Fruitfulness: Matthew 21:33–46
The parable of the wicked servants
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
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You may know that I have various titles. Paul, mainly, but I’m also Mister. I used to be called uncle by my nephew and niece. I’m known as reverend, even bishop by one of the market traders. I’m also a landlord. Before I moved to Frodsham, I lived in a house that I own. It’s now let out through an agency who I have to pay to have tenants in. Then they pay them and I get some money, sometimes. I hope that I’m a benevolent landlord. In my time away from living at that house, I’ve had a tree chopped down, I’ve allowed the tenants to put up a shed. I’ve paid out on the house so that it remained watertight and warm, and safe. Occasionally, I will try to visit the tenants and ask if there’s anything that needs doing, and if they’re comfortable. I can’t imagine my being a particularly tyrannical landlord. They might disagree.
Last week, after Martin spoke from Psalm 80 and Isaiah, I think chapters 5 and 27, where the meaning of vineyards spoke deeply into the culture of Israel, he helped us understand more fully about how it is that vineyards and fruitfulness in Old Testament times meant good and godly things. This week, we pick up on the importance of the vineyard, but in a different context. With Jesus using an uncomfortable parable in Matthew 21:33–45, 46, Jesus uses an uncomfortable parable to explain who He was, why His fruitfulness trumps even the history of Israel. The Parable of the Tenants is an example of a parable that wasn’t appreciated by the people that Jesus addressed. It appears in Mark 12, Matthew 21, and Luke 20. It strikes me as important if it’s in three out of the four gospels.
Today, we look at it from Matthew’s point of view. Jesus had overturned the tables in the temple courts, and driven out the money changers beforehand. He then addressed the crowd, “It’s written,” He said to them, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you’re making it a den of robbers.” The chief priests and teachers of the law were furious. Not only was He disrespecting their traditions and healing people in the temple courts, but children were shouting to Him, perhaps even in those temple courts, “Hosanna to the son of David.”
Jesus teaches three parables in Matthew 21 and 22. Firstly, about the two sons. One of whom he said he would go and do his father’s bidding, and then didn’t, and the son who said he wouldn’t do as his father asks, but then did. Jesus’ point here is that prostitutes and tax collectors would inherit the kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and the religious leaders of the temple. Ouch. The second parable, we will return to in just a moment.
The third parable of the wedding banquet where there was a man who came to the wedding reception in the wrong clothes. This code for being really, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t like what the bride and groom stand for, so I’m not going to look the part.” All in all, this cluster of parables was clearly Jesus being at odds with the religious rulers of the day. In the context of our theme of fruitfulness, ultimately Jesus was saying to the religious rulers of that day they’re being totally unfruitful, and that there’s another way, which He calls and acts as the kingdom of God.
Let’s look at that second of the three parables now. Chief priests and the elders come to Jesus and ask Him, “By whose authority are you doing these things? Who gave you that authority?” By asking these questions, they were already looking for a way to discredit Jesus. He’d spent the last, better part of three years demonstrating with signs and wonders about where His authority had come from, but the religious establishment really didn’t want to know.
In response to the question, “Who gave you this authority?” Jesus tells the parable of the tenants. There’s a landowner who plants a vineyard. He put a wall around it. He digs a wine press and builds a watchtower, then he rents the vineyard to some farmers and moved off to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. Apparently, it was commonplace in the first century for a wealthy investor to buy property or a farm or a vineyard, and then leave it in the care of tenants. Come harvest, they’d send someone to collect their portion of the proceeds. It seems this particular landowner, keeps his farm in excellent condition with walls and wine presses, and watchtowers, all good things beginning with ‘w’, everything that the tenant farmers would need to be safe and secure to turn a profit.
One would hope then that they would be pleased for such a good and benevolent landlord. In this parable, the landowner is God. The vineyard represents Israel, and the tenants are the religious Jewish leadership. The tenants seize his servants. They beat one. They killed another, and they stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time. The tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. “They will respect my son,” said the landowner in Matthew 21: 35-37. “They will respect my son.”
What Jesus is saying is that God had sent the prophets, but they were mistreated and even killed. This would include even recent prophets like John the Baptist. Now, God has sent His son hoping that He’d demand that respect that was not given to the prophets. When the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, “This is the heir. Let’s kill him and take his inheritance.” They took him and threw him out of the vineyards and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied. “He will rent the vineyard to some other tenants who will give him his share of the crop at the time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read the scripture? The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s marvellous in our eyes.
Therefore, I tell you the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, anyone who falls on it. Anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” If a landowner didn’t have an heir in the first century, the land often became the property of the tenants, so instead of showing the landowner’s son his due respect, they decided to kill him so that the land might become theirs. Jesus is obviously prophesying His own death. Even though His death will make a way for the forgiveness of humanity, there will be a reckoning for these disobedient people and this generation because they’re rejecting the one who will become the cornerstone of God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ warning is that the vineyard would be taken from those who refuse to submit to God and given to those who would. The implication here is that God’s vineyard was being opened to the non-Jews, to the gentiles, anyone who would submit themselves to Jesus, the cornerstone. It’s interesting, as a bit of an aside, you know how much I like words, that the Hebrew words for son and stone are very similar just like they are in English. S-O-N. S-T-O-N-E. In Hebrew, the word for son is ‘ben’, and the word for stone is ‘eben’, it’s just an ‘e’ in front of the ‘ben’. Hebrew writers loved a wordplay. In the English translations, we so often miss that wordplay. We might also forget that Psalm 118, where Jesus quotes, “The stone that has being rejected has become a cornerstone.” [Psalm 118 verse 22] Psalm 119  was likely a hymn that was sung at all major festivals. Those who are criticizing Jesus now would remember this, and be reminded of the importance of the coming Messiah.
