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A Kingdom Growth Parable - The Wicked Tenants

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This is one of the more important kingdom growth parables Jesus spoke and one of the few parables that was immediately understood by everyone, friend and foe alike. This extensive parable is found in Matthew 21:33-41, Mark 12:1-9, and Luke 20:9-16. The characters in the narrative are straightforward with the landowner representing the Father, the slaves and servants He sends to the vineyard the prophets sent to deliver God’s message and the son or heir of the landowner being Jesus.

Spoken near the end of His ministry, this was a thinly veiled explanation of the current situation and future events. As with other parables of Jesus, it is important to realize the parables focus on you attitudes, beliefs, and relationship with the Father rather than providing answers to specific issues or problems we may be facing at the moment.

Matthew 21:33-41 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a winepress in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. (34) When the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. (35) The vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. (36) Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first, and they did the same thing to them. (37) But afterwards he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ (38) But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ (39) They took him, and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. (40) Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” (41) They said to him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper season.”

Mark 12:1-9 And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a wall around it, and dug a vat under the wine-press and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. (2) At the harvest time, he sent a slave to the vine-growers in order to receive some of the produce of the vineyard from the vine-growers. (3) They took him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. (4) Again he sent them another slave and they wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully. (5) And he sent another, and that one they killed, and so with many others, beating some and killing others. (6) He had one more to send, a beloved son. He sent him last of all to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ (7) But those vine-growers said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours!’ (8) They took him, and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. (9) What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those vine-growers, and will give the vineyard to others.”

Luke 20:9-16a And he began to tell the people this parable. “A man planted a vineyard and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey for a long time. (10) At the harvest time, he sent a slave to the vine-growers so that they would give him some of the produce of the vineyard; but the vine-growers beat him and sent him away empty-handed. (11) And he proceeded to send another slave, and they beat him also and treated him shamefully and sent him away empty-handed. (12) And he proceeded to send a third, and this one they also wounded and cast out. (13) The owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son. Perhaps they will respect him.’ (14) But when the vine-growers saw him, they reasoned with one another, saying, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him so that the inheritance will be ours.’ (15) So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What, then, will the owner of the vineyard do to them? (16a) He will come and destroy these vine-growers and will give the vineyard to others.”

Critics have attacked this parable because of the claims and implications within these verses. Containing a great deal of eschatological material, this parable discusses His authority, the sovereignty of God, and the death of Jesus. If critics can negate critical points of this parable, it is possible to destroy underpinnings of the messianic claims of Jesus. Another accusation is the church put the parable into the mouth of Jesus because of the extensive allegorical contents and the future events that became a reality after the telling of the parable. Despite these criticisms, “it is by no means certain that the parable cannot have been spoken by Jesus essentially as we have it in the Synoptic Gospels. There is no reason why Jesus could have not spoken an allegorical parable (there are obvious allegorical elements in the other parables attributed to Jesus.” [i]

Because the actions in this narrative are not familiar to us today, the parable requires a considerable amount of background information to fully understand His message. The passage details an elaborate and expensive endeavor to establish a vineyard. Most vineyards were family operations, which meant relatively small harvests. A minority of vineyards were business operations which were estates with acreage and tenants to run the operations. Absentee ownership was not unusual, be it a Jew who lived outside the Promised Land or a foreigner who had put money in an investment. There was considerable risk in this venture as the landowner was planting grapes in ground of unknown quality hoping to produce a quality product. From the initial planting to the first harvest was five years. During the first four years, the vineyard required attention and care, for which the landowner provided the capital as well as wages. It was not until the fifth year the landowner would begin to realize a return on the investment. Because a vineyard was a serious financial endeavor on the part of both the landowner and the tenants, it was common for such a vineyard to remain in a family for generations.

As part of the start-up, the owner would finance the building of a watchtower, wall, and winepress. The wall and tower to protect the vines and tenants from thieves and wild animals. The winepress was the method by which the tenants convert the grapes into wine. The winepress was two excavations in the ground; one of them lower than the other with a conduit or channel connecting the two. The first would be narrow and wide while the second would be a deeper reservoir. The sides and bottom of both would be brick or stone. The workers pick the grapes, put them into the first reservoir, and trample them to crush the grapes. The juice would flow through a conduit to the second reservoir where the wine would be put into jars or containers and allowed to ferment before taking to market. Once the vineyard began producing, the landowner would begin to see a profit on his investment, and the tenants would receive a percentage of the revenue or the agreed-upon payment. The financial arrangement was such that to encourage the tenants to tend the vineyard and produce good wine.

This parable is spoken near the end of His ministry and appears in all the Synoptic Gospels with remarkable consistency. The three writers placed the telling of this parable at the same time. Immediately before the telling of this parable, a confrontation occurs between Jesus and the temple authorities.

