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The Life of Jesus - Series 11: Episode 7

The Parable of the Tenants

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 21:33-46
Mark 12:1-12
Luke 20:9-19

Continuing in the dialogue with the religious leaders Jesus tells this parable to show that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from the Jews and others will enter. Jesus is the cornerstone they rejected.

Continuing in the dialogue with the religious leaders Jesus tells this parable to show that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from the Jews and others will enter. Jesus is the cornerstone they rejected.


Hello, and welcome to Series 11 and Episode 7. ‘The Parable of the Tenants’ is our topic today - a story that Jesus told in the last week of his life, in that amazing series of events that took place in Jerusalem. That is the subject of Series 11 and also the subsequent material. 

Introduction and Recap

The bigger story is important to keep in mind as we come to these particular events that take place in Jerusalem. Series 10 described the final approach of Jesus to Jerusalem. Luke tells the story very dramatically, and John adds some important detail. John adds the vital detail that, as the crowds gather, and opposition gathers, and anticipation gathers, Jesus performed an amazing miracle, the resurrection, the raising from the dead of Lazarus, in the village of Bethany, which was just outside Jerusalem. This was a sensational event and caused huge anticipation amongst the people living in and around Jerusalem. Jesus left Bethany after that event, went away from Jerusalem and then finally came back a short time later. While he'd gone away, he went through the city of Jericho, on his final approach to the city of Jerusalem, and there, there was a wonderful healing of two blind men on the street and the amazing conversion of a tax collector called Zacchaeus. At the end, as he was leaving Jericho and heading up the road to Jerusalem, there was such intense anticipation, that people wondered whether God was just going to break into the nation of Israel at that very minute. In fact, in Luke 19: 11,

‘because he was near Jerusalem the people thought that the Kingdom of God was going to appear at once.’

Luke 19:11, NIV

This is the level of anticipation that is in the background of the events that took place in Jerusalem. Every episode, as this story is developing in Series 11, we're reminding ourselves of this intense background.

After three years of very energetic ministry, mostly in the northern part of the country, in Galilee, Jesus is now approaching Jerusalem with a sense that something critical is going to happen, something decisive. This decisive event is going to be related to the conflict between Jesus, the Messiah, coming to Jerusalem, and the religious establishment who have already set their face against Jesus. The immediate context is Jesus coming into Jerusalem with the Triumphal Entry, that we looked at a few episodes ago. That amazing day, which we call Palm Sunday now, where a vast crowd, an unprecedented crowd, gathered around Jesus as he came riding on a donkey into the city of Jerusalem. They proclaimed him as a Saviour, as a Messiah, as the son of David, and there was huge anticipation that he was going to do something decisive in the city. The next day he came back to the city, having gone out again in the evening, and he performed a very drastic action in the Temple -  he cleansed the Temple of all the traders, all the market traders that the chief priests and the religious establishment had put there, in order to make money out of all the religious practices associated with the Temple, That was a huge act of confrontation.

On the following day, the Tuesday, Jesus comes into the city and there are a series of conversations with the religious authorities, questions asked, parables told, and that is the context we are looking at right now. Jesus is in the midst of a tense day in Jerusalem. Luke summarises this week in Jerusalem, in Luke 21: 37 - 38, by saying,

‘Each day Jesus was teaching at the Temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives,and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the Temple.’

Luke 21:37-38, NIV

He is causing a sensation. People really expect him to do something dramatic and maybe take over from the Romans, maybe take over the running of the Temple from the religious authority and the Sanhedrin. It's that kind of level of expectation that we're dealing with here.

Spiritual Context of the Parable

That's the situation that we're going to see unfolding further in the parable that Jesus tells, that we're going to study today. At the end of the last episode, which described the parable of the two sons, Jesus concluded with this statement, talking about John the Baptist in Matthew 21: 32:

‘“For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”’

Matthew 21:32, NIV

The theme that's going to be discussed in ‘The Parable of the Tenants’ we're going to look at in a moment, relates to this paradoxical situation that's happened in Israel. John the Baptist came and preached for some period of time, and we studied that earlier on. He's now been executed and the religious establishment didn't believe John's message about God's Kingdom coming, and the Messiah coming, and Jesus being the Messiah. They didn't believe that. But people like tax collectors and prostitutes - in other words, the outsiders in society, the irreligious, the obviously sinful - change their lives around as a result of John's preaching and then Jesus' preaching, and started coming into this new Kingdom community that Jesus was building.

