Those messengers from God? God sends them to us for our own good.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 21:33-45
Jesus tells a story that basically makes it clear that the Jewish leaders are so far from God that everyone (but them) realizes that they must be punished for rejecting God’s repeated offers of blessing and repentance. Via the parables, we learn that there is an eternal price to pay for rejecting God’s love in Jesus.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Wisdom from the Farm
In my opinion, the best sayings are (1) easy to remember, (2) easy to understand, but (3) deep enough that you still have to think about them. A lot of those are farmer sayings. Which of these resonate with you?
Your fences need to be horse-high, pig-tight and bull-strong.
Keep skunks and bankers at a distance.
Make sure your horse doesn’t eat too fast.
Life is simpler when you plow around the stump.
A bumble bee is considerably faster than a John Deere tractor.
Anyone can farm, but not everyone is a farmer.
Do not corner something that you know is meaner than you.
Every path has a few puddles.
Happiness is a barn roof that doesn’t leak, a pasture fence that isn’t broken, and a daylong rain in May.
Cows expect the same fair treatment every day.
You can’t hurry a crop.
A bulldog can whip a skunk, but sometimes it’s just not worth it.
When on a tractor, keep one eye on the corn row, one eye on the cultivator, one eye looking out for stones, and one eye on the fence at the end of the field.
When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.
Farming looks mighty easy when you’re 1000 miles away from a corn field.
If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.
Look down when walking in a cow pasture.
Always drink upstream from the herd.
I’m sure you can come up with some others (or ask your class for their favorites). Or if you don’t think that will work, take a stories/fables approach. Pick one of these titles and see if your class can produce the story and the “point” (you have Aesop’s fables, Mother Goose, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and more):
The tortoise and the hare
Chicken little (the old story, not the movie version)
The ant and the grasshopper
The boy who cried wolf
The pied piper
The great muppet caper
Here’s the point: a good story is going to be memorable , and it’s going to have a point that almost anyone can understand. Jesus’ parables weren’t told to children, so we often have to have some help with them. But goodness, once you know what Jesus was saying, that story will stick in your head. Ask your class if they can tell you about the parable of “the four soils” or “the wise and foolish builders” or “the prodigal son” and give you a decent idea about what it means. Jesus can give us pithy sayings and deep truths, and compared with the great old farmer’s wisdom, what Jesus has to say is simply better!
Our Context in Matthew
The Bible doesn’t clarify exactly when all of these events took place, but this is the fairly well-agreed upon order of events for “Holy Week”:
Palm Sunday: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (last week’s lesson)
Monday: Jesus drives out the merchants from the Temple
Tuesday: Jesus debates Jewish leaders in the Temple (this week’s lesson and next week’s lesson); on the way back to Bethany, He teaches about the end of the world (April 23 lesson)
Wednesday: a woman anoints Jesus with oil in Bethany
Thursday: the Last Supper (April 30), the garden of Gethsemane (May 7), and the betrayal and trial (May 14)
Friday: the Crucifixion and burial (May 21)
Saturday: guards are posted at the tomb
Sunday: good stuff happens (April 16—out of order on purpose)
This Week's Big Idea: Jesus, the Jews, and Parables
Most of Jesus’ parables were simply illustrations of truth, and most of those appear in only one or two Gospels. In fact, only 7 parables appear in all 3 of the Synoptic Gospels; interestingly, 6 of those have to do with the Jewish response to Jesus. And that response isn't good.
In our passage today, God throws the wicked Jews out of their land. In the Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13:24-30), we learn that the punishment for those who are wicked, even though they were living in God’s kingdom, will be the fiery furnace of judgment. In the Parable of the Two Sons, told right before our passage this week, Jesus makes it clear that it’s not just being a son but being an obedient son that pleases the father. The next parable, told right after our passage this week (the Parable of the Wedding Banquet), goes even further: just as in our parable today, some wicked men ignore God’s gracious provision and even kill the servants who came to invite them, but this time, God replaces them with anybody and everybody—people right off the streets! In other words, God can and will replace the Jews with anybody (of course, they still have to be wearing “the right clothes”, namely the righteousness of Jesus Christ). And those wicked Jews are cast out into the darkness “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus reiterates this stance in a few chapters with the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30) but then pushes it to the final extreme in the following Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25:31-46). In that parable, the wicked are explicitly sent into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” This is just about the clearest statement of hell as the punishment for those who rejected Jesus. The wedding banquet was for the king’s son. The “sheep and goats” were identified based on how they treated the Lord. So, when you take all of these passages together, you realize that Jesus was making a very clear picture of what would happen to those people who rejected Him, whether they be Jew or Gentile.
Part 1: The King’s Prerogative (Matthew 21:1-5)
“Listen to another parable: There was a man, a landowner, who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. He leased it to tenant farmers and went away. When the grape harvest drew near, he sent his slaves to the farmers to collect his fruit. But the farmers took his slaves, beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Again, he sent other slaves, more than the first group, and they did the same to them. Finally, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.”
A parable is not an allegory. An allegory is a story where every element has a 1-to-1 correspondence with a real thing. A parable is a little more flexible, but Jesus still packs dense meaning into each detail, and I think it would be a good exercise to make sure your class can get the point behind each. Write down these details on a board and ask what they mean.
