Sharecroppers and The Son Of God
The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen
He was now walking in the shadow of the cross. The hour for which He had come was soon to arrive. Jesus had utilized parables before in His teaching. They had been so enigmatic, however, that those outside the kingdom of God could not comprehend them clearly (Mk. 4:11-12).
Since then it had become obvious that the King had been rejected. However, on the Tuesday before His crucifixion Jesus related three parables that could be clearly understood: “And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spoke of them” (Mt. 21:45). These three parables are: (1) The Parable of the Two Sons (Mt. 21:28-32); (2) The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (Mt. 21:33-44); and (3) The Parable of the Marriage Feast (Mt. 22:1-14). These parables all deal with some aspect of the Messiah’s rejection and were prompted by the challenging of His authority by the chief priests and elders (Mt. 21:23-27). The second parable graphically describes the severity of the King’s rejection and its consequences for the nation of Israel. It is to this parable that your attention is directed.
The Narration of the Parable
“Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, who planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and dug a winepress in it, and built a tower, and leased it to tenant farmers, and went into a far country. And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the farmers, that they might receive the fruits of it. And the farmers took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other servants more than the first; and they did the same unto them. But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son. But when the farmers saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him” (Mt. 21:33-39).
This parable clearly reflects the social background of Jewish Galilee in the first century. Ancient sources reveal that much of the land consisted of large estates in the hands of absentee landlords. These owners would lease out the estates to “tenant farmers” who would work the land and pay their rent to the owners with the food they harvested. In modern times these tenant farmers are called sharecroppers.
This owner had evidently lavished much care on his vineyard, even to the building of a watchtower for its protection. When he went away to another country, he anticipated receiving the benefits of his investment by periodically sending his servants to receive the “fruits.” However, when the first group of three servants arrived at the vineyard to receive the “rent,” the tenant farmers (i.e., husbandmen) beat one, killed another, and stoned the third. When his group of servants did not return, the owner sent another group, but they were given the same treatment as the first. In frustration, the owner next sent his son thinking that the farmers would surely respect him and realize the seriousness of their responsibility. When the son arrived, the farmers saw their chance to secure the vineyard legally for themselves. They would kill him and seize the inheritance. When the farmers saw the son they probably assumed that the owner had died and that his heir had come to claim his inheritance. Jewish law at that time stated that when land could be regarded as “ownerless property” the right of ownership belonged to the occupants of the land. Thus, if the owner has died and his legal heir has died, then the farmers could take unhindered possession of the vineyard. They thus mercilessly killed the son.
The Interpretation of the Parable
It would have been hard for anyone hearing this parable in first century Judea to miss its obvious meaning. The figure of a vineyard as symbolic of Israel was clearly imbedded in the Hebrew Scriptures. For example: “Now will I sing to my well-beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My well-beloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill; And he dug it, and gathered out the stones, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress in it; and he looked for it to bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes” (Isa. 5:1-2). Psalm 80:8-16 uses the same imagery of Israel as a vineyard. The owner of the vineyard was obviously the Lord God who lavished His care in so many ways on His covenant people. The tenant farmers in the parable who were to work the vineyard symbolized the various religious leaders whose task it was to lead Israel in the ways of righteousness. In Jesus’ day these leaders consisted of the chief priests, the elders, the
Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the scribes. The servants sent by the owner who were mistreated is an obvious reference to the various prophets in the Old Testament who were sent to warn Israel’s leaders about their wicked ways. In many passages the prophets are designated by God as “my servants” (Jer. 7:25; Amos 3:7; Zech. 1:6). The ill-treatment of the prophets is seen in the examples of Jeremiah (Jer. 20:1 ff.); of Micah (1 Ki. 22:24); and the stoning of Zechariah (2 Chr. 24:21 ff.). Jesus referred to this well-known practice in Matthew 23:37: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them who are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”
Finally, the rejection of the son by killing him and casting him out of the vineyard was a clear symbolic reference to what was about to happen to Jesus, the Son of God. While it can be said in a general sense that Israel rejected the Messiah (Jn. 1:11), more specifically the greater guilt lay with the religious leaders (the “farmers” in the parable) who formally condemned Jesus to death (Mt. 26:65-66). Most of the people, therefore, followed the decision of their leaders.
