The two sons
Pp Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-19
The vineyard and the stone
1. The preparation of the vineyard
2. The vineyard
3. The stone which the builders rejected
The marriage feast
1. The destruction of the city
3. Outer darkness and being chosen
Readers arriving at this web page may be a little perplexed that I seem to have grouped together rather a large body of material under the one heading of ‘Parables’ when there doesn’t appear, initially, to be much logic behind my choice. However, I noted on the previous web page concerning the question of authority which was posed by the Sanhedrin that the consequence of the religious leaders’ response is that Jesus addresses both themselves and the crowds who had gathered to hear Him speak with this entire discourse which runs to the end of Mtw 22:14.
From Mtw 22:15, we see them having regrouped and of having considered which questions might be brought before Him that they could both confuse and entangle Him in His talk and gather responses from Him which could be used when they formally tried Him in a meeting of the Sanhedrin which, I’m sure, they were eagerly wanting to hold at the earliest available opportunity.
Their problem was twofold - not only were they finding that Jesus’ answers were undermining their own position amongst the people who they ruled over (Mtw 21:45) but they couldn’t arrest Him for fear of inciting the crowd to turn upon them, for they held Jesus in high regard and as having authority bestowed upon Him directly from God (Mtw 21:46).
But, to refer primarily to the issue at hand, all these three sections must necessarily be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ denunciation of the religious leadership that had approached Him to ask by what authority He was doing what He was and who it was that had given Him such authority. If we lose sight of this, it’s too easy to take, for instance, the parable of the vineyard (Mtw 21:33-41) and see in the mention of the tenants a reference not just to the Jewish religious leadership but to the entire nation that was represented by them.
This would be incorrect to do. As Matfran echoes
‘All are clearly directed against the Jewish leaders and all are concerned with the question of who is really acceptable to God, who are His true people’
which will be seen to clearly contradict the belief of the Sanhedrin who placed acceptance before God on the basis of doing what was considered to be right and of being legally correct.
I noted on a previous web page in which I dealt with the parallel stories of the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the Temple that the judgment pronounced upon the tree was similar to that which was being pronounced on the nation after an extended period in which it would be given time to respond positively to the message of the Gospel after the resurrection and ascension, and that it would be expected to turn for forgiveness and healing to the One it had previously rejected.
When this didn’t happen, the rejection of God was simply outworked in the rejection by God of the old legalistic and sacrificial ways of approaching Him and which ceased to take place after the destruction of the Temple and its courts by the Romans in 70AD.
The rejection which we see here, therefore, is more especially concerned with the removal of the leadership which stood opposed to both God and His ways than it is directed towards anyone within the nation who had responded positively to the message of the Gospel and to the Person of Jesus Christ. The ultimate statement of condemnation upon Rabbinic leadership will find its conclusion in Matthew chapter 23, spoken openly within the Temple but, for now, Jesus will speak primarily to the leadership and allow any who are standing close by to hear also what He has to say.
Because Jesus opposed the leadership of the nation by coming against the practices within the Temple which were opposed to God getting His will done (Mtw 21:12-13), His cursing of the fig tree for failing to bear fruit must also be paralleled in the lives of those who not only instituted the practices but also those who approved of them.
That Paul found increasingly hostile opposition from Rabbinic Judaism almost wherever he went in his missionary journeys (for instance, Acts 13:45, 13:50, 14:2, 14:19, 17:5, 17:13, 18:12, 20:3, 20:19, 28:23-28) is certain and it seems to have been the case that, after Jesus had departed into Heaven, the nation began to more fiercely oppose the message than it had ever done before. The crowds who had acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah and who had followed after Him in great numbers didn’t follow after the disciples with the same eagerness to hear the message of the Gospel being proclaimed and it became literally true that the Israelite religious leadership’s assessment of Jesus began to be reflected in the heart and mind of the people. After all, the heart was in receiving a physical deliverer who would throw off the bondage of the Roman occupation and bring in a visible Jewish Kingdom that would elevate them once more into a pre-eminent position amongst the nations of the world.
But the nation’s rejection of the message needn’t have occurred and it certainly shouldn’t be accepted as being predestined.
So, as we come to each of these parables and statements, we must remember that primarily we’re looking at a pronouncement of Jesus upon the religious leadership of Israel rather than upon the Jews as a distinct people. That Jesus goes on in Mtw 21:43 to declare to the leadership that
‘...the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it’
should not be seen to undermine the initial application of the parables here recorded. Jesus already knew that, ultimately, His rejection at that year’s Passover by the religious leadership would result in His rejection by the nation (Luke 19:41-44) and that a new nation would be brought into being that would stand in their place as representative of His will (Rom 9:25-26, 10:19-21, Eph 2:14-16, I Peter 2:9), a nation which would be scattered among the nations of the world, a nation within the nations (Ps 110:2).
Matthew records two unique parables here (those of the two sons and the marriage feast) so that it seems correct to conclude that he’s more concerned to spell out what it was that Jesus had against the leadership than either of the other two who mention only the parable of the vineyard before going on via the declaration by Jesus of the Scripture of the stone which the builders rejected to more questions which were brought to Him in the Temple with the sole purpose of stumbling Him in His talk.
This may well be another indication that Matthew’s Gospel is primarily Jewish in its composition because these matters would have been of particular importance to the Jewish believer. However, apart from stating that such an inclusion is an indication, we can say no more for it would have been equally important for the Gentile believers to hear that acceptance before God relied not upon natural descent from Abraham but upon a correct response of obedience to the message of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The two sons
It’s important that we remember at the outset that this passage isn’t an allegory but a parable, otherwise we’ll be tempted to stray into attempts at trying to interpret every item mentioned. For instance, the ‘work’ of Mtw 21:28 is not important to the spiritual truth conveyed by the story.
However, some details, such as the mention of the ‘vineyard’ need to be positively identified and it’s normally taken to be indicative of the nation of Israel. If such an identification is accepted, then we shouldn’t force such an allegorical association upon each and every passage where the mention of a ‘vineyard’ is used. For instance, while Mathag identifies the vineyard mentioned here with Israel, his justification for doing so is based upon a similar identification of the word in the parable of Mtw 20:1-16 even though in that place it more likely should be taken to mean the Kingdom of Heaven or the world.
And, more than this, if we were to limit such an application solely to the nation we miss out on an application of the passage which goes far beyond this to be equally applicable to any group of people who stand before God with His name upon their lives - and that means application for the Church. Besides, Jesus’ statement (Mtw 21:31) that
‘...the tax collectors and harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you’
should point us towards the interpretation that the vineyard is meant to be taken as representative not of the nation of Israel but of the Kingdom of God - the place where God gets His will done on earth as it is in Heaven both in people’s lives and through them. After all, what sense does it make to think that the tax collectors and harlots go into the nation (the vineyard) when they were already a part of it?
Parables were often told to proclaim one truth only and, if we were to press them into an allegorical interpretation then we may end up by arriving at something which strays into erroneous or misleading doctrine. This passage doesn’t bear most of the hallmarks of what constituted a parable as we saw in Matthew chapter 13 for an interpretation is immediately offered after a question directed at the leaders in which Jesus asks them to decide on the matter, but that it is a parable is certain by Mtw 21:33’s statement that Jesus spoke to the leaders by telling them (my italics) to
‘Hear another parable...’
when it can only be referring to the passage presently under consideration.
The parable isn’t concerned with the religious leaders’ consideration of Jesus and of His ministry and we shouldn’t think that Jesus is deliberately telling the parable because He’s attempting self-justification. His primary purpose here is to take up where the Sanhedrin have left off in the previous discourse (Mtw 21:23-27) in declaring that they were unable to decide where John the Baptist had received his authority from.
