The key to understanding today’s passage is to be found in Jesus’ previous confrontation with “the chief priests and elders” in Matt. 21.23-32. There, the religious leaders of the Temple question and thereby reject Jesus’ authority as the rightful messianic King of Israel. This is important because while the present Parable of the Vineyard Owner is often seen as an allegory referring to the rejection of Jesus on the part of ethnic Jews versus the Gentiles’ subsequent acceptance of the Gospel in the book of Acts, it is better understood as a continuation of the indictment of Israel’s religious leaders, particularly those associated with the temple.
That the temple and its leaders are in view in this parable rather than the nation of Israel at large can be seen in how the Jewish interpreters responsible for the Targum translate Is. 5.2, the obvious Old Testament parallel to the present parable whose descriptions of the vineyard match closely to Jesus’ here. Where the Hebrew of Is. 5.2 references the vineyard owner building a “tower” and “winepress,” the translators of the Targum add a “sanctuary” and “altar.” Thus, early exegetical tradition links Isaiah’s vineyard to the Temple as opposed to the nation at large.
In this way, Jesus is explaining that the Temple leaders’ rejection of His authority which took place in the previous pericope in Matt. 21.23–32 is the last and ultimate act of a series of such rejections from Old Testament times to the present. The fullest expression of the rejection of Jesus on the part of Israel’s religious leaders, His crucifixion, is thus given a motivation and set within the overarching narrative of salvation history.
In terms of its meaning, the parable is not difficult to understand. The vineyard is God’s temple in Jerusalem and vineyard owner is God Himself. The vineyard and thus Temple are established by God to produce fruit through the labors of the tenant farmers meant to do the work of God in and through the Temple. In this way, the witness of God emanating from the Temple is cast as the “fruit” properly and rightly owed to the vineyard owner.
However, when the vineyard owner sends His servants to collect what is rightfully His, the tenant farmers are presumably uninterested ceding to His wishes and desire instead to keep the fruit of the vineyard for themselves under their own authority. This leads them kill each successive party of emissaries dispatched from the vineyard owner until finally, He sends His own son, the vineyard’s heir, in the hopes of collecting what was rightfully His.
It is important to note that the sending of the son comes only after two previous attempts to “collect his fruit” (v.34), where firstly only “slaves” (v.34) were sent and then secondly, “other slaves, more than the first group” (v.35). Thus, the sending of the son is not just another party attempting to collect on what is owed the owner, but rather the conclusion of increasingly desperate attempts to that end.
In this way, the rejection of the authority of Jesus, the heir to the vineyard, on the part of the “chief priests and elders” that took place earlier in the chapter, is to be seen as a culmination of Israel’s leaders’ continued rejection of other divine messengers sent from God, namely, the writing and non-writing prophets (e.g., Elijah) from the Old Testament.
This is made explicit at the close of the parable where “the chief priests and the Pharisees…knew He was speaking about them” (v.45). This serves the dual purpose of cementing Israel’s spiritual leaders as Jesus’ prime adversaries for the balance of the Gospel of Matthew as well as providing a reason for Jesus’ pronouncement of judgement against the temple in Matt. 24.
Angle for Preaching: As this parable largely works as an illustration of the “chief priests’ and elders’” rejection of Jesus in Matt. 21. 23–32, it is difficult to find applications for the modern reader. Nevertheless, this story does invite its readers to reflect on their own moments of rejecting the authority of Jesus and how this can manifest in our own failures to offer up to Him what He rightly deserves. It is sometimes easy to think that our station in life, accomplishments, and gifts and talents come solely through our own work and merit as opposed to being aspects of our lives that could be put into service for the Lord.
It is also important not to miss the lengths that the vineyard owner, God, went to so as to appeal to His tenant workers to do what is right. This speaks not only to the Grace of God, but also helps us contemplate the ways and means God might be speaking to us in the present as He graciously invites us to give to Him what is His already.
Jeff Volkmer has served in a wide variety of both academic and pastoral positions over his 25-year career in ministry, with most of these spent as a professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages.
Jeff has a passion to help others see the wonder and beauty of the Scriptures in a way that allows them to know the Lord more fully and love Him more deeply, and simply put, to help make the Bible make sense to believers and non-believers alike. He holds a ThM in Old Testament from Dallas Theological Seminary and is in the final stages of a doctorate in Semitic Linguistics from the University of Oxford.
Modern intelligence won’t accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority.
G. K. Chesterton, The Essential Gilbert K. Chesterton (Simon and Schuster, 2013), 100.
Size is not Authority
I am a huge football fan and there have been several times in my life where I have either met or have happened upon an NFL player. Whenever this occurs, I can never get used to just how big these people are! When seeing them on television, where everyone else is just as large, it is sometimes difficult to really appreciate just how large-than-life NFL players really are!
We just don’t have a category in our minds for a Tyron Smith, an O-lineman for the Dallas Cowboys, who is 6’5” and 320 lbs or the 6’1” and 285 lbs of Aaron Donald who can also run a 4.6, 40 yard dash and has a 32” vertical jump!
But what is interesting is that when you watch an NFL game, there are seven additional people on the field who are always much, much smaller than every single player, and yet, each one of the players listens and does everything that these seven people tell them to do!
You would have probably guessed that these seven “small” people on the field are the referees and the reason why the much larger players listen to everything they say is because they know how to recognize authority.
Authority is not something that is earned through might or performance, but is rather given from some higher authority. The tenant farmers in today’s lesson might have been more powerful than the slaves and then the son of the vineyard owner, but failed to recognize their authority.
God will seldom show up in our lives as a 300 lb NFL lineman to make us do what we ought to do, but it is no less important for us to recognize His authority so as to listen and obey.
(This illustration is based upon a story that one of my professors told while I was at Dallas Seminary. I cannot remember who it was in order to give them credit, but I did take the core idea and made it my own here.)