Note: Last week we began to look at an exchange between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. There we saw that Jesus told them the first of three parables designed to challenge and expose their hypocrisy. This week we will examine the second of these parables, the Parable of the wicked Vinedressers.
Introduction: Sometimes Jesus’ teaching brings together several Scriptural themes in one place, kind of like a busy intersection on the prophetic highway. And this is the case with the teaching before us today. So, given that we will be having a bit of a “Sword drill” for this teaching, we won’t waste any time getting right into the text. We will examine this parable under three headings: 1) Jesus’ communication of the parable to the Jewish leaders, 2) Jesus’ questioning of the Jewish leaders in light of the parable, and 3) the reaction of the Jewish leaders to the parable.
I. Jesus’ Communication of the Parable to the Jewish Leaders
We see Jesus’ communication of the parable in verses 33-39.
Although verse 33 begins simply with the statement, “Hear another parable,” it is clear from the preceding context that it is directed toward the Jewish leaders, “the chief priest and the elders of the people,” who were mentioned earlier in verse 23. The parable itself may be helpfully broken down into three scenes, and we will briefly consider each of them.
Scene #1: A Landowner Plants a Vineyard
The first scene is found in verse 33.
NKJ Matthew 21:33 Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country.
Many of these details are not in themselves of any real significance in understanding the point of the parable. They simply recount what would commonly be done with a vineyard, but they also help to connect the parable to a particular Old Testament metaphor referring to Israel as a vineyard:
NKJ Isaiah 5:1-7 Now let me sing to my Well-beloved a song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard: My Well-beloved has a vineyard on a very fruitful hill. 2 He dug it up and cleared out its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. He built a tower in its midst, and also made a winepress in it; so He expected it to bring forth good grapes, but it brought forth wild grapes. 3 “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, please, between Me and My vineyard. 4 What more could have been done to My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? 5 And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; and break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6 I will lay it waste; it shall not be pruned or dug, but there shall come up briers and thorns. I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it.” 7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant plant. He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; for righteousness, but behold, a cry for help. [See also Psalm 80:6-16.]
There is a significant difference between Jesus’ parable and the Isaiah passage to which He clearly alludes. Whereas Isaiah pictures God seeking fruit in the vineyard, Jesus will focus His parable on the workers in the vineyard. This fits well with the fact that Jesus is addressing the religious leaders of Israel. At any rate, the allusion to the passage in Isaiah 5 provides a signal to the hearers that Jesus is talking about the relationship of God to His people, Israel, here represented by their religious leaders.
Scene #2: The Landowner Sends Servants to the Vineyard
The second scene is found in verses 34-36.
NKJ Matthew 21:34-36 Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. 35 And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them.
The “servants” sent to the vineyard must refer to the prophets that God had so often sent to Israel, who are often referred to as servants of the LORD in the Old Testament. A number of these prophets had been either beaten or killed for serving Him. For example:
NKJ 1 Kings 18:3-4 And Ahab had called Obadiah, who was in charge of his house. (Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly. 4 For so it was, while Jezebel massacred the prophets of the LORD, that Obadiah had taken one hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and had fed them with bread and water.)
NKJ 2 Chronicles 24:20-22 Then the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, who stood above the people, and said to them, “Thus says God: ‘Why do you transgress the commandments of the LORD, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the LORD, He also has forsaken you.’” 21 So they conspired against him, and at the command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the LORD. 22 Thus Joash the king did not remember the kindness which Jehoiada his father had done to him, but killed his son; and as he died, he said, “The LORD look on it, and repay!”
NKJ Jeremiah 19:14-20:2 Then Jeremiah came from Tophet, where the LORD had sent him to prophesy; and he stood in the court of the Lord’s house and said to all the people, 15 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Behold, I will bring on this city and on all her towns all the doom that I have pronounced against it, because they have stiffened their necks that they might not hear My words.’” 20:1 Now Pashhur the son of Immer, the priest who was also chief governor in the house of the LORD, heard that Jeremiah prophesied these things. 2 Then Pashhur struck Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks that were in the high gate of Benjamin, which was by the house of the LORD.
NKJ Jeremiah 37:15 Therefore the princes were angry with Jeremiah, and they struck him and put him in prison in the house of Jonathan the scribe. For they had made that the prison.
That Jesus had such men in mind cannot be doubted, especially given His later and more explicit words to those who rejected Him:
NKJ Matthew 23:34-35, 37 Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, 35 that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar … 37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
Thus the Lord had faithfully sent His servants, the prophets, to warn His people, but they had repeatedly beaten and killed them. and this is what the Lord Jesus has pictured for us in this second part of the parable.
Scene #3: The Landowner Sends His Son to the Vineyard
The third scene is found in verses 37-39.
NKJ Matthew 21:37-39 Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38 But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.” 39 So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him.
The point here is that – even after the way his servants had been treated – the landowner was patient with the vinedressers, and sent his son to make his appeal even more personal. However, they killed the son too!
Now, Jesus had already begun to announce His coming death at the hands of the Jewish leaders. For example:
NKJ Matthew 16:21 From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.
NKJ Matthew 20:18-19 Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, 19 and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.
These earlier prophecies about His coming death were made to the disciples, but here Jesus alludes to His death when speaking to the the very chief priests and elders He had said would kill him. And that He intended them to get this is obvious, especially since – as we will see further on – they do, in fact, recognize that He is talking about them when telling this parable.
