Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

162. The Wicked Husbandmen (Matt. 21 :33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19)*

Jesus turned from his castigation of the rulers to address another parable to the multitude. The chief priests and Pharisees, not missing a word of what he said, now had a clear answer to their question: "By what authority doest thou these things?" But the answer was couched in such a form that they could not use it against him. Once again the sheer intellectual brilliance of Jesus comes through in encounters such as these. Before the day was out, these men -the cleverest of their nation -were to have one demonstration after another of the superb quality of the man they were trying to entrap,

Isaiah's parable

There is no parable of Jesus more obviously drawn from the Old Testament than this which he now added. Certain of the details in Isaiah's vineyard parable (5:1-7) are precisely the same. There are also significant and highly interesting divergences. A few of the details are worthy of special comment:

  1. The "song of my beloved" (v.1) becomes the tragedy of "my beloved son" (Lk.20 :13).
  2. "Gathering out the stones" (v.2) may perhaps suggest the initial getting rid of Canaanite stocks and stones.
  3. "And we looked that it should bring forth grapes" (v.2) is echoed by James: "The husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth" (5:7).
  4. "It brought forth wild grapes" (v.2). The Hebrew word means literally: "stinkers." In the Lord's parable, the counterpart is the evil behaviour of the men.
  5. The appeal: "O inhabitants of Jerusalem . . . judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard" (v.3) is matched by the rhetorical question: "What therefore will the lord of the vineyard do unto them?" (Lk.20 :15). And its answer: "I will tell you what I will do..." (v.5) anticipates the blunt response which Jesus got from his fascinated hearers.
  6. The wasting of the vineyard in judgment (v.i| has as its counterpart the punishment of the wicked husbandmen.
  7. The detail about "briars and thorns" (v.6), fit only for burning, is given a solemn interpretation in Heb.6:8.
  8. The parable ends with a vigorous play on words: "I looked for judgment (mishpat), but behold oppression (mishpach); for righteousness (tz'daqah), but behold a cry tz'aqahj" (v.7). So also the parable of Jesus: "He will miserably destroy those miserable men" (Mt.21 :41).
Nor is there any parable of Jesus more obviously designed to be interpreted detail by detail than this. The vineyard is the commonweal of Israel, with all its spiritual privileges, set apart by God for Himself. Winepress, hedge and tower correspond probably to the Temple, the Law and the order of Prophets (Eph.2 :14; Ez.33 :17; Hab.2 :1). The husbandmen are the Jewish people, and not just the leaders of the nation (Mt.21 :41).

This figure of the vineyard is common in the Old Testament and was familiar to every Jew But in Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard (5 :1-7) and other comparable passages (Ps.80 :8; Jer.2:2I; Ez.15 :l-6; 19 :10-14; Hos.10 :1; Dt. 32 :32,33l the vineyard represents the nation rather than its religious prerogatives, as here.

The description of the owner of the vineyard going away into a far country for a long time (Lk.) has invited some interpreters to see this os Christ's ascension and long absence in heaven. But this makes complete confusion with later details in the story. At the institution of the covenant with Israel, "God came down on mount Sinai" (Ex.19 :20; and note 20 :19). When that theophany was concluded He "ascended up on high" (Ps.68:18). The householder's going away represents this cessation of open divine manifestation.

Hostile tenants.

A vineyard was reckoned one of the most profitable forms of husbandry (S. of S.8 :11), yet to this owner it proved a dead loss.

The picture of servants being sent at the end of the season to collect tenancy dues is graphically described in all three gospels. Here is one place where the parable is true to life but is necessarily inadequate as part of the allegory—for God sought faithful service from Israel continuously, and not now and then (compare the same feature in Mt.20 :8). Luke, elegant writer of Greek that he is, has a grammatical solecism here, evidently for the sake of emphasis: "that they shall give him of the fruit of the vineyard" (20:10). There is also an unexpected Hebraism in v. 1.

The first servant is beaten and sent back empty-handed. Another is killed, and yet another stoned (Mt.). Other servants more (greater?) than the first (Mt.) receive similar treatment. One is wounded in the head (Mk.) and treated shamefully, another is wounded and cast out (Lk.). Here Luke's word means "another of a different sort", yet Mark's means "another of the same sort"! The prophets all had essentially the same message, yet as individuals their characters and personalities varied remarkably. But which word did Jesus use? (heteros or allos?).

And so the story continues at one harvest after another-all who are sent receive brutal treatment, some are wounded and some are killed (consider Mt.23 :37; Neh.9:26; 2 Chr.24 :20,21; 36:15,16; Heb. 11:37,38; Dt. 13:1-10).

