The Parable of the Tenants, 1-12
12:1 Then he began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a pit for its winepress, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenant farmers and went on a journey.
The parable records the special privileges given to the Jewish nation. God has given them good and wise laws, godly leaders, gracious promises, and fellowship with himself. We might reflect that we too have been granted many favours by God, and might ask how grateful we are for them, and how positively we have responded to them.
Jesus reworks Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (Isa 5:1-7), directing his parable not against the nation as a whole (as Isaiah does) but against the religious leaders of Jerusalem. In doing so, he may be reflecting a rabbinic interpretation of the Isaiah passage.
This parable is found in all three Synoptic Gospels. Its implied Christology is very important, especially given the tendency of much modern scholarship to doubt that Jesus had, or even could have had, any self-awareness about his divine Sonship. ‘The so-called Parable of the Wicked Tenants could just as well be the Parable of the Son Sent at Last.’ (N.T. Wright, http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_JIG.htm)
The authenticity of this parable is sometimes doubted. The reasons include, ‘the clear presence of allegory in the parable; the precision of the future actions portrayed in the parable (Jesus’ being put to death outside of Jerusalem; the success of the Gentile mission; and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70); the use of an OT quotation in the parable.’ (NAC)
The assumption that Jesus’ parables could not contain allegorical elements is discredited.
‘This parable in effect summarises the whole of the biblical history, including the gospel story.’ (Evans)
This remarkable parable (it’s almost an allegory) summarises many of the key movements in the plot-line of Scripture: the giving of special privileges to Israel; the sending of the prophets; the selfish disobedience of the Jewish leaders; the sending, at last, of God’s own Son; the cruel rejection of the Son; the judgement on Israel and the offer of the gospel to the Gentiles; Christ’s establishment as the foundation-stone of God’s kingdom.
Yet the parable does not merely describe a series of events: it challenges our stewardship of the kingdom-privileges we ourselves have been given.
Note the threefold context of the parable:
(a) the cultural context – it describes an arrangement that was quite common at the time. Hendriksen informs us that the parable describes a situation that was common in the upper Jordan valley, where there were large estates owned by absent landlords. They had given their farms and vineyards into the care of local people and who enjoyed a considerable measure of independence in running them. For his share of the yield the owner was dependent on the honesty and co-operation of the tenants;
(b) the biblical context – The parable is closely related to Isaiah’s ‘Song of the Vineyard’, Isa 5:1-7 (the verbal similarities are even closer in Mark’s version). ‘Later Jewish interpretation came to understand Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard as a prophecy of the destruction of the temple, a prophecy fulfilled when in 586 BC Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem. When Jesus utilises the language of this Isaianic parable in order to tell his own parable, his audience cannot help but sense the judgemental tone of the parable. Whereas in Isaiah’s version the vineyard itself (the people) is guilty, in Jesus’ parable it is not the vineyard, but the tenants (= the religious authorities). They are the reason that God does not receive the fruit that is due. The people’s leaders are selfish and disobedient. They will have to be replaced with new leaders who are obedient and responsive to God. This leadership consists, of course, of those whom Jesus has taught. His disciples will replace the old Jerusalem establishment and will servie God and his people more faithfully.’ (Evans)
(c) the biographical context – it comes during the last week of our Lord’s earthly ministry, and reflects his attitude towards, and relationship with, the Jewish leaders and with ‘the people’. Note that although told against Jesus opponents – the teachers of the law and the chief priests, v19 – it is addressed to ‘the people’ (cf 20:1). Some references to ‘the people’ in Lk 3:15,21; 4:31,36,40; 7:29ff; 13:17; 18:43; 19:7,11,47-48; 20:1,6,9,16,19:45; 21:38; 22:2; 23:5,14,35,48.
A vineyard – The process of establishing a vineyard includes: selecting a suitable plot of land; planting it with vines; enclosing it with a wall or fence; digging a wine-press; building a watchtower.
The vineyard symbolises Israel’s favoured status as God’s people.
