Note: This blog is the eighth in a year-long series of posts on the parables of Jesus. The series will run through most of 2019. You can find the first blog on the parables HERE.
In his earthly ministry Jesus was abundantly clear that he was the messiah, the one promised in the Scriptures. In the gospels, however, it becomes abundantly clear that there is a great contrast between the messiah the religious people in Jesus’ day are expecting and the kind of messiah Jesus claims to be. This becomes one of the major reasons that the religious leadership don’t believe Jesus’ claims to be the messiah, even though he works great miracles in their presence. Jesus behaves so unlike the messiah they were expecting, that even his own family doesn’t believe in him. (e.g. John 7). Even though Jesus’ disciples are quick to identify Jesus as the Christ (Mark 8:27-30), when Jesus begins to teach them what sort of messiah he is (Mark 8:31), they rebuke him for it (Mark 8:32). To their minds, real messiahs don’t talk like that. For Jesus, however, the messiah is not the one who would deliver Israel from her enemies and restore her to her former economic and political glory. For Jesus Messiah is the one who will live, die, and then rise from the dead to deliver Israel—and the whole world—from their sins.
There are a number of messianic parables in the New Testament; my favorite is the parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew 21.
Question 1: What are the immediate circumstances of the parable?
Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants near the end of his ministry. Jesus rides into Jerusalem in a manner that clearly identifies him as the messiah of the Old Testament, and the city receives him with great fanfare (Matthew 21:1-11). This is the messiah they wanted—a bold champion worthy of their accolades. But then Jesus heads directly into the temple and begins to trash the place, turning over tables and running people out. “You have made my house a den of robbers!” he cries, quoting the Old Testament. And then Jesus apparently takes over management of the temple. He begins healing sick people there, and little Jewish children are singing praises to him right in God’s temple! (Matthew 21:12-22) He’s acting like he owns the place because he does.
After a quick departure from the temple, Jesus returns and is confronted by the religious leaders. “Who do you think you are?” they ask (Matthew 21:23). It’s a good question, and Jesus answers it by telling them two parables. The parable of the wicked tenants is the second.
Question 2: What is the structure of the parable?
The parable of the wicked tenants has a story structure with rising action, a climax, and a resolution. It tells the story of a wealthy man who sets up a wine business, hires people to work in it, and then goes to live in another country. When it is time for the grapes to produce and for everyone to get paid for the season, the rich man sends his servants to collect what is his. The wicked employees (tenants) decide they don’t want to share the profits with the owner, so they beat and kill his servants. The rich man keeps on sending servants, and they keep on killing and driving them off. And then we reach the climax of the story. “I will send them my son,” the rich man says. “Surely they will listen to him.” The wicked tenants, however, decide this is their best chance to get to keep all the business for themselves. If they kill the son, then there won’t be any heirs, and all this will be theirs. They kill the son, and the parable ends.
Question 3: Is there anything in the details of the parable modern readers need to understand?
This story is pretty straight forward. There are, however, some parts of it that don’t sound reasonable to modern ears. Why on earth would they think that if they killed the boss’s other employees that somehow they would become the owners? How does killing the son help their cause? Like many of Jesus’ parables, the characters in them don’t behave rationally. This isn’t a true story. It is a made-up story to make a point. There has been some scholarship that suggests that in Jesus’ day there were laws that allowed business to pass to the employees if the owner died without an heir. This may be what Jesus has in mind, but don’t over-think it. Jesus is about to make the comparison of these wicked tenants to the religious leaders in his day. These are the people who watch Jesus raise someone from the dead and still refuse to believe. Sin never made anyone smarter. His point is that the wicked tenants are behaving in a selfish and incredibly foolish way, just like the Pharisees.
Question 4: What is the meaning of the parable?
Jesus makes the meaning of the parable abundantly clear by commenting on its ending. Matthew then follows up with commentary of his own. After telling the parable, Jesus has a conversation with the crowd. “What do you think will happen to those men who killed the son when the owner comes?” Jesus asks. Both Jesus and the crowd agree. The owner will have all those wicked workers executed, and then he will give the vineyard to someone else, someone who will do what they are told. Everyone in the crowd gets the point. Matthew makes sure that you, the reader all these years later, can also get the point when he writes, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.”
So, what is the point? Jesus is the messiah of the Old Testament, but that probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. There are those today who, like the Pharisees, see the Kingdom of God as a means for prominence and importance. There are still those who are looking for political power and cultural ascendency. There are still those who call themselves “God’s people” who are looking for fame, riches, and glory and see Jesus as a means for getting what they want. But he isn’t that kind of messiah. In the parable, the kingdom is taken away from people like that and given to those who will work in the kingdom as the owner intends. What does God, the owner, intend for his workers? Good question. Matthew and Jesus are about to tell us in just a few chapters—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”