This Sunday’s Gospel reading comes from the fifth and final discourse of Jesus, which takes place in and around the courtyard of the Temple of Jerusalem. This five-chapter final act, The Sermon in the Temple, begins with a debate with the religious authorities in the Temple of Jerusalem. The Sermon later moves just outside the gates of the Temple Courtyard, where Jesus predicts what will happen when the Lord returns.
In our Gospel reading for today (Matthew 21:33-43), Jesus’ discourse in the Temple is only beginning, and he debates the religious leaders. He introduces a story known as the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard, which is also known as the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen in the Saint James Bible and the Douay Bible. To access this passage in the Lectionary, click here for the Catholic, and here for the RCL version.
Jesus portrays the tenants in this parable harshly, and they are a thinly-veiled caricature of the Temple authorities. Matthew concedes as much in verse 45: When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.
Jesus begins the parable:
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: “Hear another parable. There was a land-owner 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.
When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way.
These first few verses recount salvation history. God is the landowner; the vineyard with a hedge, wine press and tower represent creation, which was gifted to mankind. We could make the analogy more specific, such that the vineyard is that place where all God’s elect work. Harrington goes further, arguing that the vineyard, in the context of the audience Jesus was speaking to, refers especially to the “Kingdom of Israel.”
Next, the parable tells us that the landowner sent his servants, … one they beat, another the killed, and a third they stoned. Jesus is referring to the prophets and to early “types” or models of Jesus in Scripture. For example, Joseph was thrown in a well and then sold into slavery (Gn 37:28). Moses never reached the promised land in his own lifetime (Dt 34:4). The prophet Jeremiah was imprisoned, Daniel was thrown into a furnace and later a lion’s den, and Zechariah was stoned (2 Chron 24:21). John the Baptist was killed by Herod. Though not a prophet of the O.T., Jesus calls John the Baptist one of the greatest prophets ever (in Mt 11:9).
Jesus uses euphemistic language, but we can imagine that the Temple authorities understood well that the servants referred to the prophets, and the tenants referred to the “stiff-necked” of Israel. Jesus then continues the parable, speaking of the son that the landowner will send, as the earlier servants (the prophets) were not well received:
Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ 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.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
Jesus implies a few things here. First, Jesus is aligning himself with the prophets of Israel, and suggesting that he, like some of the prophets, will be rejected. Secondly, Jesus anticipates his own death. but why would he do that, in a parable so poorly disguised that the Temple authorities knew Jesus was speaking of them? Jesus uses the parable to communicate to the Temple authorities that he knows that the authorities have already rejected his message once and for all. The Temple authorities cannot imagine that a simple man of mean education, from Galilee no less, could possibly be the Messiah foretold by the prophets.
Finally, Jesus concludes the parable with a parting of company with the authorities.1 He anticipates their rejection of Him as the Messiah, and his judgment leveled directly against the Temple authorities is perhaps the “hardest saying” ever spoken by Jesus in the Gospels:
“What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” 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.”
Jesus said to the [authorities], “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? 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.”
Ouch! But why should Jesus take the initiative to pass judgment on the Temple authorities before he was arrested? We might guess that Jesus knew what was in their hearts. But the historic record provides us with additional information. According to the Gospel of John, the chief priests had discussed the arrest of Jesus (Jn 11:45-57) before the Passover week. Here is how John’s Gospel presents the discussion of the Chief Priests before Jesus enters Jerusalem:
“You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” … So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death. Jesus therefore no longer went about openly among the Jews…
It would appear that Jesus simply kept a low profile until he decided to enter Jerusalem for the Holy Days of Passover.
Setting aside the testimony of Johns’ Gospel, it is important to understand the story that Matthew is telling in his own Gospel. The followers of Jesus assert that Jesus is the newborn king of the Jews (2:2), the one who is to come (11:2), the Son of God (14:33), Lord, Son of David (14:22), the Messiah, Son of the Living God (16:16), etc. If these Messianic claims about Jesus’ authority are legitimate, he cannot avoid entering Jerusalem during the highest religious holiday of the year, even if, as John’s Gospel suggests, there is discussion of arresting him.
Jesus regards the proclamation of the Kingdom as a fulfillment, not a break, with Jewish tradition. If he is to lay claim to fulfilling the prophecy about the coming of a Messiah, then he needs to enter Jerusalem publicly, and present himself in the Temple for the Passover week, publicly.
Jesus does exactly that. Yet Jesus also knows that the Temple authorities will not arrest him in public, for fear of causing an uprising. Matthew 21:46 tells us that the authorities would not dare arrest him while he preached in the Temple because the crowd held him to be a prophet. Jesus uses the parable of the Tenants of the Vineyard as a metaphor for those who would reject the message and ministry of Jesus. Jesus serves notice to the Temple Authorities that his ministry is consistent with the work of the Prophets that came before him (verse 35). He also insinuates that he knows there are those seeking to arrest him (verse 38). Finally, Jesus warns the religious authorities as to the cost of rejecting the son sent by the owner of the vineyard: it is the loss of the Kingdom of God (verse 43).