Tom Wright says of the situation that no Jew of Jesus’ day would have any difficulty figuring out what it all meant for them. Jesus had been rejected by those he had come to but destined to be vindicated by God. It’s heartbreaking to realize that the chief priests and the Pharisees understood His words but they didn’t respond with repentance. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew that He was talking about them. They knew they were being confronted as the tenant farmers. They looked for a way to arrest Him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that He was a prophet.
Their response to this rather stern parable was to look for a way to arrest Him. They weren’t concerned about pleasing God. Similarly to the son in the first parable who said that he wouldn’t do his father’s bidding, and then he did. Then, the other brother, who said that he would do his father’s bidding, and then he ignored the work. Similarly, again in the next parable about the wedding banquet. That wearing the wrong clothes to the banquet was not the issue. It’s what they symbolized. “I want none of this.” Their only concern was how their actions would be perceived by the crowds who supported Him.
Of course if they were wise, they would have asked the same question that Paul asks in Galatians 1, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings or of God? Am I trying to please people?” Perhaps in the context of our series on fruitfulness, today, we’re looking at the problem of merely being religious without looking behind the scenes to what’s really important. Fruitfulness, the way of Jesus. The Pharisees and the priests were too proud, they were too proud to be corrected. Instead of taking a mid-course correction and repenting, they ended up under God’s condemnation. As we read this passage, how do we consider our openness to divine correction?
For instance, when we’re more concerned about how others perceive us than whether we’re pleasing God, it’s easy to see any correction as a confrontation instead of an opportunity to prayerfully consider our ways before God. Perhaps, we need to ponder some words of Proverbs 15. “Whoever heeds life-giving correction would be at home among the wise. Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding. Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord, and humility comes before honour.” Fruitfulness is not only telling people about Jesus. Fruitfulness is not only about our own outward behaviour. Fruitfulness is not only about the stuff that others see in us and are positive about. Fruitfulness starts not even with the vine, it starts at the vineyard.
I’ve already said earlier, Andrew Basden spoke recently on fruitfulness in the context of Leviticus 26. First-fruits and tithes coming from the produce of the soil, and the land flowing with milk and honey. Fruitfulness begins not with the fruit or even the seeds, it begins with the ground and the soil, the vineyard itself. As we discovered from Jesus’ parable of the tenants today, the landowner has given them everything that was needed to make good crops from that vineyard: walls, and wine presses, and watchtowers.
Things to keep the land safe, and ways to help make the money after the harvest had been brought in.
How blessed we are to have the Bible, access to books and resources to help us understand it. How blessed are we to have freedom to love our neighbour without fear of reprisals, generally. How blessed we are to have everything that we need in order to make our vineyards fruitful. Let’s be on our guard to make sure that we keep our vineyards tended well. Let’s stay on good terms with the landowner. When His son returns for His first-fruits, how are we going to respond? How will He respond to us? Speaking of fruitfulness, what is it that comes from vineyards? Of course, it’s grapes, and grapes make wine. On that night that Jesus was betrayed, He took bread and He took wine. He asked his friends to, “Remember me,” whenever they ate bread and drank wine until He returned.
Of course the return of Jesus involved was a party, when the whole of creation is renewed and restored. A garden city that we read at the end of Revelation when God’s home is among the people. Jesus knew how to be with people. They enjoyed His company, especially at parties. Remember the wedding at Cana in John 2, when they’d run out of wine, and Jesus turned water into more wine. All the time, when He was invited to dinner, where people questioned Him. Look at Luke, it’s full of food and drink. Fruitfulness is not only about what we give, it’s about how we live, where our roots are, and in what soil we have those roots. There’s a parable about that as well. The vineyard is a picture of where God has His most fruitful vines. Well designed and safe, with helpful workers who tend the vines and, in due time, pick the fruit. God does and will help us to be fruitful. He invites us to be part of His vineyard; that’s what it’s about to be part of the kingdom of God. We need to be prepared to accept His way of understanding how spiritual grapes grow.
As we hope to be fruitful in all sorts of ways, let us know that it’s God who is the master of the land and the soil, the vineyard itself, and that He invites us to join in the fruitfulness of His kingdom here and now. Next week, we’ll be thinking a little bit more about how we can be fruitful, not just by giving tins and packets and things like that, but perhaps more of a spiritual element. We will be looking at a very famous parable that Jesus spoke to His friends, His disciples, and to those listening around Him then. May God bless His words to us and those challenges that come with that today.
References and sources
4. Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004).
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.