The point is that they had had sufficient evidence given them by the repentance of those who had been living in rebellion towards God for them to turn around from their initial assessment of the Baptist’s ministry to one of acceptance (Mtw 21:32) but they hadn’t done so simply because it undermined their own position as leaders amongst the people.
No matter how openly God will move, there will always be men and women who will oppose Him in His servants simply because what’s transpiring is a sincere and very real threat to their continued control of the people who are under their jurisdiction.
The point of the parable comes from the question of Mtw 21:31 that Jesus posed to the religious leaders by asking them
‘Which of the two [sons] did the will of the Father?’
an interesting turn around of affairs seeing as it’s Jesus who’s primarily approached to answer the Sanhedrin’s question (Mtw 21:23) but who turns it about and yet here they answer the question posed of them without any thought that what they were saying would work against them.
The first son of Mtw 21:28-29 represented the tax collectors and harlots (Mtw 21:32), two sets of people who were particularly obnoxious to the religious leaders (Mtw 9:10-11, Luke 7:36-39) and probably even to the common and more conservative of believers in Israel (Mtw 5:46), both because their professions caused them to be considered ceremonially unclean and unable to be contacted for fear of spiritual defilement.
Yet, at the preaching of John the Baptist and, consequently, through Jesus, they’d repented of those things which they knew to be obnoxious to God, turned around their lives from disobedience and were now willingly obeying God (Luke 3:12, 7:29).
The second son (Mtw 21:30), on the other hand, represented the religious leaders who’d promised much but who, in the final analysis, hadn’t done the Father’s will at all. And, even when they’d seen the response from the tax collectors and harlots, they didn’t turn around to obey God through repentance like the first son had done (Mtw 21:32). Mattask speaks of the leaders as being those whose
‘...self-righteousness prevents them from responding to any call to repentance’
and this is indeed true. When a person or group of people have come to the point where they see in themselves a righteousness which can gain for themselves acceptance before God through their own efforts or when their lifestyle is considered to be the only means towards their end of achieving that, there can be nothing which would ever be considered to be able to stand in its place for fear of losing what they feel they already have.
The leaders’ rejection of John’s message, however, seems to have been tied up equally with their own rejection of the worst sinners (in their own eyes) within the nation who were responding to a message which seemed to belittle their own human exertions to put themselves right before God. Matfran labels their assessment of the repentant as being
‘...those whom they most despised and regarded as furthest from pleasing God...’
and it was partly this which must have caused them to flee away from the message which was welcoming them into a relationship of favour before God.
But, if they’d’ve been conversant with the OT Scriptures, they would have realised that Ezek 18:21-24 was being fulfilled in their midst which proclaimed God’s willing forgiveness of all the wicked who turned their lives round to follow after God even after having rejected His ways.
Matcar speaks of the tax collectors and prostitutes as being ‘the scum of society’ and this was indeed how they were perceived. But, even though their lives were openly proclaiming that they would not do the Father’s will, their reconsideration of their position meant that they ultimately saw that obedience was what was fitting but the religious leaders who loudly proclaimed their commitment in serving and following after God were actually refusing to do the will of God whenever it was being clearly revealed to them!
Matcar comments that the natural way of taking the ‘first’ (Mtw 21:28) and the ‘second’ (Mtw 21:30) are as labels which should be defined respectively as representing the ‘older’ and ‘younger’ sons of the owner of the vineyard. This is probably quite correct but the meaning of such an interpretation is far from certain if Jesus employed it deliberately. The only thing which is apparent is that the religious leaders who were being asked to decide on which of the two sons had done the will of their father would naturally have sided with the ‘elder’ for purely self-protection if they’d perceived at the outset that the parable was being spoken against them.
It was their religious organisations which had far outdated the new move of God which had come through both the Baptist and Jesus for they claimed that their authority came directly through a line of succession from Moses himself (Aboth 1:1ff).
Their own religion would be the ‘older’ of the two and may have been an additional encouragement inserted by Jesus to cause them not to think too carefully about what their answer was going to say about themselves.
This, however, is pure speculation.
By answering the question posed by Jesus (Mtw 21:31), the leaders condemned themselves and Jesus’ reply would have done much to find acceptance in the hearing of those around Him who were just ordinary people. The burden of the Pharisaic rules and regulations meant that acceptance before God became a difficulty which was insurmountable for most ordinary men and women - but the bestowal of forgiveness through God’s mercy gave everyone a clean and fresh start and the requirements of God upon a believer’s life became not a burden but a delightful response to the work of God.
Jesus’ response to their question could be taken to imply that the religious leaders were going to follow the repentant into the Kingdom eventually and that their salvation was only a matter of time before it came about but, rather, it’s an encouragement for them to see the fallacy of their own pronouncements of His ministry and to enter the Kingdom for themselves just as the despised tax collectors and prostitutes had done.
Similarly, we might reason that Jesus is saying that righteousness is irrelevant and that the sinner is given free acceptance even though they continue in their sins. But the mercy of God was clearly meant to bring people to repentance and, from repentance, to a lifestyle which was pleasing to God.
It was doing the Father’s will by an acceptance of John the Baptist and his message which gained divine acceptance in God’s eyes but, through their rejection of the one who’d been sent to them, they’d cut themselves away from the Kingdom of Heaven. And, if they’d rejected the messenger then it was an inevitable consequence that they’d also reject the One who’d been identified as the One promised to the nation in the OT.
This parable, then, doesn’t speak of the rejection of the nation of Israel in order that the obedient Gentiles might be brought in to the Kingdom at the Jews’ loss, but that the religious leadership was being rejected by God simply because it had already rejected both the messenger, John the Baptist and the message which He’d brought. Matcar is correct as seeing the contrast as one between
‘...religious leader and public sinner’
and not as one between the Jew and the Gentile. Though there are indications that there would be an enormous change round in the way God was about to form together a nation for Himself within the nations of the world, this parable says nothing of that and shouldn’t be pressed into its service.
On the previous web page, I noted that the Sanhedrin who’d approached Jesus would have found it difficult to have answered that John’s authority came from either God or man if we understand the choice to have been one which assumed that he had authority but that it had to have had its origin as a bestowal from above or below by a third party.
If the phrase ‘from men’ is taken to have meant ‘earthly’ and, in John the Baptist’s case, that he had taken upon himself authority which had been given by no one, then this would necessarily have had to have been their truthful response to Jesus’ counter question.
A subsequent conclusion is also worth noting here as summarised by Matfran who writes that
‘...had they believed John, they would also have accepted Jesus’
Before we move on to the next parable, we must take up the interpretation and apply it equally to the christian simply because it’s worthy of fully doing this and we won’t be going too far wrong.
I have previously noted that, if strictly applied, it’s plain that any new move of God which operates outside of the established leadership’s authority and jurisdiction is going to be the subject of serious consideration and that it’s equally possible that a response will be understood which is a negation of that move as being ‘not of God’.
Such a response has already been seen in our day and age and is usually proclaimed with religious wording that declares the new move to be ‘a deception of the devil’ or ‘a manifestation of the flesh’. Of course, leadership within the Body of Christ must be careful to look after those under their care and to safeguard the life of God within new and young believers but that such proclamations have also been made by leaderships which have been frightened that God would dare to move outside their own particular kingdom where they are influential.
While my statement isn’t meant to be a rule to be applied in every circumstance, it’s been my general experience that the louder opposition shouts, the less likely it is to be right! Certainly, this is true in the case of the Jewish leadership which was opposing the message of the Gospel and which didn’t stop at undermining the authority of the message (Mtw 9:34, 12:24) but continued to the point of where they were plotting the murder of the One who was bringing the message itself (Mtw 12:14, John 11:53).