‘Privilege entails responsibility. The more one receives, the more he must account for. They who had enjoyed so many more favours at the hand of God than other nations, ought to have been just so much better than other nations, and ought to have cheerfully rendered to him the service which he sought. Holy lives, loving service, cheerful and devoted loyalty to himself, – these were the fruits God sought as the return for the giving of the theocracy and its blessings to them.’ (Taylor)
Farmers – The underlying word can mean ‘farmers’ or ‘vinedressers’. The latter is more likely here, given the content of the parable.
A man…went away on a journey – This can scarcely allude to the delay in the Parousia, since it is ‘the man’, and not the son, who went away. Similarly, the judgement referred to in v16 does not fit the final judgement, but to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and to the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles.
Some writers (e.g Taylor) suggest that God was more openly present with his chosen people when they were being established as such at the time of the Exodus, and that he withdrew to the extent that he met less with them face-to-face, more through his prophets. But this line of reasoning may be pushing the detail of the parable too far. Ryle says, ‘This expression must not be pressed too closely. It signifies that as the lord of the vineyard left his vineyard to the occupation of the tenants, so God left the privileges of the Jews to be turned to good account by the nation.’
12:2 At harvest time he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his portion of the crop. 12:3 But those tenants seized his slave, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed.
A servant – represents the prophets. On the rejection of the prophets, see Mt 23:29-37; Lk 6:23; 11:49-51; 13:31-35; Acts 7:52.
To collect some of the fruit of the vineyard – This was one of several ways in which tenants might pay a landowner.
v3 Here is symbolised Israel, especially its leaders, and the shameful treatment of the prophets.
‘In the days of Elijah, Jezebel cut off the prophets of the Lord, and Ahab subjected Micaiah to the foulest indignity. In the reign of Joash, the people conspired against Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, on whom the Spirit of God came; and they stoned him with stones. Jeremiah was cruelly abused by those to whom he went as the messenger of the Lord; and the tradition has always been, that Isaiah was sawn asunder by the order of Manasseh.’ (Taylor)
So he sent another slave to them again. This one they struck on the head and treated outrageously. 12:5 He sent another, and that one they killed. This happened to many others, some of whom were beaten, others killed.
12:6 He had one left, his one dear son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
“A son, whom he loved” – cf. Lk 3:22; 9:35. We are clearly intended to read this as a reference to Jesus. The identity of Jesus as the Son of God, far from being minimally attested in the Gospels, features quite widely. It is most apparent in passages such as Jn 5, but is perfectly clear in the Synoptics, the present passage shows. See Jn 3:16 Rom 8:32 Gal 4:4 2 Cor 9:15. See also Mt 21:37n.
Heb 1:1f affirms that Jesus is God’s last word in succession to the prophets.
Jesus was sent first of all to Israel, Mt 10:5f, but was rejected by the Jews, Mk 15:12f Jn 1:11 12:37-41 Acts 2:23 4:10.
‘While the point is not explicitly applied, it is hard to believe that after the revelations of Mt 3:17 and Mt 17:5, and after his use of language like Mt 11:27, Jesus could have used the word son in this story without intending it to point to his own relationship with God.’ (France, on Mt 21:37)
‘Probably even the priests realized that it was a claim by Jesus to be the Son of God, because they brought the claim up at his trial and crucifixion. This is one of only two places where Jesus himself indirectly claimed to be the Son of God before his trial, though others (whether disciples or even demons) might have previously recognized him as such.’ (NBC)
12:7 But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and the inheritance will be ours!’ 12:8 So they seized him, killed him, and threw his body out of the vineyard.
“This is the heir” – The tenants assume, perhaps, that the owner has died. By killing the heir, they plan to lay claim to the ownership of the vineyard. ‘Possession in 9/10 of the law.’
If v13 clearly indicates the divine Sonship of Jesus, then this verse indicates his knowledge of the intentions of his enemies, and the following verse the fact that this intentions were carried out. The parable was spoken on the Tuesday before ‘Good Friday’.
12:9 What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.
And give the vineyard to others – These ‘others’ are evidently the Gentiles, Acts 13:45-47; 18:6; 28:25-28.
