Tenants in God’s vineyard (Matthew 21:33-44)

Look through the window of Jesus’ stories, and you see the world framed as God’s kingdom:

Matthew 21:33-44 (my translation, compare NIV)
33 “Listen, another parable. This person was a landholder. He established a vineyard, set up a protective hedge, dug a winepress, built a lookout, leased it to tenants, and went elsewhere. 34 As harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.

The earth is the Lord’s. We don’t own it. We rent a space for a few years, but ownership remains with the one who lives forever. That’s our security, our meaning. It’s where we belong, our hope.

God manages the family business here on earth, and he has a strategy. Thousands of years ago, he established a boutique vineyard where Europe, Asia and Africa intersect. This snippet of land held a promise for the nations, a taste of the wine he intends his world to experience: life in his reign.

As Jesus tells it, God prepared this land with all the loving care you would devote to a special garden: a wall to keep the wild animals out, a winepress to make the wine, a watchtower to keep an eye on this treasured place. He entrusted his vineyard to the tenants he chose: Jacob’s descendants.

This imagery was familiar to Jerusalem’s leaders. They knew they were chosen to represent God to the nations (Exodus 19:5-6). They knew they were tenants, not owners (Leviticus 25:24). The land was God’s planting (Psalm 80), God’s vineyard (Isaiah 5).

The whole earth is the Lord’s, but other nations did not enjoy their lands as the planting of the Lord. They plant their empires through conquest and war (Genesis 10:8-12), intoxicated with a taste for blood instead of the pure wine of divine governance (Revelation 17:2, 6).

So, how different was Israel’s experience as tenants in God’s vineyard? How good was the wine they experienced? In reality, Israel’s grapes were as sour as the nations. With their in-fighting and bloodshed in God’s vineyard, they didn’t give the nations much of a taste for divine rule.

God sent prophets to warn them that he would end their tenancy if they kept misrepresenting him. Hundreds of years before Jesus, Isaiah told this parable that sounds like the basis for Jesus’ story:

Isaiah 5 1 I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
2He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.

Isaiah warned that God would remove the wall so it would be trampled (6:5) — probably referring to Assyria invading the land in 722 BC. Isaiah’s point was that tenants are accountable to the owner: God would not leave these leaders in charge of his vineyard when he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed (6:7).

Jesus knows the hearts of the tenants hasn’t changed. The crowds acclaimed him as their anointed king as he rode into the capital on a donkey, but the vineyard managers do not recognize him as the Son of the vineyard owner.

Jesus shines new light through the familiar frame, a new expression of how the tenants will use bloodshed to keep their control:

Matthew 21 35 The tenants took hold of his servants and they beat, killed, or stoned them. 36 Again, he sent other servants, more that the first lot. They treated them the same way. 37 Finally, he sent his son to them saying, ‘They’ll show respect to my son.’
38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come on, let’s kill him so we can have his inheritance!’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

Tragically, the Jerusalem leaders do not recognize God’s Son, so they cannot recognize themselves as the Christ-killers when Jesus holds the mirror up to them. They’re so keen to judge that they don’t realize they’re pronouncing doom on themselves:

21 40 So when the lord of the vineyard comes home, how will he treat those tenants?” 41 They say to him, “Those bad guys are in serious trouble! He’ll wipe them out! And then he will lease out his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

There’s the difference between Jesus as these leaders. He’s not about to fight the wicked tenants for the vineyard, because he believes power is given by God. Even if they deserve it, Jesus has no plans to give them a miserable death … like crucifixion. Even if they kill him, Jesus trusts the owner of the vineyard to remove these tenants and raise up the leader he has chosen to lead his people:

21 42 Jesus says to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures, ‘A stone, rejected by the builders, was raised up as the chief architectural stone. This came about through the Lord’s action, and it is astounding to watch.
43 The point I’m making is that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation that produces its fruit. 44 The one who falls over this stone will disintegrate; the one on whom it falls will be crushed.

The kingdom of God is not established the way earthly kingdoms are, through violence and bloodshed. Divine authority over the earth is established by divine decree — something more powerful than death. The tenants will assassinate the son, but God will raise him up as the cornerstone of his house on earth, the basis of God’s restored reign.

Whatever evil plans human rulers have, God’s kingship over the earth is restored in the Son. The people who recognize his leadership are the tenants in his vineyard.

C’mon church: it’s time to grow that wine.

Open Isaiah 5 or Matthew 21:33-44.

What others are saying

If you’d like some insight into how the Isaiah 5 parable of the vineyard was understood in ancient times, here’s how it was told in Aramaic (Jesus’ language). The italics represent interpolations introduced by the Aramaic translators (i.e. words that were not part of the original Hebrew text):

Targum Isaiah 5.1 The prophet said, I will sing now for Israel – which is like a vineyard, the seed of Abraham, my friend-my friend’s song for his vineyard: My people, my beloved Israel, I gave them a heritage on a high hill in fertile land. 5.2 And I sanctified them and I glorified them and I established them as the plant of a choice vine; and I built my sanctuary in their midst, and I even gave my altar to atone for their sins; I thought that they would do good deeds, but they made their deeds evil. 5.3 Prophet, say to them, Behold, the house of Israel have rebelled against the law, and they are not willing to repent.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge now my case against my people. 5.4 What more good did I promise to do for my people that I have not done for them? When I thought they would do good deeds, why did they make their deeds evil? 5.5 And now I will tell you what I am about to do to my people. I will take up my Shekhinah from them, and they shall be for plundering; I will break down the place of their sanctuaries, and they will be for trampling. 5.6 And I will make them [to be] banished; they will not be helped and they will not be supported, and they will be cast out and forsaken; and I will command the prophets that they prophesy no prophecy concerning them. 5.7 For the people of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant; I thought that they would perform judgment, but behold, oppressors; that they would act innocently, but behold, they multiply sins.
5.8 Woe to those who join house to house, adding the field of oppression to their fields, saying: Until we possess every place-and thinking they will dwell alone in the midst of the land. 5.9 The prophet said, This was decreed before the LORD of hosts when I was hearing with my ears: “Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. 5.10 For because of the sin that they did not give the tithes, a place of ten lots of vineyard shall yield one bath, and a place of a cor of seed shall yield three seahs.” 5.11 Woe to those who arise early in the morning to drink, running after old wine, tarrying to depart, spending the evening on their couches, the wine of oppression inflaming them! 5.12 And their feasts are by means of lyre and harp, lute and flute and wine; but they do not regard the law of the LORD, or see the work of his might. 5.13 Therefore my people go into exile because they did not know the law and their honoured men die of hunger and their multitudes of scarcity, of drought. 5.14 Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure, and their honoured men and their multitudes go down, their throng and he who is strong among them. 5.15 And man is humbled and men’s strength is faint and the eyes of the haughty are humbled.
5.16 But the LORD is strong in judgment and God, the Holy One, is holy in virtue. 5.17 Then shall the righteous be nurtured and increase as was said concerning them, and the righteous shall possess the possessions of the wicked.
— Kevin Cathcart et al (eds.), The Aramaic Bible: The Isaiah Targum, translated by Bruce D. Chilton, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990), Is 5:1–15.

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Update 2022-04-08: Original translation added (instead of NIV).

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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