Matthew 21: 33-43, 45-46
33 ¶ Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country:
34 And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it.
35 And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another.
36 Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise.
37 But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son.
38 But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance.
39 And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him.
40 When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?
41 They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons.
42 Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?
43 Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.
45 And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them.
46 But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet.
Jesus offers the parable of the wicked tenants as part of a larger discourse in which he responds, in the Temple, to the challenge of the scribes and the elders of the people concerning his authority. The parable leads the entrenched Jewish authorities to see the truth for themselves and yet still to reject the truth about themselves. Though their lives could have been enlightened by the parable, they refuse conversion and rather seek to arrest Jesus. They have the option to choose good; they choose evil.
The parable offers a beautiful summary history of Israel. To understand the parable better, it helps to know that Jesus is recalling the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 5: 1-7):
NOW will I sing to my wellbeloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill:
2 And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.
3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard.
4 What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?
5 And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down:
6 And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.
In the parable, the vineyard is Israel, especially cultivated by God and placed in the charge of tenant farmers, who are the priests, scribes and elders. God has entrusted the people of Israel to the tenant farmers. The season of harvest draws near. It is time to bring the vineyard to fruition and the people of Israel to what has been promised them. The servants of the Lord are sent. These are the prophets. The wicked tenant farmers, however, have become so self-seeking, so rich and corrupt, that they deny the right of the owner of the land, who is God, to send to claim what is owing to him.
We recall the treatment of the prophets, through so much of the Bible, by those with power in Israel. It is a shocking thought that those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo refuse with such violence to follow God’s plan. And these, the priests, the scribes, the elders, the wicked tenants, are the very people God entrusted with the care of all his people. It is a terrible betrayal of a sacred trust.
Finally, the owner of the vineyard sends his son. God sends Jesus. Surely the people will accept God’s Son. Scandal then is heaped upon scandal. This offering of the son leads to the greatest wickedness yet on the tenants’ part. They kill him, hoping to seize for themselves the inheritance.
And Jesus asks his listeners: What will the owner of the vineyard do now?
The Jewish authorities reply and their own words condemn them. Jesus tells them that it is they who reject the Son, the Son of God, and so their kingdom will be taken away from them. The Kingdom of God will be given to the Gentiles.
Prior to the Commandments: ‘Your fathers lived just lives because they had the meaning of the Decalogue implanted in their hearts and minds – that is, they loved God, who made them, and they did their neighbour no injury. So they did not need to be warned by written prohibitions; for they had the righteousness of the law in their hearts.’ St Irenaeus