We've just seen an example of that in Luke 18, which is the question of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho, one of the senior tax collectors in the whole country, has very recently turned and believed in Jesus. The tax collectors and the prostitutes are coming into the Kingdom but the religious leaders are saying, ‘No! We don't accept Jesus as the Messiah. In fact, we believe he's a false messiah. He's a pretender.’ They even asserted that he was empowered by demonic, evil, spiritual forces. That's the conflict that we're tracing all the way through the last period of Jesus' life. It is into that conflict that Jesus tells another parable.

The Parable of the Tenants

As I've often said, parables are stories with a symbolic meaning. They usually have one major point that we're looking for. Sometimes the individual details are allegorical, in the sense that the individual details in the story relate to specific realities or people. There is some degree of allegory in this particular parable, as we will see, because the people in the story can be identified as people in the real story of Jesus' life. But we'll come to that in just a moment. We're now going to turn to the text and we're going to read ‘The Parable of the Tenants’, which is Matthew 21: 33 - 41. Then there's a comment that Jesus makes after that, some discussion, which we'll come to later on. Matthew 21:33 - 41,

‘“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.’So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They replied“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”’

Matthew 21:33-41, NIV

Jesus is talking primarily to the religious leaders, with whom he's been in debating dialogue, in the earlier section immediately before this. He tells a very vivid story that would mean a lot to his original audience. Israel was an agricultural society. One of the main products of their agriculture were vines and grapes. Wine was drunk widely and appreciated much in the society, and grapes were one of the main products from their agricultural system. Here is a man who's obviously a rich landowner who, on his land, or land he's bought, he creates a vineyard in a suitable place, creates a wall around it, a watchtower and a wine press. You can see these wine presses in modern Israel in the archaeological sites from this era. You can see the type of construction they made, in order to have a place to crush the grapes and produce the grape juice, and therefore to produce the wine. He created a whole functioning vineyard. It had a watchtower; it could be defended. It had a wall; it could be protected. It had a wine press and it was obviously a productive site.

But he wasn't going to deal with this vineyard himself. He was going to rent it out to some tenant farmers, which he did and he went to another place. Obviously, this is a very rich man, and usually in those days the rent was, at least partly, paid in agricultural produce. At the end of the season they would agree that a certain percentage of the grapes that had been produced in this vineyard, would be given over to the landlord, the owner, as a payment for the rent of the vineyard and property. That was the deal. That's the sort of thing that happened regularly in ancient agricultural societies, when you were a tenant farmer. You couldn't pay your landlords necessarily in monetary terms; you didn't necessarily have that amount of money, but you could pay in agricultural produce. As the story unfolds, when the time comes, when the harvest season comes, the landlord and owner sent some of his servants to receive the produce, the grapes, and take them back to his place. But the servants are maltreated, even killed, when they come to the farm. The tenant farmers take a hostile attitude to them. So, he sends more servants and last of all, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They'll respect my son and we'll get the produce, and we'll sort out all the problems and all the arguments that have produced these difficulties earlier on.’ But the opposite happened. They actually killed the son in the hope that they would inherit the land when the landowner died, because he didn't have a son.