But, more simply, each of the two sons in this parable have their representatives within the present day Church - those who make loud acclamations that they’ll be obedient to God and yet who are sadly living in disobedience to the revealed will of God for their lives and those who initially kick against the message but who afterwards consider both their own ways, God Himself and what He requires and turn their lives around to be more like Jesus. Matfran summarises the attitudes of the two sons by saying that what matters is
‘...not promise but performance’
It isn’t in the loudest of demonstrable affirmations that God takes delight but in the simple obedience from the heart which gets His will done in all the earth as it is in Heaven.
The vineyard and the stone
Mtw 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-19
Before we go on and look at the two parts of this parable, a few words need to be said about some of the differences in the three parallel passages.
Both Mark and Luke neglect to record the parable of the two sons (or it wasn’t available to them) and jump straight from the challenge of the Jewish religious leaders concerning the source of Jesus’ authority into this one about the vineyard. It’s not surprising, then, that Mtw 21:33’s initial statement by Jesus
‘Hear another parable...’
causes the reader to think that He’s still addressing the leaders who stand before Him. Mark 12:1’s similar comment that Jesus
‘...began to speak to them in parables...’
similarly causes the reader to understand this but Luke 20:9 has the author noting that Jesus (my italics)
‘...began to tell the people this parable...’
and the inference is that, instead of the parable being directed only at the Sanhedrin, Jesus has deliberately expanded His message to declare the truth of the parable to all those who have gathered round Him. Therefore, Mtw 21:41’s mention of ‘they’ and Luke 20:16’s statement that ‘they’ responded by saying ‘God forbid!’ could be taken as referring to either the leaders, the ordinary people or both - the likelihood seems to me to be that it will refer to the ordinary people as the reaction to the parable in Matthew would be self-condemnatory if mouthed by the Sanhedrin and we know from Mtw 21:45 that they weren’t without the understanding that the parables were being told ‘about them’.
We should picture the scene, therefore, with the religious leaders still present and listening intently to what Jesus is speaking but that the crowds are being included as participants in His teaching.
Both Mark and Luke mention single servants coming to the tenants and requiring that the householder be given a share of the crop whereas Matthew notes simply two groups of people who come before the sending of his most loved son. Although some would see in this a discrepancy, we’ve noticed a similar compilation style in a few passages where the author of Matthew runs together events in order to make them more concise.
This was what the writer did with the story of the healing of the centurion’s slave in Mtw 8:5-13 where Luke’s account notes that the centurion’s words recorded by the former were actually spoken by Jewish representatives passing on the message which was sent to Him. This is a method which the author of Matthew seems to have employed on a few occasions to make his record of the ministry of Jesus much briefer in places, giving the bare bones of many of the healing reports where both Mark and Luke take time and space to give details which colour the scene.
Matthew’s Gospel probably records the fuller picture, however, when it comes to His question concerning what the owner of the vineyard would do to the disobedient tenants (Mtw 21:40) by recording the response of the crowd as being (Mtw 21:41)
‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons’
which Jesus seems to repeat before bringing out a further truth, this being recorded by both Mark 12:9 and Luke 20:16 as
‘He will come and destroy the [Luke has ‘those’] tenants, and give the vineyard to others’
Notice that the response speaks of the tenants as being ‘wretches’, that they will reap a ‘miserable death’ and that new tenants will give the owner ‘the fruits in their seasons’. The differences are quite marked and it’s surely not impossible to envisage a listener to have responded with the first statement and that Jesus repeated it in a much louder voice for all to hear (toning it down a bit, to boot!) and to which they responded with the horrified ‘God forbid!’ (Luke 20:16) before He proceeds to refer to the OT Scripture and draws out the truth concerning His rejection at the hands of the religious establishment but of His ultimate acceptance before God as being the foundation stone of the new building which God is going to cause to come into being.
The quote from the OT is also represented variously but this appears to be simply a case of each of the three authors recording that part of Jesus’ speech which was deemed by them to be the most suitable to their purpose. Mtw 21:44 is missing in the more modern translations and this is a result of it being generally assumed that it represents an inadvertent insertion of Luke 20:18. Whatever the merits of the case both for and against, it’s almost irrelevant for one has to take all three passages and bring them together in harmony for it to be able to be seen exactly what it was that Jesus was saying, running along the lines of
‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. This was the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes [Ps 118:22-23]. Every one who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one it will crush him [a word of interpretation perhaps inspired by Is 8:14-15 but not a word for word quote]’
It’s only Matthew who records Jesus’ explanatory word which applies the parable to the situation at hand and, specifically, to the religious leaders who continued to stand before Him (Mtw 21:43), but all three conclude the passage by noting that the religious leaders tried to arrest Him because they perceived that he’d told the parable about them, though they found that they were impotent before the multitudes who they seem to have assessed as being capable of opposing any such move (Mtw 21:45-46, Mark 12:12, Luke 20:19).
1. The preparation of the vineyard
The reader doesn’t need to know the background to viticulture in first century Israel to be able to comprehend the parable thus presented to him but a few words concerning the preparation of the vineyard seem to be in order so that we can clearly perceive the effort and investment which the owner had undertaken in order that a harvest of grapes and grape products might have been reaped.
His efforts are summarised in Mtw 21:33 which reads
‘There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower...’
and can be very easily glossed over not only because they aren’t an integral part of the meaning of the parable but that, being mostly non-agriculturists who read it, we forget that there weren’t the sorts of mechanised equipment available to those in ancient times that are available to us now. It would probably be right to think of the owner as hiring hands to help him bring the vineyard upto the necessary standard for it to be fruitful if we were thinking of what was normally the case in the land, but the fact that only he’s mentioned in this connection should be taken to show the personal effort which he’d put in rather than to think that the burden was shared.
Is 5:1-7 also outlines the initial effort required of the owner when it notes that
‘He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it...’
and the condemnation of this vineyard that the owner would
‘...remove its hedge [and] break down its wall...’
also indicate what initial work would have been required. Ungers’ comments on the preparation of a vineyard make compelling reading and he summarises it as being
‘...the most costly and onerous of all the operations of that primitive husbandry in Eastern lands...’
A plot of land bought with the purpose of growing vines couldn’t immediately be planted and expected to produce a choice harvest at the close of Summer. Ungers notes that it was vitally important that the vineyard be enclosed by either hedges or walls whereas other crops such as wheat or olive orchards could be simply marked with clear boundary stones and left open. Why this should be the case is difficult to imagine and they make no mention of the reason (though Matcar says it was with the sole intention of keeping out animals which would pose a threat to a bountiful harvest) but the large stones which must be removed from the soil and ground in preparation of the soil will make a source of natural wall building material. The smaller stones and rock fragments must be left, however, for they provide a sufficient cover to prevent the evaporation of excess moisture from the earth.
This ‘wall’ which I’ve mentioned as being made from the larger stones as a boundary would only be constructed if sufficient raw material was left over after long rows of stone are made upon which the vines would be trailed to protect the grapes from rotting through the damp conditions of the soil, especially as the Summer months wore on and heavier dew was experienced.
A wine press was a necessity in any vineyard - not just for the production of wine but for the extraction of the juice from which other products could be made and sold. Grapes weren’t transported over any great distances simply because the fruit would be easily bruised and damaged. Usually this winepress would have been dug out of the bedrock - a difficult task in itself and represented by Isaiah’s mention of it being ‘hewed’ rather than Matthew’s ‘dug’ - and may have been lined with an impervious material. Ancient wine presses are common throughout the land of Israel and testify to the popularity of grape production even in areas which, today, are impossible of sustaining such an agricultural development such as the Negev.
