The Parable of the Wicked Tenants – Matthew 21:33-45

When the Pharisees challenged his authority, Jesus responded with the parable of two sons and declared that tax collectors and sinners were entering the kingdom. The parable of the wicked tenants also expects the teachers to come to the conclusion that those responsible for not doing the will of the landowner are guilty and under judgement.

Wicked Tenants

A landowner planted a vineyard and made extensive improvements to his property. His vineyard and made in self-sufficient and well protected.

  • The wall could have been a hedge of thorns, intended to keep out animals that might eat the grapes, not a wall for defense against people.
  • The tower can be used for observation, but also it is a place for the workers to live. During the harvest the tower as protection against thieves.
  • The winepress is added so the grapes could be made into wine within the vineyard. After the grapes are harvested the tenants produce the wine, the purpose of the vineyard. The owner will sell the wine to turn a profit on his investment.

Each of these improvements are drawn from Isaiah 5:2, the Lord prepared a vineyard, but it only bore bad fruit. But there are differences, in Isaiah 5 the owner looks for the fruit, he does not hire tenants. In Matthew, the tenants are the ones who do not fulfill their calling by not delivering a return on the land-owner’s investment.

The landowner went away to another country. The verb (ἀποδημέω) can refer to traveling on a journey or to “travel abroad” (BrillDAG), but probably just means he is an absentee landowner. He has prepared the vineyard and invested money which he expects will turn a profit when the vineyard begins to bear fruit/wine. The man is very wealthy, he has money to invest in a vineyard, at least two sets of servants imply a large household. He is called an οἰκοδεσπότης, a word which can refer anything from a head of a household to a national leader or government official (BrillDAG).

The owner hired workers, tenant farmers, to work the vines. Later sends servants to collect his rent. It takes several years for the land to become profitable; the workers must work long and hard before the rewards of the vineyard are realized. That the landowner expects his share of the fruit may imply the tenants have harvested the grapes, pressed them, and produced wine, now stored in jars for transport to market.

The owner sends two sets of servants sent to collect the owner’s share, but they are ignored and abused. The slaves are beat, killed and stoned. He then sent a second set of servants, even more than the first. The point of sending many servants is that the owner gave the tenants plenty of time to produce the fruit they owed the owners. He not only invested in the vineyard, but now has send more than ample resources (slaves) to collect fruit of the vineyard. The tenants therefore have no excuse, they know what the slaves wanted, and they are in a state of rebellion against the owner!

The owner therefore decides to send his son to collect his share. The tenants should respect the son as they would the owner. The tenants ought to recognize the son and they obey his authority as the son of the owner. The son can act legally on behalf of the owner, to abuse the son would be a direct attack on his father, the landowner.

When the son arrives, the tenants think they can kill the son and take the vineyard for themselves. This is odd, since they are not related to the owner. Some have thought that the owner was away for so long that under law he forfeited his land, or that the owner was dead, and the son was now the owner. But as Nolland points out, there is not good legal or political explanation for the tenants’ plan (Matthew, 874). That the son is taken outside the vineyard is important since this refers to the crucifixion of Jesus. He was taken outside of Jerusalem and executed.

Jesus asks the teachers of the Law what they thought the owner would do to the wicked tenants when he returns (21:40-41). When the “lord of the vineyard” seems to put the parable’s conclusion into an apocalyptic context. There is no other place, as far as I know, where God is called the “Lord of the Vineyard,” but if the vineyard is Israel, the title is clear. When God visits his people, there will be a devastating judgment.

The teachers respond with the obvious answer: the owner will come and “bring those wretches to a wretched end.” I can imagine people in the crowd shouting similar answers, maybe references to others who have rebelled against Herod or Rome in the past who were executed. The teachers also say the first tenants will be replaced by tenants who will give him his due share of the vineyard at harvest time.

The core elements of this parable would be familiar to the religious leaders who first heard this parable.

  • God is the landowner, the vineyard is once again the world that God has created and placed his people in, or more specifically, the city of Jerusalem.
  • Jerusalem as God’s vineyard is based on Isaiah 5:1-7. This passage describing Israel as God’s vineyard.
  • The servants are the prophets sent to Jerusalem to call her back to covenant faithfulness. There are many examples of prophets beaten in the Old Testament (Jer 20:2; 22:6; 1 Kings 19:14; Neh 9:26; 2 Chron 24:20–22).

Who are the first tenants? They are the people who have overseen God’s people but refused to listen to God’s prophets and (now) are threatening to kill God’s son. The chief priests and Pharisees understand the parable is about them (21:45). This sequence of events began with a prophetic demonstration calling the Temple a “den of thieves” and a parabolic miracle, cursing a fig tree which had no fruit. Jesus is the son sent to the vineyard to represent the father, and the current leaders are not accepting the son’s authority and are planning on killing him.

Like the cursing of a fig tree in Matthew 21:18-22, the owner of the vineyard sent his servants to the vineyard, the owner expected to find fruit from his investment. But the people who were supposed to bear fruit did not respond to the servants or the son, and therefore will be replaced by other tenants who will bear fruit for the owner of the vineyard.

4 thoughts on “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants – Matthew 21:33-45

  1. As I looked into this parable, I saw the vineyard as the people of God. There have been many prophets sent in past history to rectify or boost the conditions being imposed upon the true believers by their own misguided leaders or religeous rulers. As you noted, a similar proverb is mentioned in (Luke 20; 9-19). When Jesus told off the Pharisees in (Matt 29-36), I feel it pretty much sums up his complete distaste of how the Pharisees have been conducting their derailed process of judgement on who were worthy and who were not. He also noted to his Apostles, that he was well aware he would be put to death. Therefore, his reference of the servants of the vineyards, when the owner sent his son, they took him outside, beat him and killed him. Did not the Pharisees arrest Jesus and deliver him to the ruler of the Roman government, and demanded that he be put to death, for, they themselves could not find sound evidence within their own laws to do so, (thus he was killed outside the house of Israel).

  2. Everyone is quick to blame the Pharisees. In truth, the Pharisees were the best Yisrael had to offer. They were sincerely seeking God although at time perhaps misguided. It was the Sadducean Priesthood that executed Yeshua for His condemnation of their wickedness and contamination of the Temple. Many of the Pharisees agreed with Yeshua. Nicodemus, Joseph of Aramathea and even James the Pius, Yeshua’s brother, and Paul were all Pharisees and were believers as well. They remained Orthodox Jews that believed Yeshua was the Son of God and God’s Messiah.

  3. I am not so quick to blame them, although the Gospel of Matthew (the subject of this series) uses the Pharisees as the main contrast with Jesus. As I will say later when I get to Matthew 23, Matthew uses the Pharisees a kind of shorthand for the Temple Aristocracy.

    From a future post: Are all the Pharisees (or other religious leaders) bad? Matthew 23 leaves the reader with that impression. He does not portray any of the religious leaders in a positive light. The Gospel of Luke more positive and in Acts the Pharisee Gamaliel defends the apostles. Later, Luke says there are many Pharisees who have accepted Jesus as Messiah (Acts 15:1-2), including rabbi Saul. In John, the pharisee Nicodemus talks with Jesus, defends him against accusations and helps bury Jesus. But Matthew is clear: the Pharisees are hypocrites who have rejected Jesus as the Messiah and they are to blame for judgment falling on Jerusalem (Matthew 24-25). These The Pharisees and scribes are made to be the representatives of all Jews. By condemning the Pharisees, Jesus is does not approve of Sadducees, the Essenes, or any other group. Other than Jesus’s followers, they are guilty of rejecting the Messiah.

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