But, just so they won’t miss the fact that such a response to the Son deserves to be judged and severely punished, He goes on to get them to admit this, and this leads to our second point.
II. Jesus’ Questioning of the Jewish Leaders in Light of the Parable
We find Jesus’ questions to the Jewish leaders in verses 40-44. In these verses, rather than give a brief explanation of the parable – as we have seen Him do on other occasions – here Jesus drives home the point by asking a couple of questions, which I have paraphrased for us.
Question #1: What do the people who reject the Son deserve?
This is the basic question found in verses 40-41.
NKJ Matthew 21:40-41 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?” 41 They said to Him, “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.”
The Jewish leaders answer Jesus’ question in the only way they can, with a clear admission that people who act as those wicked vinedressers acted deserve to be miserably destroyed and to have the vineyard taken away from them and given to others who will produce the fruit required of them.
This leads to Jesus’ second question.
Question #2: What do the Scriptures say about this?
This is the basic question found in verses 42-44.
NKJ Matthew 21:42-44 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’S doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. 44 And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.”
There are several things to notice in Jesus’ rhetorical question and and the answer that He Himself gives to it.
First, in verse 42 Jesus cites Psalm 118:22-23, which was recognized as a Messianic psalm. Here it explains the response He has received from the Jewish leaders. They – as the builders – have rejected Him, but He will become the Chief Cornerstone in spite of their rejection.
In other words, God has a plan to elevate His Son, and they will not be able to do anything to stop it. And when it happens, it will be “marvelous in our eyes.”
Second, in verse 43 Jesus tells them that because of their rejection of Him the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to “a nation bearing the fruits of it.” This means that the kingdom will be given not to those who reject him, but rather to those who receive Him for who He claims to be.
Notice that Jesus essentially agrees with their own assessment about what should be done. This is basically what they had said in response to his first question. They had said that the landowner should “lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons” (vs. 41), and this is exactly what Jesus has said will happen. The kingdom will be given to others “bearing the fruits of it.”
Third, in verse 44 Jesus again quotes Scripture, but this time He combines allusions to two Old Testament passages:
NKJ Isaiah 8:14-15 He will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 15 And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken, be snared and taken.
This citation provides the background for Jesus’ declaration that “whoever falls on this stone will be broken.”
NKJ Daniel 2:34-35 You watched while a stone was cut out without hands, which struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed together, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; the wind carried them away so that no trace of them was found. And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
This citation provides the background for Jesus’ declaration that “on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.”
Thus Jesus indicates with either a direct quote or a clear allusion to three different Old Testament prophecies that what is happening is all a part of God’s plan, a plan that cannot be stopped by the Jewish authorities who refuse to accept it. In fact, the plan even takes into consideration their rejection of Jesus! And it also foretells their judgment because of this! What a marvelous reminder that God is always in control, even at those times when we may not fully understand what He is doing, which, let’s face it, is most of the time!
To those of us who believe in Christ, He is the Chief Cornerstone, the very foundation of our faith. But this same Jesus is a stone of stumbling and of judgment to those who refuse to believe in him. Peter would later reflect upon this very teaching of Jesus in his first epistle, and it is good to hear what he says:
NKJ 1 Peter 2:4-10 Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, “Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious, and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.” 7 Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” 8 and “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed. 9 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.
If this doesn’t lead us to worship and thanksgiving for the grace that has been shown to us, then I don’t know what will! After all, the only real difference between those of us who know Christ and the Jewish leaders who rejected Him is that God has been gracious to us. We have been chosen by God, as Peter reminds us. And this is what has made all the difference.
III. The Reaction of the Jewish Leaders to the Parable
We see their reaction in verses 45-46.
NKJ Matthew 21:45-46 Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them. 46 But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.
The “parables” (plural) referred to here are both the Parable of the Two Sons (vss. 28-32) and the Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers (vss. 33-44). The chief priests and elders/Pharisees knew that Jesus was talking about them. But they still refused to really listen. Instead of seeing their sinful attitudes and repenting, they plotted to “lay hands on” Jesus!
Now, Matthew doesn’t say precisely what this entailed, but we can assume that it wasn’t there intention to give Jesus an encouraging pat on the back! No, they were intending some kind of harm, and we can have no doubt that their intention was to kill Him, just as He had said. The only thing that kept them from following through with their plans was the fact that so many of the crowd thought Jesus really was at the very least a prophet.
Conclusion: I would like to close today’s teaching with a summary of a few of the lessons we should take away from this passage.
First, we should never think that knowing a lot about Scripture is the same thing as truly understanding what it says. After all, the chief priests and elders knew the content of Scripture very well, but they still failed to grasp the true significance of it. Let us pray always that God will open our hearts to His Word.
Second, we should be encouraged that God is sovereign over all things, that He “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11b). We should never allow ourselves to be discouraged when we encounter opposition to the word of God, for even this is a part of His plan and will work for His ultimate glory.
Third, we should remember that true faith always bears fruit. We cannot claim to be in the kingdom of God without a changed life to go with it. Most notably, we must ever demonstrate a willingness to hear what God has to say and to humbly submit to it. There are far too many professing Christians out there who drive away those who seek to faithfully share the Word, and they must repent of this Pharisaic attitude before it is too late.