Wine presses weren’t just a hole in the ground but consisted of a minimum of two vats which were connected by a conduit down which the juice would flow having been trodden in the upper receptacle. Ones which are more complex or which contained numerous receptacles are testimony to either the size of the vineyard or to the largeness of the crop.
And there must also be a temporary or semi-permanent building which gives the owner an elevated view of his vineyard unless the setting adjoins the village when he would be able to use his own accommodation. This ‘watchtower’ was vitally important to give the owner a place from which he could spot the approach of either human thieves or animals and birds which would either take or ruin his crop - Matcar also suggests that it’s use was for identifying the outbreak of fires in the closing dry days of Summer shortly before the final harvest. Some of these towers are two stories high and required an intense effort to be erected - and it’s from such a vantage point that the approach of the son of the vineyard is probably witnessed in the parable (Mtw 21:38).
The owner in the parable, therefore, shouldn’t be thought of as simply buying a piece of ground, throwing some vines into the soil and then handing it over to tenants. There had already been a large amount of work done before it ever got to the stage of being a viable proposition and one which a group of men would willingly agree to tend.
It’s this amount of work which is summarised in the few short phrases in Mtw 21:33 and, from here, it goes on to note that the owner
‘...let it out to tenants, and went into another country’
This isn’t the end of the hard work, however, but only the start - for there were equal efforts required in vine cultivation for the vineyard to produce an abundant crop. Viticulture was labour intensive and, during the ripening weeks, a continual watch would have to be in place to safeguard the crop - a fact which would make it unlikely to have been done by one man alone. Is 5:6 speaks of the disregard of the vineyard by speaking of the cessation of both pruning and hoeing to eliminate briars and thorns which would take the strength from the vines.
This operation would have had to have taken place frequently whereas crops such as wheat would need little attention in this manner. But the owner appears to have left the vineyard after it had been initially brought together and continual attention would have to have been given by the tenants over the course of a few years before the vineyard would be able to develop a crop. If we think of the owner as being a devoted Jew, he would have been forbidden to have eaten any of the produce for a period of four years (Lev 19:23-25) though this is not essential to the parable. Mtw 21:34 simply speaks of the season drawing near for fruit without even hinting that any time had elapsed which ran into years.
Constant pruning of the vines is also necessary if the clusters of grapes are to grow to full maturity and, from the first year of harvest onwards, workers would be seen busily addressing their attention to each plant so as to encourage the greatest crop possible.
The picture we get is that both the owner and the tenants - that is, God and the leaders of the nation - had put in tremendous efforts for a successful crop to be achieved. It would be going way to far to read too much into this but we should at least note that Jesus isn’t saying in this parable that the authorities in Jerusalem had been lazy and careless in their attention to the Kingdom of God but that they were failing in their recognition that the vineyard existed solely for the benefit of the owner and not themselves.
Jesus had come seeking fruit from the fig tree (Mark 11:11-25 - see my notes here) in the same way as the householder had sent his servants and his son to get his fruit (Mtw 21:34-37). The fig tree spoke of Israel as I noted on that previous web page, however, and the vineyard here has to do with the religious leadership.
The problem with the religious leadership in Israel, therefore, was that they were running God’s affairs for personal gain rather than as true and righteous tenants who should have been concerned to produce fruit for the use of the Owner. They considered themselves as having the right of ownership and able to do as they pleased with what was under their charge and, as such, refused to allow anyone sent by the rightful Owner to take back what they considered to be their own.
2. The vineyard
Mtw 21:33-41, Mark 12:1-9, Luke 20:9-16
Many commentators see in this parable (Mtw 21:23) more of an allegory where each item or character has its own specific meaning and interpretation. This, in turn, has led to the erroneous belief that, in its original form, the passage was a very brief and simple statement which developed with time in the early Church to arrive in its present form shortly before being committed to writing in the three Gospels.
Although we saw on a previous web page that parables were given specifically to either hide or reveal truth to those who were listening, the previous parable recorded in Matthew (Mtw 21:28-32), defined as such by the opening statement of our present passage (Mtw 21:33), is another variation of how a parable can be used, for Jesus plainly gives the interpretation of the matter once His posed question has been answered (Mtw 21:31-32).
Therefore, although the ‘classic’ parable is the one which appears in Matthew chapter 13, this didn’t have everything there is to say about the different shades of usage of such a teaching device and we must conclude that it’s possible that it could take on the appearance of an allegory as and when required. But that it’s still called ‘a parable’ should still warn us against feeling compelled to have to interpret each and every character or item which appears here.
The allegorical method of interpreting this passage, then, goes on to equate the householder with God the Father, the vineyard with Israel (the nation and/or the land), the tenants with the Jewish religious leaders (and, sometimes, the people themselves who were being represented by them), the householder’s servants with the prophets (especially of the OT) and the householder’s son with Jesus, God’s Son.
In addition, various other interpretations which aren’t as basic to the story are considered such as the preparation of the vineyard as being the giving of the Mosaic Law, the murder of the son as the rejection of the Messiah by Israel and not just the religious leaders, the death of the tenants being the removal of the old form of doing things (specifically the sacrificial system) and the other tenants being both Jews and Gentiles who together bear fruit for God after the resurrection. Even the son being cast out of the vineyard is interpreted by Mattask as representing
‘...the divine will to be slain outside the vineyard of Israel’
though what he actually means by that phrase is far from certain. As we’ll see below, a better interpretation would be the rejecting of the Son of God from being a part of the Kingdom over which the religious leaders held jurisdiction for the time being.
Perhaps it’s because we almost inevitably equate the picture of the vineyard with the nation of Israel (Is 5:7 is probably the main verse which has caused commentators to do this which interprets the preceding six verses) that we rush into this parable and make the same identification not realising that by the same carte blanche identification, we would have misinterpreted the parable which precedes this one (Mtw 21:28-32) and where I noted that some commentators do!
Therefore, the witness of the commentators here is almost unanimous in their statements - they remain ununanimous simply because I can’t find a comment easily in the writings of Mathen - concerning the identification of the vineyard. Mattask says simply that
‘The vineyard is Israel...’
while Matfran puts the onus of interpretation upon the listeners in the first century who originally heard Jesus speak the parable to them by stating that
‘...no Jewish hearer could fail to recognise in the owner and the vineyard a picture of God and His people Israel’
and which has the effect of making us feel somewhat stupid if we take it to mean anything else! Matcar calls the
and, like Matmor, equally identifies the vineyard with the nation of Israel.
Mathag is the nearest to getting the identification correct, however, even though he comes to the point of giving the right phrase but then interprets it wrongly! He writes (my italics) that
‘The image of the vineyard, which is otherwise irrelevant to the parable itself, points to “the house of Israel” as in Is 5:7 - or more precisely “the Kingdom of God”...’
I’ve highlighted his words here simply because the identification of the vineyard is by no means irrelevant - it’s a central issue for Jesus will go on to state (Mtw 21:43) that
‘...the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it’
a direct comment of interpretation and application to His previous words in Mtw 21:41 that the owner would
‘...let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons’
Now, if the vineyard is Israel, who are we to think of as being the more righteous nation who would be handed over the nation to give to God its fruits? The Roman nation of 70AD who destroyed the Temple and subjugated both the land and its people? Or the British control of the area in the early years of the twentieth century? Or the Islamic groups who took control only to be opposed by subsequent crusading knights from the West?
The parable only makes sense allegorically interpreted if the vineyard is taken to mean not the nation of Israel but, as Mathag was so close to identifying, the Kingdom of God. Both the land and the nation are not what’s at issue here but, rather, God getting His will done on earth as it is in Heaven. After all, Jesus hasn’t made the association that the Kingdom of God (I shall use this phrase instead of the more common ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in case anyone should accuse me of taking a phrase which means something substantially different) is the nation Israel in any of His previous statements.
