to be turned upside down. Those who the house master sent into the vineyard at the eleventh hour receive a denarius setting up the expectations of earlier workers and the listeners of a greater reward for those present from early morning. Yet, there is something different in this house master who acts according to the vision of the kingdom of heaven, and who can claim to be good (this is the Greek agathos which is translated good twice in the previous story and the translation of generous in many translations obscures the linkage with the character of God, see previous section) This parable invites us into a world where the lord of the vineyard, which is now closely linked to the LORD the God of Israel (who is good) models a world where a house master goes continually in the marketplace looking for workers to ensure they have work that pays in a timely manner and ensures that children have enough to eat and workers can find shelter for the night. Perhaps this kingdom of heaven is about a world where all the laborers can have enough to eat, and God provides sufficiently for all instead of a world where laborers are only satisfied in the afterlife. When we hear a person address another as ‘friend’ we may assume intimacy, but in Matthew’s gospel the term ‘friend’ is used in a setting of formality when another has acted improperly. (see also 22:12, 26: 50) What is smoothly translated ‘are you envious’ is the phrase ‘or is the eye of you wicked/evil’ and the ‘evil eye’ in ancient cultures was to curse or wish harm on another, but here the house master declares that this action, which in opposition to the good, is uncalled for. In the values of the kingdom of heaven, where the last are first and the first are last, the master of the house goes out to ensure that as many workers as possible receive the opportunity to work, to provide for their families, and to have shelter for the night. Until a time when all can rest under their own vines and fig trees the house master works to provide out of their goodness for the laborers in the marketplace.

We live in a society that is very defensive of its individualistic and capitalistic values and is quick to label things that value the needs of the society above the individual or the workers above profit as socialist, communist, or Marxist. Ultimately the values that Jesus points to are older than either capitalism or Marxism, or the individualism that evolved from the Enlightenment. Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven conflicts with all of the ways we are used to framing our identity in our post-Enlightenment, modern (or postmodern) secular age. It does not fit neatly into our labels and titles but instead invites our imaginations into a new way of viewing our world, our society, and our neighbors. Although Jesus does point to a reality beyond this world, his teaching and parables are mainly concerned with how we live in relation to others within life. Jesus’ suggestion of a house master who provides out of his goodness for the laborers in the marketplace conflicts with our ideas of fairness. Yet, the richness of these short narratives that Jesus tells is the way they poetically challenge our imaginations to conceive of the world in a new way, with a different set of principles and visions. Disciples who look at the world hierarchically have to be reoriented to a world where the last are first and the first are last. Disciples, ancient and modern, have struggled with their inability to embrace the world imagined in the kingdom of heaven.