‘Here the vineyard refers to God’s kingdom, which would be offered to the Gentiles, whose time had now come Lk (21:24). Mt 21:43 elaborates on this, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruits.”‘ (NAC)
‘The vineyard, i.e., the privileged position, once granted to Israel, was subsequently tansferred to the church universal, Mt 21:41; 28:19; Acts 13:46, a truth whose realisation was already foreshadowed when Jesus walked on earth, Mt 8:11f; 15:28; Jn 3:16; 4:41f; 10:16; 17:20f.’ (Hendriksen)
According to Evans, 16a is not about the giving of God’s kingdom to the Gentiles but the giving of the leadership of that kingdom to the disciples. Mt 21:43 would seem to weaken this interpretation.
‘Here, then, is the interpretation of the parable: The householder is God, the vineyard is the theocratic privileges enjoyed by those who were the chosen people of God, and as such were placed by him under the law of Moses; the husbandmen are the Jews themselves; the removal of the householder into a far country is the withdrawal of God from such open manifestation of himself as he made on Sinai, into “expectant passivity,” waiting for the result to develop itself freely in the choice of the people themselves; the servants sent were the prophets, who were often cruelly maltreated by those to whom they were commissioned; the son is the Lord Jesus Christ himself, the crucifixion of whom was the climax of the nation’s iniquity, for which the kingdom of God was taken from it, and given to the Gentiles.’ (Taylor)
12:10 Have you not read this scripture:
‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
12:11 This is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
The quotation is from Ps 118:22. The Messianic reference is picked up in Acts 4:11 and 1 Pet 2:7.
“The stone” – a large building block.
“The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone” – we cannot but think of the rejection and subsequent vindication of the Messiah.
‘The cornerstone of a building, in addition to being part of the foundation and therefore supporting the superstructure, finalises its shape, for, being placed at the corner formed by the junction of two primary walls, it determines the lay of the walls and crosswalls throughout. All the other stones must adjust themselves to this cornerstone. Such is the relation of Christ to his church. But his glorious resurrection, ascension, and coronation he has become highly exalted, and for his place at the Father’s right hand sends out the Spirit to dwell in the hearts of his followers and to rule over the entire universe in the interest of the church, to the glory of God Triune.’ (Hendriksen)
12:12 Now they wanted to arrest him (but they feared the crowd), because they realized that he told this parable against them. So they left him and went away.
They looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them – ‘Quite possibly some of the Jewish leaders who heard the parable at first might have wondered if the original tenants stood for the Romans who were occupying their land. By the end they clearly recognized that Jesus was telling this story against them, and so they became enraged.’ (Blomberg)
‘When the hearts of the sons of men are fully set in them to do evil, the fairest warnings both of the sin they are about to commit and of the consequences of it make no impression upon them.’ (MHC)
But they were afraid of the people – This is not surprising, because the people held Jesus to be a prophet, Lk 7:16; had on the previous Sunday been shouting his praise, 19:37f; and on an earlier occasion tried to make him their king, Jn 6:15.
The theological emphases of the parable may be summarised as follows:-
1. Stewardship. The parable exemplifies the importance of the right use of gifts and privileges that God has bestowed. ‘Those who enjoy the privileges of the visible church are as tenants and farmers that have a vineyard to look after, and rent to pay for it. God, by setting up revealed religion and instituted orders in the world, hath planted a vineyard, which he lets out to those people among whom his tabernacle is, v9.’ (MHC)
What does stewardship mean for us today? It means that Christian teachers and leaders have a duty to be faithful. They are not called, first and foremost, to creative, innovative, speculative. They are to be faithful stewards of all that God has entrusted them with. They are to ‘keep the faith’, ‘preach the word’. There is a corresponding responsibility for those who sit under Christian ministry. Bearing in mind that this parable was spoken about, the Jewish leaders, but spoken to the ‘the people’, we all have a duty to weigh the words of our teachers, and observe their lives. ‘Beware of the leaven of Pharisees’, said Jesus. ‘You have observed my behaviour,’ said Paul.