If you would bear with me in just a little foolishness for a few lines, you will see what I mean. The author of Matthew’s Gospel uses the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ just three times before this passage and, if the equation
Kingdom of God = nation of Israel
is so obviously true then we should quite easily be able to substitute one phrase for the other and achieve the same interpretation as we did previously. Therefore, Mtw 12:28 would read
‘But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the nation of Israel has come upon you’
Mtw 19:24 would be rendered that
‘...it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the nation of Israel’
and, Mtw 21:31, that
‘...the tax collectors and the harlots go into the nation of Israel before you’
As the reader will, no doubt see, the equation makes nonsense of each of the three statements so that we can safely conclude that the two phrases aren’t synonymous. What remains for us to do, though, is to positively identify what the ‘Kingdom of God’ is in this context so that we might understand what it was that Jesus was saying would be taken away from the religious leaders and given to another nation, the nation which I have already identified above as being the nation within the nations (Ps 110:2) which is a sure definition of Jesus’ NT Church.
It’s quite true that ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ can be used to describe the boundaries of the area in which God is seeking to get His will done and that this encapsulates the entire world (Mtw 13:38) but it more especially means the area over which Jesus and the Father are presently getting Their will done as sovereign - in this way, the Kingdom can be said to ‘come’ into situations (Mtw 12:28, Luke 10:9).
Because the religious authorities spoke with the assumed authority of God but were misrepresenting Him in both the things they were laying upon the nation to be observed and the things which they themselves were practising, authority was to be removed from them and given to another people who would rule in accordance with the revealed will of God from Heaven.
One has to remember that this parable came about initially as a response to their questions about authority (Mtw 21:23-27) and Jesus proceeded to declare that obedience to the message of the Gospel was the revealed requirements of entry into the Kingdom (Mtw 21:28-32). To maintain authority within the Kingdom of God as co-workers along with Him, obedience to God was a necessary requirement.
That the religious leaders were rebelling against the rule of the owner of the vineyard is made clear from the parable and it’s this which causes the owner to destroy their jurisdiction over that which He specially owns. Therefore, the parable should be taken not as a prophetic pronouncement that the nation was to be removed from God’s sight but that the leadership of God’s people was about to be destroyed and handed over to another nation, the Church, who themselves are the Body of believers over which the new leadership will have authority.
Some might think that I’m here declaring the absolute final authority of religious leaders who are in positions of authority throughout the world - the highest example of which would probably be the Pope - but we’ve previously noted on numerous web pages that authority in the NT is not that which comes by the assumption of a particular religious office but that which is given to a believer directly from God Himself.
A position of authority within a denomination does not automatically mean that the person in that position has the authority of God in declaring what they do. In Mtw 18:18 Jesus declared that authoritative decisions of forbidding or allowing certain things was to be one of the characteristics of His Church but that it would come as a believer allied himself with what was being declared from Heaven. In this way, a believer is more a law enforcer than they are a law maker.
The new nation who would rise up in the place of the Jewish religious leadership (Mtw 21:43) would be those followers of Christ who were listening to Heaven and who would faithfully reflect what they heard in all the earth. If that’s true of any believer - regardless of their denominational position - then they’re part of the new nation who has jurisdiction on earth over the outworkings of the Kingdom of God.
Having written all that’s gone before, it hardly seems right to comment any further on the parable seeing as the reader should have been able to come to a full understanding of the parable with my previous notes. There’s only one further point which seems necessary to make before we go on to look at the conclusion of the parable in Jesus’ explanation of the stone which the builders rejected (Mtw 21:42-46) is the comment of the tenants who, seeing the son of the vineyard owner approach, say to one another
‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance’
Did the tenants actually think that they’d receive the inheritance of the vineyard if they killed the son while the father remained alive? Surely they would have reasoned that to kill the son simply meant there was one less to deal with but, nevertheless, the father’s existence was still a problem that would have needed to have been overcome - they may even have assumed the death of the father and that the son was now coming to take possession of what was his by right. But the irrationality of evil men never ceases to amaze me - their statement is on a par with the youngster who pleaded not guilty to a charge of breaking and entering here in the UK and accused the police of planting his fingerprints at the scene of the crime because he’d been wearing fingerless gloves and couldn’t have left any!
Not only did it represent a self-confession but it showed that he hadn’t understood the concept that the finger had to be covered to prevent fingerprints being left and not just the hand and first third of the finger!
Their irrational statement shouldn’t be pressed into making it sound as if they were being logical and true to their situation - but we need also to remember that this is a parable and not meant to be pressed into yielding truth at every turn.
What it does raise, however, is the question as to whether the religious leaders really did think they’d get the inheritance if they killed the Son. This is highly doubtful from the other Scriptures which record their reaction but this shouldn’t alarm us - after all, as we previously noted, this story is a parable not an allegory and it’s only our interpretation as the latter that would cause us to be concerned over no direct parallel elsewhere or, worse, that the main reason for the leaders’ rejection of the Son was actually different.
Their reasoning is purely superfluous to the burden of the story - the main point is that, because they’ve rejected the father, they will also necessarily reject the son.
3. The stone which the builders rejected
Mtw 21:42-46, Mark 12:10-12, Luke 20:17-19
Jesus’ summation of the parable is twofold and He begins by going back to the rejection of the son by the tenants and speaking about this. The parable is often taken to mean that Jesus was prophesying His death and, retrospectively, this is quite correct if it’s taken literally. But the main reason for the murder of the Son in the parable is to show not His death but His rejection - even if the ultimate rejection will be the sentence of death pronounced upon Him.
This is quite important even though, at first glance, it may seem as if I’m splitting hairs. The problem with the Jewish religious leaders was not that they’d inadvertently misunderstood Jesus’ Messiahship and contributed towards His death for they would have repented of their actions after the resurrection. Rather, it was solely because they rejected Jesus from having any share or part in the authority over the nation that they contrived a situation in which they could have Him rejected.
Therefore it’s His rejection and not His murder that Jesus now goes on to speak about in the words of Ps 118:22-23 even though the latter will be a consequence of the former - Mattask comments that the passage (Psalms) was originally written as a reference to the nation of Israel but, try as I might, it seems to me that the rejection spoken of there is certainly personal even if it wasn’t understood to have been initially Messianic. There remains a possibility, however, that the first person descriptions are meant to have been uttered as if it was the single voice of the nation which was speaking. These two verses immediately precede three other verses which should be noted carefully.
Firstly, Ps 118:24 - which is somewhat of a personal gripe of mine - reads that
‘This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it’
where the choruses which have sprung up from such a Scripture tend to be sung as if it’s the day in which we’re singing that’s what we should rejoice over. While this is a good thing to do, it’s the day of the rejection of the Messiah which the reader is being bidden to rejoice over, that God had it in His mind to seal the salvation of His people through the One being crucified on their behalf. The encouragement is to praise God for the work of the cross rather than for the literal twenty-four hour period in which we’re singing it.
The passage them goes on to record the believer’s plea (Ps 118:25-26)
‘Save us, we beseech Thee, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech Thee, give us success! Blessed be He who enters in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord’
phrases which we’ve already seen used in the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem in the welcoming of the Lamb into the city. The passage, therefore, speaks not just of the welcome of the victorious King but of His rejection and work.
Here, though, Jesus is careful to parallel the rejection of the son in the parable with His own rejection at the hands of the religious leaders and to proclaim that this is something which has not only been foreseen by the Father but has come about as a direct work of God - the people who turn against the Messiah are still culpable but the hand of God is upon the situation that His will might come about even through the rejection by the religious leadership.