The Characters in the Parable

It's a pretty, brutal story. It's a story of tenants rejecting the landowner. Who are the characters in the story? The context indicates who those characters are likely to be, and scriptural background, in the Old Testament, gives us some other clues as well. The vineyard is an interesting metaphor, and is one that is often used in the Old Testament for the nation of Israel. For example, in Isaiah 5: 7 it says, ‘“The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel.”’ There's a wonderful parable of God and Israel in Isaiah 5, which uses the metaphor of the vineyard. The owner of the vineyard can easily be understood to be God himself; God who sends his son. So, God is coming to the vineyard, (the people of Israel) and the tenants are Israel's leaders. Jesus is, at this point, engaged with a prolonged dialogue and debate with the leaders of Israel. In this very chapter we see that ‘the chief priests and the elders of the people’ came to Jesus, in verse 23. These are the most senior representatives of the Sanhedrin, the religious leaders. The tenants are to be understood to be the leaders of Israel. Who are the servants? In the Old Testament the servants of the Lord are often described as the prophets. In fact, in Jeremiah 7: 25 it says,

‘“From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets”’ ‘but you do not receive them’

Jeremiah 7:25, NIV

God's speaking there. It would be very easy to interpret the servants as the prophets, especially as Jesus has just mentioned earlier on, John the Baptist, who he earlier identified as the last prophet from the Old Testament era. Once we've established all that, we know who the son in the story is. The owner sends his son. God sends his Son, the Messiah, Jesus. The owner of this vineyard has great love for this vineyard: he's planted it; he's established it; he's developed it; and he's built it up. But the theme here is that Israel, through its leaders, has rejected God's message; rejected God's salvation, rejected God's prophets, and, at this particular point, as a climax to that rejection, has rejected God's Son. Jesus is predicting that the leaders are going to kill the Son of God; they're going to kill the Messiah. This is a direct prophecy of the events that are going to take place within just a few days. Within the very same week that this parable is uttered. They've rejected John the Baptist, and they're going to reject Jesus, the Messiah. Let's read verses 42 to 44:

The Cornerstone

‘Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”’

Matthew 21:42-44, NIV

Jesus quotes from Psalm 118. This Psalm is part of a collection of Psalms – Psalm 113 to 118 - known as the Hallel group of Psalms, which were used regularly at Passover time in the devotional life of pilgrims and in the Temple. It's Passover time now in the city of Jerusalem. So, Psalm 118 would be on the mouths and on the lips of the worshippers. This Psalm was understood by the Jews, at this time, to be a Messianic Psalm. It has some prophecies concerning the Messiah. Already it's been quoted by the crowds on the day of the triumphal entry, when they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” That's a quotation from that very same Psalm. That person, ‘who comes in the name of the Lord’, was understood by the Jews, even before the time of Jesus, as being the Messiah, who was going to come to Israel. Jesus is quoting from the same Psalm, and quoting slightly earlier verses, which say that,

‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; and the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes.’

Psalm 118:22-23, NIV

He's interpreting himself as the stone, the foundation of what God is building, which has been rejected by the builders, the people of Israel, but has been adopted as the cornerstone by God, of his new Kingdom. Just as Jesus is rejected by the leaders of Israel, he becomes the foundation for the new people of God, which is going to be the Church. Those who fall on him, or stumble across him, are going to suffer. In other words, those who don't recognise who he is.

The Reaction of the Religious Leaders

Verse 45 and 46,

‘When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.’

Matthew 21:45-46, NIV

The paradox and the difficulty for the religious leaders is that they have already determined that the only way to stop Jesus is to arrest him, to try him, and to get the Romans to execute him. But the question is; when and how do you do this? It's not that Jesus was resisting them with physical force, or had a little, mini group of guards around him, it was the crowds that bothered the religious leaders. He was greatly admired by the vast majority of the crowds who were there, and it was very difficult to find a way that they could arrest him. So, the religious leaders, the Sanhedrin, being the ruling council, was in discussion, in daily discussion during this particular week, trying to work out when and how they could arrest Jesus. Very shortly, they're going to find a way of doing it, by using as an agent, one of Jesus' disciples, Judas Iscariot, who betrays him, and makes a way for them to arrest Jesus quietly, late at night rather than publicly, in the middle of the day in Jerusalem. As they looked at the situation here, in the middle of the day in Jerusalem, they realised that they were not going to be able to arrest him, because the crowds would prevent it, or would riot, or would do something very extreme in response, because they'd be so horrified at that action. This is a very dramatic story.