2. The continuity of the covenant. The son follows in the footsteps of the prophets who went before him. ‘God sent his Son into the world to carry on the same work that the prophets were employed in, to gather the fruits of the vineyard for God; and one would have thought that he would have been reverenced and received. The prophets spoke as servants, Thus saith the Lord; but Christ as a Son, among his own, Verily, I say unto you. Putting such an honour as this upon them, to send him, one would have thought, should have won upon them.’ (MHC)
3. Israel’s rejection of God’s prophets and of the Messiah. ‘It has often been the lot of God’s faithful servants to be wretchedly abused by his own tenants.’ (MHC)
4. The judgement on Israel and the offer of the gospel to the Gentiles.
‘The most significant teaching found in this parable, however, is its Christology. Whereas the OT prophets are described as servants (Lk 20:11-13), Jesus is described as God’s “beloved son” (Lk 20:13, RSV). He is not simply his favorite servant or his most beloved servant. He is sufficiently different from the OT prophets that a qualitative change of category must be used to describe him. He is not a servant but the Son. Without reading more out of the parable than is warranted, the question of an “ontological” uniqueness of the Son is raised here. Jesus’ unique role as the “Church’s One Foundation” (see Lk 20:17; Acts 4:11-12; Eph 2:20; 1 Cor 3:11) is then shown by the quotation of Ps 118:22. Whether the judgmental role of the stone alludes to the role of the Son of Man in judgment is uncertain, but that each individual will be judged on the basis of his or her attitude toward Jesus is clear. (Lk 9:26 12:8-9 Acts 4:12) The Lukan emphasis on this point is evident, for Lk alone added in 20:18 the allusion to Isa 8:14-15 Dan 2:34-35,44-45. The reference to the Son as Heir (20:14) also has Christological significance, for here Jesus is seen as the future Lord of the vineyard. This lordship over the church and creation is more clearly described elsewhere in the NT, but it is found in Luke-Acts as well.’ (NAC)
Paying Taxes to Caesar, 13-17
12:13 Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to trap him with his own words. 12:14 When they came they said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful and do not court anyone’s favor, because you show no partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
They sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to trap him – ‘Trapped by the Pharisees and Herodians, who had diametrically opposite views of whether or not Jews should pay taxes to Rome, Jesus evaded the trap by making concessions to both parties: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”’ Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the New Testament)
‘Why did the Herodians, Sadducees, and a scribe ask the questions they asked of Jesus in Mark 12:13–28? The questions related to their separate occupations and beliefs. The Herodians were supported by Herod and the Romans, and so they debated with Jesus about paying taxes to a foreign power (v. 14). The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection, and so they sought to silence their opponent by a hypothetical question about a woman who had seven husbands (v. 23). The Jewish scribes were concerned about Old Testament commandments and so one of them asked Him which commandment was the most important (v. 28).’ (Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation)
12:15 But he saw through their hypocrisy and said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 12:16 So they brought one, and he said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” 12:17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.
‘Some modern writers (especially S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots, 1967) have tried to show that Jesus’ intentions were in fact political, and that the spiritual nature of his kingship is a later invention in the Gospels to gloss over his real revolutionary aim. While Jesus was certainly not as blind to political and social problems as more pietistic Christians have suggested, Brandon’s view involves a wholesale rewriting of the Gospels on very flimsy grounds. The Jesus of the Gospels was at pains to correct misunderstandings of the nature of his mission, (Mk 8:27-38; 12:35-37; 14:61f) avoided publicity and popular demonstrations until the last week of his ministry, refused to affirm the nationalist position when asked about the validity of Roman taxation, (Mk 12:13-17) and was declared innocent of sedition by the Roman prefect. (Lk 23:13-16) His declared attitude to the Jewish nation of his day, which he regarded as approaching its final punishment for its rejection of God’s messengers in the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, (Lk 11:47-51; 13:25-35, etc.) is quite incompatible with nationalist sympathies. The circumstances of his ministry inevitably laid him open to political suspicion, but there is ample evidence that his own intentions were otherwise, even though some of his followers undoubtedly expected him to adopt a nationalist role.’
Marriage and the Resurrection, 18-27
12:18 Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) also came to him and asked him, 12:19 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us: ‘If a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, that man must marry the widow and father children for his brother.’ 12:20 There were seven brothers. The first one married, and when he died he had no children. 12:21 The second married her and died without any children, and likewise the third. 12:22 None of the seven had children. Finally, the woman died too. 12:23 In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For all seven had married her.”
