Lent Fourth Sunday

The Parable of the Tenants. (Matthew 21:33-44)

INTRODUCTION

The parable of the Tenants is a metaphorical presentation of the salvation history. God the father took special care of Israel, his vineyard. However, the Israelites were unfaithful tenants who did not give God, the owner, the share of produce in due time. When God sent prophets as his representatives to them they maltreated the prophets. God, who was patient, sent more of his servants who were also persecuted and killed. Finally, God sent his son who was killed by the tenants with the false hope that they could acquire the vineyard. Instead, God destroyed the unfaithful tenants and entrusted the field to faithful stewards who would produce good fruits for God. Now we, the Christians are the tenants of God who are to be responsible to produce good yield for the Kingdom of God.

Bible Text

(33) “Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. (34) When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. (35) But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. (36) Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. (37) Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ (38) But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’ (39) They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. (40) What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” (41) They answered him, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” (42) Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes’? (43) Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit. (44) [The one who falls on this stone will be dashed to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.]”

Background of the story

We will better understand the parable of the tenants if we see what happened before Jesus taught this parable in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus entered the Temple of Jerusalem while people greeted him saying “Hosanna to the Son of David,” (Matthew 21:1-11). He cleansed the temple area by driving out all those engaged in selling and buying there (Matthew 21:12-13). Jesus cursed the fig tree that did not produce any fruit (Matthew 21: 18-22) which was symbolic of the fruitless Jewish leaders of the time. The chief priests and the elders questioned the authority of Jesus when Jesus returned to the temple area (Matthew 21: 23-27). Then Jesus began to teach in parables that were directed to his opponents there. The parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32) preceded the parable of the tenants. In the parable of the two sons, one disagreed to obey the father and later changed his mind represented the sinners who followed Jesus. The other son agreed to obey but did not, represented the Jewish leaders of the time.

The parable of the tenants was also an attack of Jesus on the elite group of Jews who were members of Sanhedrin, the highest court of justice and the supreme council of Jews in Jerusalem. At the end of this parable, Matthew states the reaction of the listeners. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them.” (Matthew 21:45). So, this parable is a figurative representation of the salvation history of the past, the present, and the future. It is based on the vineyard of the Lord in Isaiah 5:1-7 that ends stating: “The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”

 Interpretation

(33) “Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.

Hear another parable.
The previous parable was the parable of the two sons that was a defense of the sinners who followed Jesus and an offense on the elite Jews who rejected Jesus. So, the current parable was on how the leaders of Israel who were well cared by God had been continuously unfaithful to Him, persecuted the prophets down the centuries, and rejected the Son of God. The story prophesied on how the then leaders would lose their position and how the new Israel, the church would emerge under new leaders.

A landowner who planted a vineyard
According to Isaiah 5:7a, “The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in.” So, God is the landowner and Israel is the vineyard. Like a good landowner, God provided everything needed for the protection and development of Israel. In Isaiah 5:1b-2 we read, “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. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” Jesus presented God like a human who took special care of his vineyard. Though God owned all humanity, his favorite land was his vineyard, Israel.

Hedge
For the real vineyards, there were hedges made of stones to protect them from intrusions of wild animals and thieves. Hedge in the parable represents everything that God provided to separate Israelites from the rest of the nations. The Holy Land was geographically protected by natural defense like deserts, seas, rivers, and mountains. God also provided Israelites strict laws and made covenant with them to separate them from people who worshiped false gods.

Dug a wine press
Wine press was to squeeze the grapes for making wine. The wine press of Israel was the tabernacle and later the Temple of Jerusalem, and wine was the divine worship and charity that flowed from the temple and the worshippers.

Built a tower
Towers were built in the vineyards for observation and defense against the attacks of robbers. Jerusalem was built on a high place with God’s representatives watching over them to protect their covenant relationship with God.

The details of arrangements made for the vineyard show how well God cared for Israel and there was nothing wanting for Israel from the side of God for its security and flourishing. In Isaiah 5:4a God asks: “What more could be done for my vineyard that I did not do?”

He leased it to tenants
God let the Israelites, who were the tenants in the parable, to take the responsibility to cultivate their faith and produce fruits of piety and devotion to God.

Went on a journey.
God was traveling with the Israelites during their 40-year journey in the desert to the promised land. God manifested to them at Mount Sinai, journeyed with them leading them in the form of cloud and pillar of fire, provided them manna from heaven, gave water from rock, and rescued them from snake bite. Once they reached their destination and settled in the promised land, God withdrew giving them responsibility to take care of themselves and bear spiritual fruit.

(34) When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.

Vintage time
According to Leviticus 19: 23-25, the fruits of the first three years of a tree were considered uncircumcised and could not be eaten. In the fourth year “all of its fruit shall be dedicated to the LORD in joyous celebration.” (Lev. 19:24). Thus, the fruits of the fourth year was taken to the temple where the priests and the owner ate them at the temple area. Only from the fifth-year, the owner could eat its fruit or sell for profit. So, God would be waiting for the fruits of the vineyard to be brought to the temple on the fourth year. Similarly, God had been waiting for the spiritual fruits from Israel considering all the great favors God had done for them.

His servants
The servants of the landowner in this parable stand for the prophets God sent to Israel. The produce of the vineyard stands for the good deeds of Israel. God’s servants including good kings, prophets and priests were sent from time to time seeking the response of God’s people.

(35) But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.