The Application of the Parable
Having concluded the parable itself, Jesus asked His hearers the obvious question: “When the lord, therefore, of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those farmers?” (Mt. 21:40). This was a tactic employed often by the Lord Jesus with the purpose of having His antagonists condemn themselves by their own words (cf. v. 31). Any sense of justice demanded that they answer the way they did. “They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will lease his vineyard unto other farmers, who shall render him the fruits in their seasons” (Mt. 21:41).
The just judgment on the wicked husbandmen is exactly the type of judgment Israel’s leaders would experience for their rejection of God’s Son. Jesus later elaborated this judgment further in Matthew 23:38: “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate,” and in Matthew 24:2: “And Jesus said unto them, “See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” The destruction of the wicked husbandmen was symbolic of the catastrophe that would overwhelm the Jewish nation in 70 A.D. when Titus would destroy the Holy City with its center of Jewish life, the Temple.
Jesus further illustrated the rejection of the Son by an appeal to a very well-known passage: “Jesus saith unto them, 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 marvelous in our eyes?” (Mt. 21:42). The Lord’s quotation is from Psalm 118:22-23. This psalm has always been widely known and used by Jewish people. It composed part of the “Great Hallel” (Psalms 113-118), a section sung or chanted at various Jewish festivals from antiquity until today. As a matter of fact, Jesus and His disciples would sing this psalm in just a few days at the Passover Seder the night before His crucifixion. From this verse grew the tradition that such a rejected stone had actually become part of the great Temple in its last building stages. Even today the visitor to Jerusalem can see a graphic illustration of this. Right outside the walls of the Old City in the grounds of a Russian church is an ancient stone quarry. Lying in place there is a partially hewn pillar with a long crack in it. The masons evidently left it there when it cracked – thus it became a “rejected stone.” How ironic it would be if someday that very stone became a central pillar in a new building!
Yet that is exactly what took place in the plan of God. Jesus, the Rejected Stone, in God’s providence became the Chief Cornerstone of a new building composed of Jews and Gentiles who by faith in Him have also become “living stones” in this new spiritual temple of God (1 Pet. 2:4-8; Eph. 2:19-22).
Jesus describes the new possessors of the spiritual vineyard thus: “Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits of it” (Mt. 21:43). This “nation” is not simply the Gentiles but is composed of all believers, whether Jew or Gentile, who by faith trust in the Lord Jesus as Messiah and Sin-Bearer and compose the “holy nation” mentioned in 1 Peter 2:9.
It must not be concluded from this, however, that the kingdom is removed forever from Israel. This is impossible due to the promises given to Abraham and David. Israel’s rejection is temporary, and she will yet be restored to the place of blessing as is clearly stated by Paul in Romans 11:13-27.
In the meantime all who refuse to be anchored to the Stone must experience His awful judgment: “And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken, but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder” (Mt. 21:44). In this verse Jesus identified Himself with “the stone cut out without hands” that smote the feet of Nebuchadnezzar’s image (Dan. 2:34-35). This is a prophecy of the judgment that Christ will bring on the Gentile kingdoms at the Battle of Armageddon (cf. Rev. 19:11-21).
In the Scriptures the Messiah is pictured as the “Smitten Stone” (1 Cor. 10:4; Ex. 17:5-7); the “Stumbling Stone” (Rom. 9:33); the “Sure Corner Stone” (Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:7); and the “Smiting Stone” (Dan. 2:34).
This parable was as clear as it could possibly be. The chief priests and Pharisees knew that Jesus was speaking of them (v. 45). While this further confirmed most of them in their determination to destroy Him, we know that there were some among them who later believed and trusted Jesus as their Messiah (cf. Lk. 23:50-53; Acts 6:7).
WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO THE STONE, DEAR READER? IS HE YOUR CHIEF CORNERSTONE OR IS HE A STUMBLING STONE?