12:24 Jesus said to them, “Aren’t you deceived for this reason, because you don’t know the scriptures or the power of God? 12:25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 12:26 Now as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 12:27 He is not the God of the dead but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”
v25 Belief in angels was not universal in Jesus’ day. The Sadducees, for example, disbelieved in angels as well as the resurrection. While siding against the Sadducees on the resurrection, Jesus went out of his way to side against them on the reality of angels as well.
“They will be like the angels in heaven” – ‘Some conclude from this that Jesus believed in a spiritual rather than physical resurrection or that he had a view, like some within Judaism, that in heaven there would be no consciousness of prior existence. However, this reads more into the passage than is intended, since the phrase is contrasting marriage on earth with marriage in heaven rather than teaching the state of the resurrection body.’ (DJG)
In the view of Morna Hooker, Jesus is concerned here with the legal bond of marriage, which (he says) will not continue in the resurrection life. That life will not be diminished, but enriched by far deeper relationships than apply in this life. Milne (The Message of Heaven and Hell) concurs, saying that in the life to come ‘love for others will be marked by that indiscriminate inclusiveness which in the present order the unmarried are uniquely able to reflect.’ It is for this reason that Jesus says that no difficulty will be experienced in the resurrection life by those who have been married more than once in this life.
They will be ‘like the angels’ with regard to their sexual relationships. That is the direct teaching of this passage. But (as Milne says) it is reasonable to assume that we shall be like them in other ways too: in service of God (Lk 19:11-27; Heb 1:14; Rev 22:3), and in worship (Isa 6; Rev 4). The immense power and capabilities of angels (Dan 10:4-9; Rev 19:4) suggests that ‘the heavenly order will open us to new gifts and abilities, which in new, exciting and enriching ways will further contribute to the glory of our God.’
“God…of the living” – Jesus is himself ‘the life’, and he is the Giver of ‘eternal life’. Death will be ‘swallowed up by life’ (Isa 25:8; 1 Cor 15:54). As Milne says, one aspect of this ‘life’ will be its communal aspect, as evident in the image of heaven as a perfect city (Heb 13:14); a victorious kingdom (Heb 12:28); a holy temple (Eze 40-48); and a wedding feast (Rev 19:7).
The Greatest Commandment, 28-34
12:28 Now one of the experts in the law came and heard them debating. When he saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
12:29 Jesus answered, “The most important is: ‘Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 12:30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
12:31 The second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
12:32 The expert in the law said to him, “That is true, Teacher; you are right to say that he is one, and there is no one else besides him. 12:33 And to love him with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
12:34 When Jesus saw that he had answered thoughtfully, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Then no one dared any longer to question him.
The Messiah: David’s Son and Lord, 35-37
12:35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he said, “How is it that the experts in the law say that the Christ is David’s son? 12:36 David himself, by the Holy Spirit, said,
‘The Lord said to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.” ’
12:37 If David himself calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” And the large crowd was listening to him with delight
Warnings About Experts in the Law, 38-40
12:38 In his teaching Jesus also said, “Watch out for the experts in the law. They like walking around in long robes and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, 12:39 and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 12:40 They devour widows’ property, and as a show make long prayers. These men will receive a more severe punishment.”
The most important seats in the synagogues – ‘“The most important seats in the synagogues” refers to the benches along the walls of the synagogues, and especially to the dais at the front of the synagogue, which faced the congregation seated on the floor in the middle of the synagogue. These “first seats,” as they were called in Greek, were reserved for teachers and persons of rank, and afforded the best position from which to address the congregation.’ (Edwards)
The Widow’s Offering, 41-44
12:41 Then he sat down opposite the offering box, and watched the crowd putting coins into it. Many rich people were throwing in large amounts. 12:42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, worth less than a penny. 12:43 He called his disciples and said to them, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the offering box than all the others. 12:44 For they all gave out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in what she had to live on, everything she had.”
“She…put in everything” – She might easily have kept back one of the two coins for herself, but she did not.