Luke 20:1-8 And it came about on one of the days while He was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the Gospel, that the chief priests and the scribes with the elders confronted Him, (2) and they spoke, saying to Him, “Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority?” (3) And He answered and said to them, “I shall also ask you a question, and you tell Me. (4) Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?” (5) And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, 'From heaven', He will say, 'Why did you not believe him?' (6) But if we say, 'From men,' all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” (7) And they answered that they did not know where it came from. (8) And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

The confrontation serves as the point of reference to interpret this parable. The verses following the narrative, sometimes taken as part of the parable, further validates the placement of the parable in the ministry of Jesus and purpose of His words. These verses also confirm the interpretation and allegorical meaning of the passage.

Matthew 21:42-44 Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, 'The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief corner stone. This came about from the Lord and is marvelous in our eyes?’ (43) Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it. (44) And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.”

Mark 1:10-12 Have you not even read this scripture. The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief cornerstone? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken, into pieces but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust. (11) This came about from the Lord and is marvelous in our eyes.' (12) And they were seeking to seize Him; and yet they feared the multitude; for they understood that He had spoken the parable against them. And so they left Him and went away.

Luke 20:16b-19 When they heard it, they said, “May it never be!” (17) But Jesus looked at them and said, “What then is this that is written: ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief cornerstone? (18) Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken, into pieces but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.’” (19) And the scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them.

This parable contains a considerable amount of allegory. The landowner represents God, and the vineyard is the Jewish nation. Both of these are taken from stock Jewish symbolism. The first group of tenants represents the current religious leaders. The servants or slaves the landowner sent to the tenants represent the prophets. The servants sent to the vineyard is a reference or hint to several verses in the Old Testament.

2 Samuel 3:18 ...For the Lord has spoken of David, saying, 'By the hand of my servant David I will save my people from the hand of the Philistines and from the hand of all their enemies.'

Jeremiah 7:25 Since the day that your fathers came of the land of Egypt until this day, I have sent you all my servants the prophets, daily raising early and sending them.

Zechariah 1:6 But did not My words and My statutes, which I commanded My servants the prophets, overtake your fathers? Then they repented and said, “as the Lord of hosts purposed to do to us in accordance with our ways and our deed, so He has dealt with us.”

The opening of the parable is a remez or hint to the “Song of the Vineyard” in the fifth chapter of Isaiah accentuates the allegorical aspect.

     (1) I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard.
     My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
     (2) 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.
     Then he looked for a crop of good grapes but it yielded only bad fruit.
     (3) Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.
     (4) What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?
     When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?
     (5) Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard.
     I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed.
     I will break down its wall, and it will be tramped.
     (6) I will make it a wasteland neither pruned nor cultivated 
     and briars and thorns will grow there.
     I will command the clouds not to rain on it.
     The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, 
     and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight.
     And he looked for justice but saw bloodshed;
     for righteousness but heard cries of distress.

If there is any doubt about the identities of the participants in this parable, the passage in Isaiah makes them obvious. When Jesus speaks the parable, it is possible the religious leaders and scribes initially think He is referring to the Romans or other foreign occupiers. But during the telling of the narrative, they come to realize He is speaking against them. As Jesus indicates numerous times, His messianic claims that associated Himself with the son of the landowner are not difficult to understand. At the time, it was not uncommon for the relationship between the absentee landowner and tenants to be acrimonious, particularly if the landowner is a foreigner. For the first four years of operations, the interaction between the parties is likely infrequent as the vineyard has yet to produce revenue. This encourages the sense of ownership; on the part of the tenants and animosity toward the unknown person who is to take the profit from their labors. It is also common for the owner to send servants or trusted slaves to collect the profits but in this instance, the servants receive the brunt of the anger of the tenants.

In the narrative, there is an increasingly ominous question of ownership of the vineyard. When the tenants repeatedly refused to cooperate with the servants of the landowner, the sanctity of the contract begins to be in doubt. After sending numerous servants with the same results, the landowner thinks to send his son. The parable does possess a certain degree of incredulity for what landowner would not, after the tenants mistreat the first servant, summon the authorities to punish and evict them? This is the very point Jesus is making. It required unbelievable imagery to picture the wickedness of the religious leaders “who murdered not only the prophets whom God sent them but were now about to murder also God’s own son.” [ii] These seemingly incongruous aspects of the parable provide fodder for critics who claim the original parable was simpler, and the early church thought to embellish and allegorize it to corrupt the original meaning. But this argument fails to recognize the parable is meant to emphasize a behavior, either to emulate or abstain or to stress a significant point. We can see account of servants assaulting and sending away an agent empty-handed in the Zenon Archive dated about 250 B.C.E. “Alexandros reports, ‘I sent a young man, a servant of mine, to Staton, and wrote to Jeddous. When they returned, they said that he had taken no notice of my letter but had attacked them and thrown them out of the village. So I am writing to you.’ This fellow Jeddous was probably a Jewish man who lived in Judea.” [iii] Such mistreatment of servants, while not frequent, was not an isolated incident.

