Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 45. The Vineyard Owner
Mt 21:33,34 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
Two parables about a vineyard owner. The first one, that we have just seen, focused on the employment strategy of the owner. This parable now confronts the Jews in the most specific way possible with their historical reputation and what they are about to do: it is all about the owner’s representatives, culminating in his son. The pattern or structure of Matthew in these chapters show Jesus in his final week before his death, teaching in the temple precincts there in Jerusalem, at the very heart of Judaism, and when we come to this particular parable, and what follows it, we find the most striking indictment possible of the Jews and of Judaism, it’s religious face. We need to look at the parable itself first, but then see it in the whole context of the Bible.
So, first, the parable itself. Again, as with all of Jesus’ parables, the basic storyline is very simple and easy to understand. There is a vineyard owner. He builds up and creates a good vineyard. He rents out the vineyard to various farmers and then goes traveling. The rent he will charge will be a part of the harvest and so when harvest comes he sends his servants to collect his share. However, “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.” (v.35) i.e. three times he has tried to collect his legitimate return.
He perseveres: “Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.” (v.36) The tenants continue in their folly, because surely there is going to come some accounting but, no, they live for the moment and keep on killing his representatives. “Last of all, he sent his son to them. `They will respect my son,’ he said.” (v.37) His hope is that although they abused and killed his servants, surely they would not dare do that to his son. However, “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, `This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” (v.38,39)
So there is the story and so Jesus turns to his listeners and asks, “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (v.40) The fascinating thing about these parables, and Jesus involving the crowd, is that he doesn’t give them anywhere to go except to face the truth: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” (v.41) The answer is obvious and they give it. Any sensible person would agree with the outcome – there will be an accounting and these terrible tenants will get what they deserve. But he won’t leave his vineyard empty, he will rent it out to others who will pay up at harvest time.
Now Jesus is going to pile on another analogy on top of this parable but we’ll save that for the next study. Now we need to observe the bigger picture. We have said in previous studies that Jesus came to a prepared nation, a people who, in their heads at least, knew something of their history because they would have been taught it in the local Synagogue. This parable, perhaps more than any other, has an Old Testament parallel and it must be because of that that Jesus uses this picture.
Isaiah used exactly the same picture: “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.” (Isa 5:1,2) if you read on the Isaiah passage you will see that the Lord used that picture to complain that Israel only brought forth bad fruit (Isa 5:3-7) and because it did He would flatten it. Again, it was a most terrible indictment of Israel and one of which modern-day Israel would be aware. Now Jesus takes that same well-known picture and takes the emphasis away from the fruit to the servants the owner (God) had sent.
As the first Christian martyr, Stephen, finished his potted history of Israel he concluded with such scathing words he sounds more like an Old Testament prophet denouncing Israel: “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him– you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Acts 7:51-53) It is exactly the same denunciation that Jesus implies here in this parable, but which has now been fulfilled now he has himself been killed.
So here, in the temple precincts, right before the listening leaders, Jesus tells this terrible parable that faces Israel with its history of killing off God’s prophets, and prophesies that the Son also will be killed. And all this happened while the Jews were in fact plotting to kill Jesus (see Mt 12:14, 26:4, Mk 3:6, 11:18, Jn 11:53). This parable not only spoke of the past, it also genuinely prophesied the near future.
The tendency through history has been to use these events to condemn the Jews but the truth is that although they were God’s chosen people to display Him, they also displayed the inherent tendency of every single human being to Sin – to self-centred godlessness. We are all alike; they just had the greatest chance to show it – and they did! This parable is not about a specific activity to do with the kingdom of God, it is all about the propensity – revealed through the Jews – that we all have in ourselves to be godless, to focus on our own wants and needs. If you struggle to face this awful truth, ask the Lord to open your eyes to see it, for once you do, you understand how essential the Cross was and how vital is our reliance today on the Holy Spirit. Dare to pray it.