The phrase ‘the head of the corner’ (Mtw 21:42) can be taken in two main ways (Strongs Greek numbers 2776 and 1137). Either it will be referring to the top stone placed upon the building or the founding stone of a new building which is being begun. Commentators are divided as to which meaning is the best in the circumstances but, either way, it makes perfect sense.
If Jesus is the top stone, He’s the One who’s the final Word and, if the founding stone, He’s the beginning of the new nation which will be built upon Him. Indeed, perhaps it’s best to take the phrase as being clearly ambiguous so that both meanings can be conveyed rather than have to choose one to the exclusion of the other.
Jesus then moves on to speak of the removal of the Kingdom of God from the religious leaders where the vineyard is not meant to be taken as representing the Jewish nation as I’ve previously noted above - but I will only deal briefly with the verse here. This is an extremely important point and not just because, of the six commentators I consulted on the passage, five of them opt for a positive identification with the nation while I couldn’t determine what the sixth believed!
The vineyard in both the parable of the two sons (Mtw 21:28-32) and the parable of the vineyard (Mtw 21:33-41) is representative of the Kingdom of God and Jesus is speaking directly to the leadership of Israel (Mtw 21:45) and telling them that their jurisdiction and authority over service of God would soon be removed from them.
Ultimately, this would have been seen to have been effected in the destruction of the Temple and of the sacrificial system in 70AD but it’s the rejection of the Son which seals the end of such a system and of its relevance so that, from the resurrection onwards, their authority is abolished in place of the new order through all who will believe.
That the Pharisaical way of interpretation and observance to the Law continued even passed the destruction of the Temple is sure but it’s ability to represent the will of God clearly and to bear fruit which is pleasing and acceptable to Him is removed (if it ever existed) - and not only because of the rejection of Jesus, it has to be said, but because, even before the crucifixion, the Gospel was being proclaimed with the anointing of God and this was being shunned.
Jesus’ declaration that the Kingdom would be given
‘...to a nation producing the fruits of it’
is clearly an echo of John the Baptist’s teaching recorded in Mtw 3:8-10 which reads
‘Bear fruit that befits repentance...Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’
God, through the Gospel, was preparing a new nation which would take the place of the old in which only Jews and proselytes participated. That new nation was to create one new man from both Jew and Gentile through the work of the cross (Eph 2:11-22) and so create one brand new nation which relied not upon natural descent from one man but a spiritual rebirth in the one Man, Jesus Christ, bringing harmony to all true seekers of God. There’s now no difference between Jew and Gentile (Col 3:11, Rom 10:12, Gal 3:28, Acts 10:34-35) because the nation of God is built around Jesus - it’s become no longer geographical but multi-national (Ps 110:2).
And that nation is called to bear fruit which is useful to God (Mtw 13:23, John 15:8, Rom 7:4, Col 1:5-6, 1:9-10). Here Jesus draws from the parable something which we would have had difficulty in extracting from it. If allegorical, we would have said that the religious leaders were refusing to hand over the fruit which had already ripened but Jesus infers that they were refusing to produce the fruit which was to be useful to Him. It wasn’t that they were withholding the fruit but that they were barren, fruitless followers who were rejecting the purposes of God - both for themselves and in their attempts to persuade the populace to reject Jesus.
We saw in Mtw 21:12-22 that the fig tree which bore no fruit was demonstrably indicative of the nation of Israel but that there remained time for the unfruitful nation to bear what was pleasing and acceptable to God in the ensuing years before judgment was to fall upon them. Here, however, the condemnation is already upon the religious leaders and their rejection of Jesus will be the final nail in the coffin by which God rejects their authority over the Kingdom of God which had been entrusted to them.
All three Synoptic Gospels record the conclusion that the religious leaders perceived that this particular parable (Matthew records that it was both the preceding parables, the first of which neither Mark nor Luke record) had been spoken against them and that they tried to arrest Him immediately (Mtw 21:45-46, Mark 12:12, Luke 20:19). The parables spoken are too often thought only to have been declared for the leaders’ condemnation but, by bringing their intentions into the open, Jesus is actually giving them an opportunity to repent. Indeed, God in Christ had consistently given them the opportunity to repent through the things that they’d both heard and witnessed but they’d consistently chosen not to do so from the time of the first revelation which had come through John the Baptist.
Luke 20:19 records the leaders with the phrase
‘the scribes and the chief priests’
while Mtw 21:45 labels them as
‘...the chief priests and the Pharisees’
It would be easy to equate the scribes with the Pharisees but we know that the Sadducees had their own scribes (even though they were in the minority) but it seems best to put both references together to realise that it’s the Sanhedrin which is standing before Him and who are trying to make the arrest, their presence being noted by the threefold phrase of Mark 11:27.
The only thing that prevents Jesus from being arrested at this moment in time in the Temple according to all three writers is that they feared the people for it was these who held Jesus to be One sent from God and that, at that time, they would not have allowed such an event to have occurred. Therefore, Judas’ defection to their own ranks proved to be the turning point in their opposition to Jesus and, without such a betrayal, it’s unlikely that they would have been able at that Festival to have arrested Jesus and to have had Him crucified.
We may reason the irony that Jesus speaks of the owner’s death in the parable and that, almost like lemmings, the religious leaders feel compelled to bring about a literal fulfilment because of their rejection of Jesus. Matcar states that they
‘...trigger the very situation they have been warned about...’
and the inference is that they should have realised that what they were doing was only opposing the will of God. While this is true, a people who have already labelled a work of God as evil (Mtw 12:24) are more likely to take such a statement about their opponent’s death as an attempt to make them flee from doing what they think is right - if a people are committed on a course of action as being God’s will (John 11:50-52), then anything which tries to dissuade them from achieving their ends would naturally have to be labelled as an attempt of the evil one from the task which lies before them.
Luke 20:20 records that the leaders decided that they needed to change their approach if they were ever to achieve their objective of having Jesus put to death (John 11:53) and, though their questions which follow (Mtw 22:15-40) would have been aimed also at discrediting Him in the eyes of the people, Luke records specifically that their intent was that
‘...they might take hold of what He said so as to deliver Him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor’
This is still in the future in Matthew’s Gospel, however, for Jesus turns His attention to deliver one more parable concerning the Kingdom of God before they regather and send (Luke 22:20)
‘...spies who pretended to be sincere...’
It’s this parable which we’ll deal with in the next and final section.
The marriage feast
The immediate problem which should face the commentator when they approach this parable is one of trying to determine which group of people Jesus was talking to. Unfortunately, there’s been much made of a similar passage in Luke 14:15-24 and assertions which see this record as being one variation of Matthew’s story which were both developed from originals in the early Church and which were finally recorded in each of the two Gospels in different forms from the ones in which they were originally delivered.
Such a belief affirms that Jesus must have used the parable once only and that He didn’t alter His resource of material to suit the particular perceived needs of the people to whom it was being told. It would also throw into confusion any and, perhaps, all of the other records of what Jesus both said and did throughout the entire record of the Gospels if they were viewed as being the product of the early believers who decided to develop what they knew to be true into incidents and stories which bore little or no resemblance to the original.
It seems to me that any such interpretation of the way the NT came together is purely subjective and I make no apologies for disregarding such theories without adequately addressing the issue by devoting large volumes of material to the debate.
For most believers, the Scriptural records can be accepted at face value and this is the choice I’ve made throughout these notes.
But, more importantly is the determination of who it was that Jesus was delivering this parable to for it will alter the way in which we view its application. Jesus has been approached in the Temple by the members of the Sanhedrin to ask a specific question about authority which they were hoping would stumble and discredit Him amongst the people (Mtw 21:23-27) and Jesus goes on from here to deliver two parables to them - the one concerning the two sons (Mtw 21:28-32) and the vineyard (Mtw 21:33-44) - before we read that the religious leaders perceived that Jesus was telling them about their own position before God (Mtw 21:45-46).