The Meaning of the Parable

The parable is clear in its meaning, and we realise that the kingdom of God is going to be given to other people. Verse 43 is a key,

“Therefore I tell you that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”

Matthew 21:43, NIV

It's going to be taken away from Israel as a nation and given to other people. Those other people are obviously the Gentile nations, the other ethnic groups in the world, who are going to hear this message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ very shortly; in a few weeks' time, they're going to start hearing this message. Their response is going to be very strong. There's going to be large numbers of people coming into the Kingdom, just as large numbers of Jewish people refused to accept the identity of Jesus the Messiah, and refused to believe in him. This is a tremendous paradox. This is a central theme of this last week of Jesus' life.


My reflections here, thinking about this passage and drawing this episode to a conclusion, is that here we have, first of all, a prediction of the forthcoming suffering of Jesus. Jesus has been warning his disciples for a long time that at the end of his life he's going to be executed, having been arrested and tried by the Jewish leaders.

The other reflection is, that the Kingdom of God is full of surprises. There are two surprises we've seen here. First of all, at the beginning, we noticed that the Pharisees and the religious leaders did not enter the Kingdom, while the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Within Israel, the less religious people are responding to the message of the gospel. The religious establishment is not. The second surprise is, that the Gentile nations are going to inherit the Kingdom of God, and the leadership of the nation of Israel, to help them, is going to be taken away from them, as the Gentile believers take more and more initiative and leadership.

My third point here is, that this is a great tragedy being predicted for the nation of Israel. Jesus predicts this in a number of ways throughout his ministry, particularly in this later part. His predictions of the Kingdom being taken away from them and judgement coming, were fulfilled, as I've mentioned in previous episodes, very dramatically just over 30 years after Jesus died, when as a result of a Jewish rebellion against the Romans in 66 A.D., the Romans sent a very large military force to the nation of Israel and crushed the rebellion, crushed the people, and took over Jerusalem and destroyed the city and its Temple, causing a terrible judgement on the people of Israel.

In conclusion I want to mention a passage in 1 Peter 2: 4 - 10 where Peter picks up some of the themes of the cornerstone image and he talks about a spiritual house or a spiritual temple that God is building. I want to read 1 Peter 2: 4 - 10:

‘As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion,a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,”and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’

1 Peter 2:4-10, NIV

Many years later, Peter reflecting on this amazing image of Jesus being the cornerstone of a new spiritual building that God is building, that speaks to this group of Christians, most of whom are not Jewish people at all, and explains to them that they are like living stones being joined together, with Jesus Christ as the foundation, into a spiritual house, or a new temple, a place of worship that's made up out of people rather than physical stones. That is the Church of Jesus Christ. It's based on faith in Jesus. He is the foundation, and the Holy Spirit gives the Church life, and that Church is the living Body of Christ, the living Temple of God, the living spiritual house that God is making. Peter was there when Jesus told the parable of the tenants. He heard Jesus quoting that passage from Psalm 118. He quotes it again many years later, speaking to Christians. One of the things we can take from this, is an awareness that, that great change that was taking place at the time of this parable, in which Israel was rejecting its place as a nation, as a whole, in God's purposes, was also the time when God was beginning to build a new spiritual community. Some Jews came into that community and were very influential and important in the early days, like the Apostle Paul, and many of the early followers but the vast majority of people were from all different nations on earth. That's you and me. 2000 years later we can still say that Christ is the cornerstone. Faith in him is the key. What he did on the cross and his salvation, is the foundation. We're being built together as a spiritual community of living stones in local churches all across the world. That's the wonderful reality of what it is to be part of the Body of Christ, the Church of Jesus Christ, in these days.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What is the one main point of the Parable of the Tenants?
  • Discipleship
    1. Is faith in Jesus the ‘cornerstone’ of your life? What does that mean?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Were the responses of the tenants a wilful rejection of the gospel, or passive denial swayed by popular decision or ignorance? Are there any valid excuses for what happened then - or now? Give reasons for your answer.
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