Matthew 21:33-46

THE VINEYARD OF THE LORD

Matt. 21:33-46

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and surrounded it with a hedge, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and gave it out to cultivators and went away. When the time of the fruits had come, he dispatched his servants to the cultivators, to receive his fruits; and the cultivators took his servants, and beat one of them, and killed another of them, and stoned another of them. Again he dispatched other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterwards he dispatched his son to them. `They will respect my son,’ he said. But when the cultivators saw the son, they said to themselves, `This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and let us take the inheritance.’ And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to these cultivators?” They said to him, “He will bring these evil men to an evil end, and he will give out the vineyard to other cultivators, who will pay him the fruits at their correct time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ` The stone which the builders rejected, this has become the headstone of the corner. This is the doing of the Lord, and it is amazing in our eyes? That is why I tell you that the Kingdom of God will be taken from you, and will be given to a nation which produces its fruits. And he who falls against the stone will be broken; and it will shatter to powder him on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and Pharisees heard his parables, they knew that he was speaking about them. They tried to find a way to lay hold on him, but they were afraid of the crowds, for they regarded him as a prophet.

In interpreting a parable it is normally a first principle that every parable has only one point and that the details are not to be stressed. Normally to try to find a meaning for every detail is to make the mistake of treating the parable as an allegory. But in this case it is different. In this parable the details do have a meaning and the chief priests and the Pharisees well knew what Jesus was meaning this parable to say to them.

Every detail is founded on what, for those who heard it, was familiar fact. The Jewish nation as the vineyard of God was a familiar prophetic picture. “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel” (Isa.5:7). The hedge was a thick-set thorn hedge, designed to keep out both the wild boars who might ravage the vineyard, and the thieves who might steal the grapes. Every vineyard had its wine press. The wine press consisted of two troughs either hollowed out of the rock, or built of bricks; the one was a little higher than the other, and was connected with the lower one by a channel. The grapes were pressed in the higher trough and the juice ran off into the lower trough. The tower served a double purpose. It served as a watch-tower, from which to watch for thieves when the grapes were ripening; and it served as a lodging for those who were working in the vineyard.

The actions of the owner of the vineyard were an quite normal. In the time of Jesus, Palestine was a troubled place with little luxury; it was, therefore, very familiar with absentee landlords, who let out their estates and were interested only in collecting the rental at the right time. The rent might be paid in any of three ways. It might be a money rent; it might be a fixed amount of the fruit, no matter what the crop might be; and it might be an agreed percentage of the crop.

Even the action of the cultivators was not out of the common. The country was seething with economic unrest; the working people were discontented and rebellious; and the action of the cultivators in seeking to eliminate the son was not by any means impossible.

As we have said, it would be easy for those who heard this parable to make the necessary identifications. Before we treat it in detail, let us set these identifications down. The vineyard is the nation of Israel, and its owner is God. The cultivators are the religious leaders of Israel, who as it were had charge for God of the welfare of the nation. The messengers who were sent successively are the prophets sent by God and so often rejected and killed. The son who came last is none other than Jesus himself. Here in a vivid story Jesus set out at one and the same time the history and the doom of Israel.

PRIVILEGE AND RESPONSIBILITY

Matt. 21:33-46 (continued)

This parable has much to tell us in three directions.

(i) It has much to tell us about God.

(a) It tells of God’s trust in men. The owner of the vineyard entrusted it to the cultivators. He did not even stand over them to exercise a police-like supervision. He went away and left them with their task. God pays men the compliment of entrusting them with his work. Every task we receive is a task given us to do by God.

(b) It tells of God’s patience. The master sent messenger after messenger. He did not come with sudden vengeance when one messenger had been abused and ill-treated. He gave the cultivators chance after chance to respond to his appeal. God bears with men in all their sinning and will not cast them off.

(c) It tells of God’s judgment. In the end the master of the vineyard took the vineyard from the cultivators and gave it to others. God’s sternest judgment is when he takes out of our hands the task which he meant us to do. A man has sunk to his lowest level when he has become useless to God.

(ii) It has much to tell us about men.

(a) It tells of human privilege. The vineyard was equipped with everything–the hedge, the wine press, the tower–which would make the task of the cultivators easy and enable them to discharge it well. God does not only give us a task to do; he also gives us the means whereby to do it.

(b) It tells of human freedom. The master left the cultivators to do the task as they liked. God is no tyrannical task-master; he is like a wise commander who allocates a task and then trusts a man to do it.

(c) It tells of human answerability. To all men comes a day of reckoning. We are answerable for the way in which we have carried out the task God gave us to do.

(d) It tells of the deliberateness of human sin. The cultivators carry out a deliberate policy of rebellion and disobedience towards the master. Sin is deliberate opposite to God; it is the taking of our own way when we know quite well what the way of God is.

(iii) It has much to tell us about Jesus.

(a) It tells of the claim of Jesus. It shows us quite clearly Jesus lifting himself out of the succession of the prophets. Those who come before him were the messengers of God; no one could deny them that honour; but they were servants; he was the Son. This parable contains one of the clearest claims Jesus ever made to be unique, to be different from even the greatest of those who went before.

(b) It tells of the sacrifice of Jesus. It makes it clear that Jesus knew what lay ahead. In the parable the hands of wicked men killed the son. Jesus was never in any doubt of what lay ahead. He did not die because he was compelled to die; he went willingly and open-eyed to death.

THE SYMBOL OF THE STONE

Matt. 21:33-46 (continued)

The parable concludes with the picture of the stone. There are two pictures really.

(i) The first is quite clear. It is the picture of a stone which the builders rejected but became the most important stone in the whole building. The picture is from Ps.118:22: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” Originally the Psalmist meant this as a picture of the nation of Israel. Israel was the nation which was despised and rejected. The Jews were hated by all men. They had been servants and slaves of many nations; but none the less the nation which all men despised was the chosen people of God.

It may be that men reject Christ, and refuse him, and seek to eliminate him, but they will yet find that the Christ whom they rejected is the most important person in the world. It was Julian, the Roman Emperor, who tried to turn the clock back, tried to banish Christianity, and to bring back the old pagan gods. He failed and failed completely; and at the end of it the dramatist makes him say, “To shoulder Christ from out the topmost niche was not for me.” The man upon the Cross has become the Judge and King of all the world.

(ii) The second “stone” picture is in Matt. 21:44, although it is to be noted that some manuscripts omit this verse altogether. This is a more difficult picture–of a stone which breaks a man, if he stumbles against it, and which crushes a man to powder, if it falls upon him. It is a composite picture, put together from three Old Testament passages. The first is Isa.8:13-15: “The Lord of hosts him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary, and a stone of offence, and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble thereon; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.” The second is Isa.28:16: “Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation.” The third is Dn.2:34; Dn.2:44-45 where there is a strange picture of a stone, cut without hands, which broke in pieces the enemies of God.

The idea behind this is that all these Old Testament pictures of a stone are summed up in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the foundation stone on which everything is built, and the corner stone which holds everything together. To refuse his way is to batter one’s head against the walls of the law of God. To defy him is in the end to be crushed out of life. However strange these pictures may seem to us, they were familiar to every Jew who knew the prophets.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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