Mark’s Gospel, unsurprisingly, then has the leaders withdrawing from the scene to plot against how they might entangle Jesus in His talk (Mark 12:12) because, for him, he’s recorded the only parable which he intends presenting to his readers before moving on to the specific opposition in the form of questions which are paralleled here (Mark 12:13-37, Mtw 22:15-46).
In Matthew, however, there’s no such withdrawal of the leadership and the discourse appears to continue, broken only by our man-made chapter divisions. The object of this third of the recorded parables is open to interpretation and the most commonly held view is that Jesus has now turned His attention to the ordinary people in the Temple and is instructing them.
This is far from certain, however, especially as the word which is used in Mtw 22:1 would seem to indicate that there’s a continuation in the direction of the parable about to be told.
The AV renders this opening verse with the words
‘And Jesus answered and spake unto them again by parables...’
where my italicised words are those which are omitted by the RSV but which appear in the original text. Perhaps a more literal translation would be to render the sentence
‘And answering, Jesus again spoke to them in parables...’
This word seems to be a favourite one of Matthew (Strongs Greek number 611) and is noted by Matmor as occurring 55 times throughout the Gospel (I only counted it 53 times!) but it’s far from certain whether the word should always be translated with it’s regular meaning of ‘answered’ - like the AV renders it unswervingly (in, for instance, Mtw 4:4, 8:8, 11:4, 12:39) - for there appears to be no question which is being asked to which Jesus’ answer is being delivered.
This is the similar position in, for instance, Mtw 11:25 and 12:38 where the same word is used, the RSV rendering the first with ‘declared’ and the second with nothing at all. But it could be said that the word, although not strictly implying a reply to a question, can be used to denote the response of an individual to a situation as could be the case in the two previous passages cited.
Although not convinced that this is the case, Matcar notes that its use
‘...may reflect Jesus’ response to the Jewish leaders’ desires...’
while Matmor notes that the author of Matthew
‘...may have it in mind that Jesus was responding to the hostility of the high priests and Pharisees who wanted to arrest Him’
Mathen is more certain in his interpretation, however, and asserts that Jesus
‘...was responding to a situation, the attitude present within the hateful and embittered hearts of His enemies...’
What seems best to do, then, is to take this third parable as directed towards the Sanhedrin who’d come to Him (Mtw 21:23, Mark 11:27, Luke 20:1) and that Jesus is responding to their attempts at trying to arrest Him rather than accept the things which He was saying. The parable is, therefore, a conclusion to their response, a final word on their rejection of both His message and Himself - but it will also have particular relevance for all those Jews who share the attitude of their leaders towards Him.
Instead of primarily interpreting it about the Jewish nation as some do, therefore, it has to be seen in the context of a response to His attempted arrest and should be understood as how God the Father will respond to such a situation, specifically relevant to the Jews as a people.
1. The destruction of the city
In the three parables related at this juncture in Matthew’s Gospel, the Jewish leaders are highlighted by
i. The son who says he’ll go and work in the vineyard but, in the end, will not (Mtw 21:28-32)
ii. The tenants who agree to give the householder his share of the fruits but who, in the end, will not (Mtw 21:33-41), and
iii. The guests who have already accepted a previous invitation to come to the banquet but who, in the end, will not (Mtw 22:1-14)
In each of these three parables, an initial response to do the will of God has been made (that is, an agreement has been reached or a freewill response undertaken to do as has been requested) but, eventually, the promise is shown to have no substance. This is of prime importance in realising that the Jewish leaders are in mind and not necessarily the nation as a whole - but neither can the unsaved be in mind in the initial stages of the parable - rather, the already religious.
It’s the allegorical method of interpretation which is more generally employed by commentators as it is in the previous parable as well (I have tried to limit allegorical identifications to prevent straying from the main purpose of the parable but, if the reader pays attention to the previous parable, they will note that repeated attempts to petition the attendees/tenants, the way they treat those sent to them and the end result of their rejection of the request for fruit/the invitation are all parallels which deserve the same identification) but some statements are taken literally where they seem to be mirrors of what transpired in 70AD to the Temple. Therefore, Mtw 22:7 speaks of the king’s anger and that
‘...he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city’
and it’s asserted readily that this was fulfilled literally (Mattask comments that Mtw 22:5-6 were probably inserted by a later copyist so that readers could see the fulfilment of the passage in an event which they would have all been aware of.
While I don’t agree with such a position, the following notes also answer this belief). Therefore Mathen comments that Jesus now drops the figure and
‘...it is clear that the reference is to Jerusalem’
But the problem with such an interpretation is that Jerusalem, the city, was not burned in the destruction of 70AD but only the Temple and the text in Mtw 21:7 states specifically that the city was. Perhaps we’re being too pedantic in our insistence that such a prophetic declaration must be fulfilled to the letter, but it seems to me that, along with Mathag, it’s best to say that
‘...it is virtually impossible for post-70AD readers of the Gospel not to see the destruction of Jerusalem alluded to in these words’
and that it is more likely that Jesus didn’t have in mind the city’s destruction. Besides, Matcar cites Reicke as showing
‘...how implausible [an allusion to 70AD] this is because the language belongs to the general OT categories of judgment...’
Such a literal interpretation of the parable (or ‘allegory’) has caused some to see in the insertion of these details evidence that the Gospel was written initially after the events of the Jewish War but, if this is indeed the case, why didn’t they add the story with the right facts?! It’s much better to take the statement about the destruction of the invitees’ city as a similar statement to the one in Mtw 21:41 and explained in 21:43 - that is, all it does is to simply state that their assumed authority was to be removed from them and, in the second half of the parable, given to people - both good and bad (Mtw 22:10) - who positively responded to the invitation of the Gospel in the Kingdom of God.
All that the destruction of the murderers and the burning of their city symbolises, then, is not a literal fulfilment in 70AD but an immediate fulfilment in the cross, resurrection and ascension in which the authority over God’s people was effectively removed from them and given to (Mtw 21:41)
‘...other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons’
In this way, all three parables are seen to interrelate. The first speaks solely of the rejection of the message after an initial positive verbal response while the second deals with the leaders’ responsibility in bearing fruit and of the consequence that their jurisdiction would be removed from them. Here, in the third, that removal is dealt with speedily before the statement by Jesus in Mtw 21:41,43 is expanded for the remainder of the parable (Mtw 22:9-14). There is, therefore, a progression of revelation here where each parable adds to and develops themes in the one which precedes it or which takes the story on one step further than the preceding one was able to do.
It’s the response of the king to fill up the tables in the ‘wedding reception’ (to use a modern day arrangement) which becomes the important teaching of the parable.
Those who are acceptable to God, then, are shown to have two specific characteristics in the parable which are necessary to note carefully. First and foremost the accepted are those who have themselves accepted the invitation to become partakers of the food of the king’s table, paralleled in the acceptance of the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
The religious leaders who promised much never came to the king’s table when the time came. Even though they’d accepted an earlier invitation (Mtw 21:3), when the time came for them to journey to the king’s palace, they refused (Mtw 21:3-6).
However, the king threw the invitation open to all men, both good and bad (Mtw 21:9-10), and soon the wedding hall was filled with guests.
The marriage feast here mentioned isn’t the ‘Marriage Supper of the Lamb’ which is due to take place in Heaven (Rev 19:9) for, on that day, there won’t be both good and bad present, both those with a wedding garment and those without.
The marriage feast here mentioned is indicative of the provision of the Son bestowed upon mankind through the Church specifically in the work of the cross but outworked also through healing and deliverance which are bestowed on all men freely.