In these graphic details, the parable comes away from real life, for, in fact, with a new vineyard, in the first season or two the husbandmen would have no fruits of any value to hand over (Lev. 19 :23?), so resentment at the owner's claims would not be without some justification. But this is essentially a picture of a spiritual world, not of horticultural Palestine.

In another even more striking respect also, the parable is utterly untrue to life. After the uncivilised reception accorded to the first emissary, would any real-life landlord have continued to risk servants in this persistent fashion? Resort to law or to force would have been the obvious course of action for any man of the world. But in the parable the owner represents a God whose longsuffering with sinful men should have all Bible readers marvelling ceaselessly.

The beloved Son

The next part of the story is even less true to life. "What shall I do?" says the Lord of the vineyard to himself (Lk.) "Last (for there is nothing I can do more than this; Heb. 1 :1,2) I will send my beloved son: it may be they will reverence him when they see him" (Lk.). Here Luke's "it maybe" translates a Greek word isos which also means "equally", that is, in honour to the son as in despite and cruelty to the servants. Since the other gospels omit isos, this alternative reading seems the more likely. But this heavenly expectation of reverence for the Son by proving to be mistaken provides the biggest difficulty in the parable. Even if "it may be" is insisted on, the difficulty still exists. Didn't God know? Had He not already said in a 700-year old prophecy: "When they shall see him, there is no beauty that they should desire him" (ls.53 :2)?

In Isaiah's parable of the vineyard, "the song of the well-beloved," development of the story seems to be drastically different: "And now go to; I will tell you what I will do (cp. Lk.)to my vineyard; I will take away the hedge thereof... and break down the wall thereof. . . and I will lay it waste" (5 :5,6). Yet ultimately, through the recalcitrance of the husbandmen, comparable stringent action is at last unavoidable in this parable also.

From the fact that they had been allowed to get away with such monstrous behaviour, the villainous tenants now reasoned together (s.w. Jn.11:50): "This is the heir: come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours." They seem to have reasoned: 'Our landlord must be dead, or surely he would have taken some action against us. So if we get rid of the heir, the vineyard is ours.' So, callously, they carried out their plan. The beloved son was cast out of the vineyard (Heb.13 :12?) and violently put to death (Mt., Lk.). In Mark the order of these details is different. Then, presumably, they stabbed or clubbed him in the vineyard, and then dragged him out to die, so that the vineyard would not be defiled by a dead body, nor themselves held responsible. But they had forgotten Dt.21 :l-9! or just didn't care about that; Acts 7:52; Mt.23 :32.


What next? The answer to Christ's rhetorical question came without hesitation from the crowd: "He will miserably destroy those miserable men, and will hand over his vineyard to other husbandmen, which shall render him their fruits in their seasons" (Mt.). Was there an unconscious allusion here to Ps.1 :3 (LXX)?

Jesus, giving his enemies their last warning, confirmed this instinctive judgment: "He will come and destroy the husbandmen (cp. ls.5 :8-30), and will give the vineyard (and not "let it out") to others." It would seem to follow from thisthatthe A.D.70 destruction of Jerusalem is not to be regarded as a "coming" of Christ, but as a direct judgment from God (cp. Lk. 13 :9: "thou", the owner; Mt.22 :7).

Immediately out of the crowd came an ejaculation of horror: "God forbid!" Every other occurrence of this cry from the heart comes in the epistles of Paul. The speculation that it was he who now recoiled from the logical conclusion of the parable is not so far-fetched as might be thought at first. ("Acts of the Apostles" H.A.W. ch.34). If this suggestion is correct, then Paul heard the ominous prophecy of Matthew 23:34, and still went ahead and helped to fulfil it because he saw clearly that the logic of the parable meant that Jesus really claimed to be God's son.

The "Stone" prophecy

Jesus looked intently (Lk; cp. also Lk.22 :61; Mk.10:21,27; Jn.l :45; Mt.29:26) at the group of rulers and Pharisees standing there and said: "Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?" .< There is here a closer connection with the slaying of the beloved Son than is evident in the English version. Jewish hearers would readily pick up the (Biblically) familiar play on the Hebrew words for "Son" and "stone". The Scripture quoted had already been an annoyance to these hostile men, for they had heard the same psalm (118 :25,26) applied to Jesus by the crowd acclaiming his triumphal entry into the city. Before the week was out it would be making a fresh mark on their consciences, for it was part of the Passover Hallel which they were about to repeat, or at least hear, during the feast. And later, in the apostolic preaching, Peter was to use the same Scripture accusingly against the same men (Acts 4:11).