In one sense, the issue of ownership is now more critical because the tenants refusing to surrender the profits to the landowner are claiming the right of possession because no profit has been paid, and the tenants are in possession. When the son arrives, quite reasonably, the tenants think the landowner has died, and the vineyard is now the property of the son through inheritance. Thus, “instead of honoring the son, the tenants kill him. It is worth noting that in the parable, the tenants, before killing the son, first threw him out of the vineyard. In the same way, Jesus was crucified on Golgotha outside the walls of Jerusalem. As the tenants refuse to accept the son of the landowner and the servants who preceded him, those who rejected and killed Jesus and the prophets before Him did so because they fear to lose their positions. Their blind unbelief hid the spiritual nature of the kingdom from them, and thus the fact that they could never hold the outward rule while its inwardness was foreign to them, remained hidden from them.” [iv] After He speaks the parable, Jesus asks His audience as to the course of action the owner of the vineyard should take. The answer, of course, is “the owner, to get satisfaction for his honor, will have to destroy the tenants and lease the vineyard to others.” [v] This action by the landowner was incorporated into the parable, and this dramatically demonstrates the position of the landowner. “He will come, not as his slaves and his son came, in their own person but with the authority to destroy those murderers by having them tried and put to death. This pictures the omnipotence of God, whom no one can resist when he comes to judgment.” [vi]

At this point, Jesus drops the parable to continue His discourse about landowner. An important aspect of the parable the audience does not know the identity of the second group of tenants to whom the landowner would give the vineyard, and there remains no agreement on the question. It is doubtful the second group refers to Gentiles or Samaritans because Jesus would have made reference to them to emphasize His point as in The Good Samaritan. The narrative also suggests the landowner would rent the vineyard to others, not foreigners. Another interpretation is His reference to the Jewish-Roman war of 70 CE in which the Jewish nation was destroyed. Jesus makes another reference to the impending calamity in Matthew 24:1-3, Luke 21:5-7 when he speaks of the destruction of the temple.

The comment of Jesus of the cornerstone rejected by the builders is a hint or remez to the book of Psalm.

Psalms 118:22-23 The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone. (23) This is the Lord's doing. It is marvelous in our eyes.

Again, the religious leaders understand these words to be against them. Implicit in this quotation is the claim Jesus is the cornerstone and their imminent destruction by their defiance. “The judgment made by the builders is juxtaposed with the actual importance of the stone, and the importance of the stone is vindicated by its final place in the building being constructed. In Luke’s hands and after the death of the son in the parable, this must point finally to the vindication of Jesus through resurrection.” [vii] The reference to the stone is a remez or hint to several Old Testament passages.

Isaiah 8:13-15 It is the Lord of hosts whom you should regard as holy. And he shall be your fear, and He shall be your dread, (14) then He shall become a sanctuary. But to both the houses of Israel, a stone to strike and a rock to stumble over, and a snare and a trap for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. (15) And many will stumble over them, and then they will fall and be broken. They will even be snared and caught.”

Isaiah 28:16 Therefore thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed.”

Matthew and Mark note the authorities thought to arrest Jesus but that fear of the crowds prevents them. This parable contains the same message as The Garment and The Wineskin and The Children in the Marketplace, which advocates a return to original Judaism; a closer relationship between God and His Chosen People. From this perspective, Jesus is He who fulfills the entire requirement of the Law. He is the Messiah as prophesized in the Old Testament prophesizes. In this way, this parable reveals both the past and the future. The tenants were removed from the vineyard, and the new tenants are given the opportunity to serve the landowner. That the new group is those who accept the messianic claim of Jesus, later known as Christians, is the interpretation of the early church. The Apostle Paul and Peter along with the other New Testament writers thus identify the second group of tenants to whom the landowner gives the vineyard. Several New Testament passages incorporate theological implications of this parable. All three Gospels use “beloved son” when referring to the baptism of Jesus that Mark and Luke used in the parable referring to the son of the landowner.

Matthew 3:16-17 After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him. (17) And behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

Mark 1:9-11 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth to Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. (10) Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him. (11) And a voice came out of the heavens, “You are my beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.”

Luke 3:21-22 Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and when He was praying, heaven was opened. (22) And the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.”

The expression “beloved son” also references Jesus at the transfiguration. Mark writes that the landowner sent his son “last” which is seen in the opening verses of Hebrews.

Hebrews 1:1-2 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, (2) in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.

Also, the accounts of Matthew and Luke describe how the tenants take the son of the landowner, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. The narrative implies the tenants left the corpse so bystanders could later bury the body. Another passage in Hebrews alludes to this point.

Hebrews 13:12 Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate.

The words of Jesus of being the cornerstone the builders reject is also in New Testament theology and helps explain the legitimacy of the Christian faith.

Copyright © 2016 Craig B. Manning. All rights reserved.


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  1. Donald, A. Hagner Word Biblical Commentary – Matthew, Vol. 33b. Dallas: Word Publishers, 1995.
  2. R.C.H. Lenski Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1946.
  3. Craig Evans Word Biblical Commentary, Mark, Vol. 34b. Dallas: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001.
  4. R.C.H. Lenski Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943.
  5. Bruce J. Malina Biblical Social Values and Their Meaning. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
  6. R.C.H. Lenski Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1948.
  7. John Nolland Word Biblical Commentary – Luke, Vol. 35c. Dallas: Word Publishers, 1993.

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