Yet, it’s also plain from the Scripture that not all men who receive the Kingdom provision and invitation will be saved (Mtw 7:21-23, 13:47-50, Mark 1:40-45). To only be partakers of the Kingdom provision is not sufficient if a person hasn’t availed themselves also of the salvation freely available in Christ which brings about rightstanding with God.
This is the subject of the second acceptance condition where free acceptance has to be balanced with being clothed with the right garment.
Those who are acceptable to God, then, are those who are clothed in a wedding garment - though the text doesn’t mention where that garment was to be provided from. In Rabbinic literature, Edersheim notes the record of a parable which runs similar to the one in Matthew from the Talmud (Shabb 152b) and which he summarises as being
‘...of a king who committed to his servants the royal robes. The wise among them carefully laid them by while the foolish put them on when they did their work. After a time the king asked back the robes, when the wise could restore them clean, while the foolish had them soiled. Then the king rejoiced over the wise, and, while the robes were laid up in the treasury, they were bidden go home in peace. ‘But to the foolish he commanded that the robes should be handed over to the fuller, and that they themselves should be cast into prison.’ We readily see that the meaning of this Parable was, that a man might preserve His soul perfectly pure, and so enter into peace, while the careless, who had lost their original purity (no original sin here), would, in the next world, by suffering, both expiate their guilt and purify their souls’
Although Matthew’s record of the parable doesn’t go as far as to make mention that the wedding garment was a gift of the king to the wedding guests (if it was to be kept strictly in accordance with NT teaching on the work of the cross), the soiling of the garment in the Rabbinic parallel is sufficient for us to realise that acceptance before God was considered to be solely on the basis of working hard at keeping the original purity of the Jew undefiled and that, consequently, it was based on legalistic principles rather than upon the free bestowal of mercy and forgiveness from God Himself.
The Rabbi responsible for the parable (Jochanan ben Zakkai) was a contemporary of the time that the Gospel was composed (according to Edersheim) and may well have borrowed the idea from a manuscript then in circulation. But weddings were common place and it’s far from certain that there was any bleed over from the Gospel account into the
Judaism of the first century - surely this would be something that a modern day religious Jew would reject, anyhow.
But, as I noted, the presence of a wedding garment was a necessary requirement of the guest at the king’s table for him to be acceptable and it’s this which speaks to the reader of the free, unearned gift of the righteousness of Jesus Christ being adorned by those who have responded positively to the message of invitation into the Kingdom of God.
This is one possible interpretation and the one which I’ll develop below before going on to look at another which notes the comments in the previous parables and treats them as indications of what Jesus was referring to.
In this first view of the garment, therefore, acceptance and righteousness are seen to go hand in hand and, though both the good and the bad are called (Mtw 22:10), something must needs be done about the condition for them to be acceptable to the king. This clothing with ‘garments of salvation’ are variously referred to in the Scriptures (Is 61:10-11, Eph 6:14), something which is described as a free gift of God (Rom 4:11, 5:17).
Practically what that means is that it isn’t those who are recipients of the provision of the Kingdom of God who are ultimately acceptable to God but those also who have responded to the message of the Gospel and who have received both forgiveness and mercy to stand cleansed before God.
It’s important to note that both the bad and the good are brought in to the marriage feast (Mtw 22:10) and that acceptance before the king has nothing to do with the ‘self-goodness’ or self-righteousness of the individual who comes. In that sense - and adding to the parable somewhat - initial acceptance of the invitation could have been from men and women who were infinitely more righteous under the Law than those who now both accept and come, but acceptance becomes based upon the garment of rightstanding that’s a free gift of God through faith in Christ.
It’s not personal goodness which initially gains acceptance, though a follower of Christ should naturally go on to emulate the One he professes to follow - rather, it’s the goodness of Jesus with which the believer is clothed.
This concept, while being a NT one, may not have been in mind in this parable at that specific time when it was first spoken. To the original hearers, therefore, the garment probably meant no more (?!) than the mercy of God being worked out into the forgiveness of the individual.
But there are also considerations which need to be made in the light of the previous parable which speaks of a new nation receiving the Kingdom of God who produce the fruits (Mtw 22:44). If this is a direct parallel which should bleed over into our present story (and the indications are that this is the case), the wedding garment is seen to be the fruit which springs from a personal acceptance of the message and our insistence to define the garment in OT terms rather than in the context of the previous parable is partially misguided.
Being clothed in righteousness is a necessary part of the work of the cross and is the basis for acceptance before God for all who believe - but Jesus has been speaking about producing what the Father requires and not about simply sitting back on the salvation which has been granted to the believer. It’s more likely, therefore, that we should think of the garment as indicative of bearing useful fruit for God rather than upon the acquisition of imparted righteousness through a free gift. This brings it into a harmony with the previous parable and unites all three together as one single unit which develops themes and teaching as they’re declared.
3. Outer darkness and being chosen
The destiny of those without the garment is summarised by Jesus’ statement that the king commands his servant to
‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth’
phrases which are used elsewhere to denote the final state of mankind (Mtw 8:12, 13:30, 13:42, 13:50, 24:51, 25:30, Jude 13 - I’ve dealt with phrases such as these on my web page entitled 'Eternal Habitations') though they can also be used of the anguish and anger displayed by those who see others being accepted by God while they themselves are rejected (Luke 13:28). It’s this former which seems to be what’s in mind here, however.
One final word needs to be said about Jesus’ last sentence where He states (Mtw 22:14) that
‘...many are called but few are chosen’
This has perplexed many believers and been a strong text for those who believe that salvation is solely on the basis of God’s predestination of some while He rejects others. And, if taken in isolation and out of context, the verse most certainly does seem to say this. But interpretations neglect to consider the response which was vitally necessary in the parable before the king came to the point of being able to make that choice for the phrase rightly summarises both halves of the story and not just the second part (Mtw 22:11-14).
Therefore, ‘many are called’ speaks of the king’s command to send out his servants to invite ‘as many as you find’ (Mtw 22:9) to come in to the feast and to eat freely from the table of his provision. Then there must be a decision of each individual whether they’ll accept or reject the message and this boils down to a response of freewill and not of the king’s specific choice - all the king can do is invite.
Then, once a response has been made, ‘few are chosen’. Out of those who’ve been called and who’ve made a response, the king selects those who’ve responded correctly by attiring themselves in the necessary garment.
Therefore, when viewed as a parable which speaks of salvation, inbetween the two acts of God’s Sovereignty through the call and God’s Election in His choice, there must be a correct freewill response from man.
I’ve dealt with the interrelationship between the concepts of foreknowledge, freewill and predestination on a previous web page where the reader is directed to see how all three concepts are acceptable doctrines from Scripture but that where the Church has strayed in times past is in thinking that one can only be believed at the elimination of the other.
Finally, this parable must be interpreted in the light of the previous two which began with Mtw 21:28 and, when this is done, it can be seen that there’s a progressive revelation of what the rejection of by the religious leaders of the message and messengers of the Gospel will ultimately result in. Though many have taken them to be speaking about the rejection of Israel as a nation before God, they must refer primarily to the rejection of the religious leadership which had singularly failed to give themselves over to the new work of God in their midst.
As such, a new people were to be brought into existence, a nation comprised of others who the religious had rejected (that is, both the Jews who were considered to be unredeemable, bad sinners and all the Gentiles) and, in doing so, they themselves would find that God would reject them.
Of course, all those who allied themselves with that attitude would likewise be rejected and the parables mark the end of God’s choice of the one single nation called Israel through whom He was intent on bringing salvation to the world and a diversification to all men and women who would respond positively to the message of the Gospel and bear fruit which was acceptable to Him.
But God doesn’t reject the Jews per se - he rejects those individuals who reject the message of the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ.
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