It is possible to demonstrate (though the proof is too long for inclusion here) that the stone referred to is an altar stone, and not the top-stone of a building. Thus the words are o prophecy of a God-appointed means of redemption utterly rejected by the leaders of the nation and yet vindicated by God. It is the present parable over again, under a different figure, but brought to a successful conclusion!

Jesus added a noteworthy link with two other powerful Old Testament Scriptures.

"And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken." This was in allusion to Isaiah's prophecy of a rejected altar stone: "And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence . . . to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble and fall, and be broken..." (8 :14,15). The words foretell the rejected Christ, and disaster for the rejectors.

"But", went on Jesus, "on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder (or, perhaps, scatter him as dust)." The reference to the great vision of Daniel 2 is not to be missed-the stone cut out of the mountain of Deity without hands (that is, an altar stone; Ex.20:25), which destroys all human glory, and crushes it to powder so that the wind (spirit) of God sweeps it away for ever (Dan.2 :34,35,44,45).

Thus, in two brief Biblical allusions Jesus educated these learned men, if they were willing to be taught, concerning the two great aspects of his divine work-first, as sacrifice and altar; later as Messianic King.

But he added also a further corollary to his parable: "The kingdom of God shall be tab from you, and given to a nation bringing fortli the fruits thereof" (Mt.). Again his mind was ranging forward (for his own consolation as well as for their warning) to the call and response of the Gentiles.

Understood at last!

Early in his ministry he had deliberately adopted the policy of teaching in parables, "that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand" (Mk.4 :12). But now, almost the last parable of all was so framed that there was no missing its meaning. His adversaries "perceived that he had spoken this parable against them" (Lk.).

However, instead of taking warning from its ominous conclusion, their hatred set them attempting an immediate fulfilment of it: "The same hour they sought to lay hands on him" (Lk.). But divine providence used the presence of the multitude to save him from immediate arrest, for "they took him for a prophet" (Mt.); for a prophet, but after the anti-climax of the triumphal entry, how many of them took him for the Messiah?

Thwarted and vexed, his enemies planned worse mischief. However, before they left Jesus, he reinforced his warnings with yet another parable-about the Wedding Garment.

In all this day's public witness the most important item was the central detail in the parable of the husbandmen: "This is the heir; come, let us kill him ... which his enemies could themselves, was their own point-blank recognition that Jesus was the Son of God, and with it his point-blank recognition of their ruthless resolve to destroy him. "Come, let us kill him" is an exact quotation (Gen.37 :20 :XX) of the plot of Joseph's brothers to get rid of him. In the next two days the parallel between Joseph and Jesus was to be worked out in great detail and with marvellous accuracy.

Notes: Mt.21:33-46

Another parable. Mk. says 'parables', yet he records only th'is one where Mt. has three. Cp. Ps.78 :2, and cp. also the theme of that psalm.
The time of fruit drew near. Why not "was come"? But this phrase is true to the meaning of the parable.

Sent his servants. Mk. Lk.: a servant. But, of course, to bring away the owner's share of fruit would need more than one man. So, one servant in charge of the operation, and the other servants to help transport the fruit.
More than the first. Here this must surely mean "greater than;" cp. 12 :41,42.
Sent his son. Consider David in a somewhat similar situation: 1 Sam.25 :21,22. In Mk. theGk. text could read as though this Son were also a Servant.
When (they) saw the son. Just as this echoes ls.53 :2, so also in Mk. "shamefully handled" = 53 :3 LXX s.w. "despised"
They say unto him. For similar spontaneously provoked commentary on other parables, see Lk. 19:25; 2 Sam.12:5,6. In Mk. this comment from the crowd is emphatically repeated by Jesus himself.

Destroy those wicked men. Cp. the sequel in Is.5 :8ff-six woes against Israel. "The uniform hostility of kings, priests and people to the Prophets is one of the most remarkable features in the history of the Jews" (Plummer). True, but over-stated, for there were occasional honourable exceptions.
The stone which the builders rejected is the same as the stone of stumbling (Is.8 :14) and the stone laid as a foundation (Is.28 :16) and the stone cut out of the mountain without hands (Dan.2. :34,44); v.44 here, 1Pet. l:6-8; see also "The Stone of Stumbling" (H.A.W.).
The kingdom of Cod. This and v.31 are two of the five places where Mt. comes away from his usual phrase: kingdom of heaven.
Whosoever shall fall on this stone. Is. 8 :15 has "many" — rabbim, rabbis!

Grind him to powder; s.w. Jer.31 :10 LXX—Israel!

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