According to Isaiah 5:7b, God who cultivated his vineyard, Israel, “looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” During the earlier times of the history of Israel, they fell into idolatry and rebelled against God and his representatives. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah the son of Jehoiada and many others were persecuted. Just before the martyrdom of Stephen, he said: “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become.” (Acts 7: 52). By the time Jesus came, the leaders of Israel had abandoned God’s mission and were misguiding the people. In this parable these leaders are implied as the unfaithful and murderous tenants.

(36) Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way.

Though Israel maltreated the servants of God in the past, God was patient and continued sending more prophets until John the Baptist, giving them more chance to repent. They also invited people for repentance and invited them to seek the mercy of God. However, the cruelty of Israel sustained.

(37) Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’

At last, God sent his son Jesus Christ seeking spiritual fruits from God’s vineyard. Instead of respecting God’s son, they plotted to kill him and take over the inheritance which would lead them to disaster. Jesus was predicting what was going to happen to him.

(38) But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’

At least some of the enemies of Jesus knew that he was the Messiah. They could not accept his teaching or could not acknowledge him in public. Jesus’ presence and teaching were a threat to the Jewish leaders. So, by killing him, they assumed, they could win the people, claim the vineyard of God, and do whatever way they wanted. Thus, their ambition was to upgrade themselves from the position of servants to lords of the vineyard.

(39) They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

Jerusalem was the vineyard of the Lord. Jesus being thrown out of the vineyard and killed gave a prediction of the death of Jesus outside the city of Jerusalem.

(40) What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?”

Here the Lord allows the listeners, who were the people along with the chief priests and the Pharisees (Matthew 21:45) to be the judges of what would happen in the future to themselves. That was the fulfillment of Isaiah 5:3, “Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem, people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard:” The listeners of Jesus found two offences of the tenants: They did not give the owner what was due from the produce and they maltreated his servants, the prophets, and even killed his son, Jesus. Thus, Jesus presented the upcoming reaction of God on the unfaithful Jews to be sensible to all.

(41) They answered him, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.”

The unfaithful tenants who were “wretched” would face a “wretched” death. That happened after 40 years in 70 A.D. when the Roman army destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem and the Jews in Jerusalem. However, God restored his vineyard which is the Church and entrusted it to new tenants that were the disciples of Jesus who would give the produce at the proper time. The transition from the Old to the New Israel that happened on the Day of Pentecost is implied here. The Church is the new vineyard of God. We, the disciples are also supposed to cultivate, bear good fruits and hand them over to God. We also need to respect the representatives of God.

(42) Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes’?

Jesus then shifted the metaphor of the vineyard to a building, the tenants to the builders and the murdered son to a once rejected and later used corner-stone of the building. The focus of the allegory shifted from the unfaithful and murderous tenants to the Son of God, Jesus.

Jesus quoted from Psalm 118:22–23 that was used in the early church as a prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection. The origin of the psalm was believed to be based on a stone that the builders of the Temple of Jerusalem kept away from the site without knowing the plan of the chief architect. Later the architect used the stone that was once rejected by the builders as the chief corner-stone when the two walls of the temple were bonded together. The Psalmist used this as a parable for the selection of David as the king and Israel as the chosen nation out of all the nations in the world. Though the chief priests and the Sanhedrin who were the builders of the temple rejected Jesus, he became the cornerstone of the new temple, the church. God, the chief architect made Jesus as the corner stone uniting two walls: the Jews and the gentiles. (Ephesians 2:19-22).

(43) Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.

Jesus gave the application of the parable here. Jesus used here the Kingdom of God in the place of vineyard. He told those who rejected him and led him to crucifixion that the responsibility of the Kingdom of God would be taken away from them because of their unfaithfulness and rejection of the Messiah. After his resurrection, Jesus entrusted his church to the 12 apostles and confirmed it with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them on the Feast of Pentecost.

(44) [The one who falls on this stone will be dashed to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.]”

This is the same as in Luke 20:18 and has reference to Isaiah 8:14-15. Here the “stone” stands for Jesus and the “fall” stands for the destruction of those who feel offense of him. In the olden days stone was used for winnowing by threshing the grain to separate it from the chaff. At the end times, Jesus will separate the righteous and destroy the evil.

It also has reference to the imagery of Daniel 2:35 where Daniel interpreted the strange dream of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar saying, “The iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold all crumbled at once, fine as the chaff on the threshing floor in summer, and the wind blew them away without leaving a trace. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” The stone in the dream is Jesus who would finally destroy all the pagan kingdoms and rule the whole earth.

The Jewish method of capital punishment was stoning to death. That involved throwing the culprit to a pit of stone face down and then stoned until the person died. Thus, stone becomes the agent of destruction of the evildoers. All these predict the final destruction of those who reject Christ’s kingdom.

Message:

1. God takes care of us like a landowner to his favorite vineyard by providing everything we need and protecting us from all harms. As children of God and as his tenants, we are accountable to God in providing fruits of our Christian living in the family, parish, work place and in the society.

2. We need to respect the representatives of God who include our parents, teachers, mentors and above all, our ecclesial leaders. They are supposed to lead us according to the plan of God. They are also answerable to God for their responsibility. When we respect them, we respect God. If we disregard them, we are doing the same to God.

3. A true representative of God cannot disregard the will of God to please the faithful entrusted to his care. Christian leadership is challenging. We need to pray for the pastoral leaders and missionaries.

4. Rejection and persecution in this world for the sake of the Kingdom of God is a gain in the Kingdom of Heaven.

5. God being tolerant, sent his son Jesus to give us an opportunity to repent and reconcile with God. If we reject Jesus, he will come again for a final judgement resulting in the reward of those who accept him and punishment of those who reject him.