The earthly ministry of Jesus is moving rapidly towards a climax of apparent defeat and actual glorious triumph. He has entered Jerusalem (v1-11), he has cleared the temple in a dramatic demonstration of his messianic authority (v12-16), he has clashed with the religious leaders (v23-27). In this explosive situation Jesus tells a parable which we will now consider: Matthew 21:33-44 The parable of the tenants.
1. The planting of the vineyard
Verse 33 depicts a common situation at that time – much land was owned by foreign absentee landowners and let to tenants in return for a portion of the produce. That explains the sending of servants, a scene Jesus’ hearers would be familiar with. Drawing on Isaiah 5, the vineyard was often used as a symbol of Israel, the people of God, planted by his grace (Psalm 80:8). The care lavished on the vineyard by the owner is stressed (v33). Attention is focussed mainly on the tenants, left in charge to ensure that a good crop was produced. The immediate targets are ‘the chief priests and Pharisees’ (v45).
2. The rebellion of the tenants
Verse 34 ‘When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants’ in order to collect what is due. They receive an unexpected reception – ‘beat one, killed another’ (v35). They rebel against the owner. He is remarkably longsuffering, beyond what any human owner would tolerate. The owner clearly is God and the ‘servants’ are his prophets. The ministry of the prophets was chiefly to make Israel aware of its covenant responsibilities to the Lord. The religious leaders, in particular, should have set a godly example of covenant obedience. The patience of God is great, but sinners often presume upon it and refuse to respond.
3. The rejection of the son
The supreme evidence of the owner’s kindness is sending his son (v37). The depths of human sin are shown in the tenants’ response (v38-39). Here is a vivid description of the plotting of the Jewish leaders. Jesus is God’s final word to all men. In him God himself is present – ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the father’ (John 14:9). The very people who should have welcomed him in fact hated him (John 1:11), resulting in his crucifixion. This apparent defeat was in fact embraced in the plan of God: ‘he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things…’ (Matthew 16:21). The freely chosen evil of the leaders was used by a sovereign God.
4. The triumph of the owner
The tenants made a fatal miscalculation. The owner is able to respond in righteous wrath – he will bring the wretches to a wretched end’ (v41), fulfilled in the fall of Jerusalem in AD70. God’s purpose is not frustrated – the kingdom is given to those he calls to salvation, the ‘holy nation’ (1 Peter 2:9). This flows from the saving work of the Son, the rejected stone of Psalm 118:22-23. By his death he opened the kingdom to a multitude – ‘marvellous in our eyes’. There is a final note of warning as to the danger of rejecting him (v44).