The tenants in the vineyard. 21:33-46


The parable of the tenants is the second of a group of three in which Jesus exposes the condition of the religious elite in Israel. These self-righteous elite have rejected the messiah and therefore stand under God's judgement.

The passage

v33-34. The parable tells the story of a landowner's care in preparing a beautiful and efficient vineyard and renting it out to tenant farmers. The vineyard probably represents Israel, the farmers Israel's religious leaders, the landowner God, his agents the prophets, and the son Jesus. At harvest time the landowner's agents come to collect its fruit. Certainly not all the fruit, just the rent from the tenant farmers.

v35-37. The tenant farmers rough up the landowner's agents, even killing some. They beat and generally ill-treat the agents of the landowner. Finally, the landowner sends his son, for he says, "they will respect my son".

v38-39. The farmers are cruel in the extreme, taking the son out of the vineyard and killing him. The Chief Priests and the Pharisees had not, up to this point in time, intended Jesus harm, but they were opposed to his ministry, had rejected him as messiah and would soon call for his death.

v40-41. Jesus now draws out a self-condemning response from his hearers. The prophet Nathan actually did the same with king David. Israel's religious leaders, and as a consequence, most of the people of Israel, had come to reject Jesus as the messiah. The promised day of God's full blessings would now be taken from them and given to another people. That day is now.

v42. Quoting Psalm 118:22-23, Jesus reinforces the point of the parable. Christ, the rejected stone, is now the corner foundation stone of God's new people. When God makes greatness out of something that is despised, "what a wonderful thing that is."

v43. Matthew now quotes a saying from Jesus which serves to apply the parable to Israel's religious leaders, and by implication, all those who reject God's mercy in Christ. "You" have been so remiss in handling God's will that the promised blessings of the kingdom will be taken from you and given to those who produce the harvest of faith.

v44. This verse, not found in all manuscripts, serves as a warning. Rejecting Jesus the "stone" is a dangerous path to follow, for it is the path to judgment.

v45-46. The religious leaders realize that Jesus is speaking about them. Jesus has warned them that they are about to violently reject God's messiah; now they rush off to do it.

Ministers of God's Word

Over some 20 years, a missionary family returned to their link church to report on the work of the gospel in their mission area. They visited regularly every year while on furlough and gave their 5 minute mission slot. Each year they noted the service was less formal and more entertaining. Each year they were told the church was getting some 5 new members a month, although the congregation didn't seem to change that much. On their last visit, any formal structure to the service had completely disappeared. The band blasted forth, the "Sesame Street" slots amused, and as for the sermon, it left them horrified. The preaching was certainly "accessing", consisting of stories and pious observations, but there was no exposition. "The preacher", they said, "performed like a frustrated comedian".

The "farmers" of Israel, their shepherds, their religious leaders, their teachers, no longer produced "the fruit of the kingdom." They promoted a self-righteous pietism rather than faith, and in so doing led the people away from the source of divine grace now revealed in Jesus. By rejecting God's messiah, the promises made to Abraham all those years before become the inheritance of another people.

As nominalism fades in the Western world and institutional churches attempt to stem the tide of falling attendance, the temptation is to rely on pragmatics rather than on God's sovereign grace. This reliance on doing rather than receiving easily infects a congregation. The outward structure may seem healthy, but like the church in Pergamum in the book of Revelation, success rests on worldly doctrines, management techniques and the like, rather than on God's revealed will. The survival of a church rests on the faithfulness of its teaching, in proclaiming that the Christian life rests wholly on God's grace appropriated through faith.

Research in England has shown that there are more committed believers outside the established church than in it - disenfranchised, disillusioned. "Farmers" beware, the capstone crushes.


1. Identify the players in the parable and equate them with today.

2. What rent ("his fruit") did the landowner expect from the farmers?

3. Israel's religious leaders failed to pastor the people (via the Word). Discuss how their role was compromised. How is the role of "pastor-teacher" compromised today?

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