Proper 22 • Matthew 21:33–46 • October 2, 2011
By William Carr
Matthew 21 begins with the “Palm Sunday” entry to Jerusalem. For the moment, Jesus is “riding high,” even if on a lowly donkey and its colt. Who is this guy? Here’s the “buzz”: “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (21:10). The chapter ends with an emphasis on the same fact: the chief priests and the Pharisees refrain from any overt action, because they fear the crowds, who were holding [imperfect] Jesus to be a prophet (21:46). So, what does this prophet do? Prophetic stuff, to be sure! He throws out the marketeers in the temple (21:12–13), and in the same episode he receives the blind and the lame and heals them (21:14). Then comes an act that we too may find scandalous; Jesus curses the fig tree that isn’t bearing (21:18–19). When he returns to the temple the next day, the chief priests and the elders confront him about the nature and source of his authority to do what he’s done (21:23). Jesus replies with his own question, which puts the leaders between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Since they won’t answer his question, Jesus determines that he won’t answer theirs (21:27). Jesus tells the parable of two sons—one who initially resists, then repents; the other says at first, “Yes, Father,” but as soon as he is out of sight, does his own thing. Then Jesus invites/directs the crowd to hear another parable.
The parable is familiar. It resonates with echoes of the parabolic “song of the vineyard” in Isaiah 5:1–7 (the OT reading for the day). There is not a one-to-one correspondence, but several details match: fence/hedge, winepress, and tower. They are different, however, in the role of the tenants. In Jesus’s parable, the landowner rents the vineyard to tenants, and then he goes away (the idea that he went to “another country” is not a necessary element of the verb ἀποδημέω). All the verbs are aorist; all these actions set up the rest of the parable. There is one more feature to note since it will come into play later—the parable’s first character is identified as an οἰκοδεσπότης.
Time organizes the parable. With the background in place, “then” (ὅτε), that is, after an indefinite period of time, the season for fruit arrives. Luke’s version of the parable might help us understand the difference between χρόνος and καιρός. The man who planted the vineyard goes away χρόνους ἱκανούς, that is, for enough “clock time” for the next set of circumstances to arrive. The καιρός, then, is the right time for fruit to be available, so it is entirely reasonable for the owner to send servants “to get” (aor. infin. of λαμβάνω) his fruit. Instead, the tenants “got” (aor. ptc. of λαμβάνω) them, and beat, killed, or stoned them. So he tried again with the same results.
The next “time” arrives; ὕστερον, “at last (or finally),” the landowner sent his son. But the tenants saw this as an opportunity to obtain the inheritance for themselves by eliminating the heir. So they “got” him (again, the aor. ptc. of lambanw), threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
The parable is done; it’s time for the quiz, and it begins with another indication of time. ὅταν—“When(ever) the lord of the vineyard comes, what will he do?” Notice, first of all, the deliberate shift; at the beginning of the parable he was an οἰκοδεσπότης, but now he is ὁ κύριος τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος, the “lord of the vineyard.” In Isaiah 5, when the rhetorical question, “What else is there to do?” was posed, it was the “beloved,” to whom the vineyard belonged, who asked it (Is 5:4). Then he declared, “I will make known to you what I will do,” and proceeded to describe how he would raze the vineyard (Is 5:5ff.). Finally, the true identities of the vineyard and of its owner were made known: the vineyard belonged to Yahweh, and the vineyard was the house of Israel (Is 5:7).
In this case, there is nothing wrong with the vineyard as such; it is the tenants who have been unreliable, so they will be killed, and new, reliable tenants contracted. The verse from Psalm 118 underscores that it is the Lord (Heb. Yahweh) who is the landowner and who controls the disposition of the vineyard/kingdom, not those who are only tenants.
The parable is a concise picture of Old Testament salvation history. It makes sense, of course, to interpret the parable’s features in terms of Israel’s tenancy in the land. At the same time, however, we need to recognize that, ultimately, the planting of God is the whole of creation—“the earth is the LORD’s” (Ps 24). Therefore, we also are tenants.
The incidents in Matthew 21 echo the chronicler’s brief summary of conditions in Judah and Jerusalem as defeat and exile drew nearer (2 Chr 36:14–16). Unfaithfulness caused the nation’s demise (36:14), which is also to say “unfruitfulness.” Jesus cursed the fig tree (a symbol for Israel) because it was unfruitful, which is also to say it was unfaithful. Judah and Jerusalem had “polluted the house of the LORD” (36:14). In Matthew 21, Jesus cleanses it and, by his teaching and healing activities, produces its proper fruit. The tenants mistreated the landowner’s servants and, finally, his son in the parable; the people of Judah had mocked God’s messengers, despised God’s words, and scoffed at his prophets (36:16). The land and the Davidic kingship were taken away from Israel in the early sixth century BC, but the warning and threat are renewed in the prophetic word of Jesus. The loss is not simply of national place and status, but of the reign of God—his rule of grace in the lives of the people who are his.
The warning and threat pertain as much today as at any other time in the history of the church. When we think that the fruit of our lives, even of our churches, is our own, we rob God (see Mal 4:8ff.). When we treat creation (air, water, land, animal and plant and human life) as if it belongs to us and not to God, we are guilty tenants.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Psalm 118 is about trusting Yahweh and not relying on worldly strength. The psalmist himself fits the description of the one who was beset by enemies, but Yahweh delivered him, even exalted him—the stone that everyone else wanted to discard, God saved and put in a place of honor. How much more does this describe the Son, who was about to be rejected and taken out of the city and killed! Despite the builders’ rejection—our rejection—God made him the cornerstone. This Jesus, whom we crucified, God raised up (Acts 2:23–24). “This is the LORD’s doing.”
The invitation is implicit, but quite clear. Repent and believe the gospel. Submit to the reign of God, and the one who brings it, Jesus the Son.