(1) The landowner. [This one is simple: God.]
(2) The vineyard. [This could actually represent a number of things, which is why this is a parable and not an allegory. I think Jesus has the Promised Land in mind, which God Himself prepared for the Israelites and helped them conquer.]
(3) The fence. [Again, this could mean a few things. I think it represents the totality of what God did to protect the Jews from outside influence, namely the Law and the resources they would need to keep the law.]
(4) The winepress. [I think this is just some flavor to add realism. Just as the landowner had given the farmers everything they needed to for farming, so also God had given Israel everything they needed to produce fruit.]
(5) The watchtower. [I think this could go one of two ways: this could represent the prophets that God sent to warn Israel of coming danger, or it could just be another detail which demonstrates that God had done everything necessary to protect Israel.]
(6) The tenant farmers. [Most Bible scholars say that Jesus was singling out the religious leaders here. That could be true, but I don’t think anyone is Israel is let off the hook.]
(7) The landowner went away. [Again, this is not an allegory. God never “went away” from His people, but for the story to make sense, the tenant farmers have to feel like they have autonomy over their farmland.]
(8) The landowner sent his slaves. [We would naturally think this refers to the prophets, but the prophets never “collected” on God’s behalf. Rather, I think this is just a detail that keeps the story moving. It represents Israel’s general continued rejection of God’s purposes for them—defiling the sacrifices and the Temple, ignoring the law, blaspheming Him, and rejecting His spokespeople.]
(9) To collect his fruit. [Obviously we’re not talking about the sacrifices—Jesus has made that clear in Matthew’s Gospel. We could be talking about the fruit of the Spirit among the
Jews, or we could be talking about the “harvest of the nations” that the Jews had failed to cultivate. Either way, the Jews had failed to produce fruit.]
(10) The son. [This is a big one. The son is obviously Jesus, but note that Jesus is very clearly identifying Himself!]
Let me point out some details that really give life to this parable (see also the asides). In general, vineyards took 4-5 years to become productive (and longer to become profitable), which means that everybody had to be patient. Jewish law said that the tenant and owner had to share in the cost of the stakes on which the vines grew, giving the tenants some accountability. But the landowner still had to send representatives—why? because Jewish law also said that if tenants could demonstrate undisputed possession of land for three years, they could establish legal title. By attempting to collect rent, the landowner kept his claim. It is difficult to find rhyme or reason behind the tenants’ behavior outside of the fact that they clearly never intended to pay rent. Perhaps they were thinking that if they caused enough trouble, the landowner would give up? And some of the representatives were more persistent than others? Or perhaps they were attempting to make a legal claim that the landowner hadn’t really maintained his claim and so they would get the land? One way or the other, the tenants prove themselves extremely ungrateful and wicked. By this point, Jesus’ audience would have wondered why the landowner had not called in the authorities, as would have been his right. Extreme, extreme patience on the part of the landowner.
Aside: Tenant Farming
This was actually an image that Jesus’ hearers would have been very familiar with, which means they would have noticed some peculiar characteristics of the landowner in Jesus’ story. In the Roman Empire, most of the land was controlled by a few very wealthy men (think about how Pharaoh got control of the land in Egypt in Joseph’s story). Land would be given as spoils of war to soldiers, and that land would be taken over by these wealthy people when the soldiers were killed in the next battle. In Israel, non-Jews “owned” the land and allowed the various tribes to stay on as tenants. The vast majority of farming in the Roman Empire was done by free “peasants”, and landowners very rarely visited their lands. And because they had so much land, they also did not keep close tabs on the income from that land. “Rent” would have been 25% of the produce (or more) and been collected by agents of the landowner. If the tenants resisted, landowners were known to hire mercenaries to clear off their land, although this was rare (landowners had so much money they were more worried about their reputation). The landowner in Jesus’ parable breaks type by being so interested in the produce of the land yet not using force to extract it. Other landowners would have considered him naïve. Conversely, the tenants are so presumptuous with their apparent power over the land that they come across both as wicked and stupid—as if the inevitable shoe will never drop. Jesus’ landowner is exactly the kind of man His hearers would have wanted to be their landlord which makes the tenants’ behavior so shocking. This is why, as they say, the Jews “couldn’t have nice things”.
Part 2: The Son Rejected (Matthew 21:38-39)
“But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance, So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
In reality, this would have never have happened. The landowner would have called in the authorities before putting his son at risk. But that’s kind of the point. God is not a businessman trying to capitalize on an investment. God is a compassionate and loving Father toward sinners. The landowner’s behavior is truly remarkable. Equally remarkable, but for all the wrong reasons, is the tenants’ response. By killing the heir, the tenants thought they were removing their only competition for owning the land. They had been in the vineyard for a number of years; they had never paid rent; the owner, if he was even alive, would not be willing or able to outlast them. This son was pressing an unjust claim, so all they had done was repel a robber. The vineyard was theirs. Note that they threw the son out before killing him. This is an important detail. Bloodshed rendered an area unclean, which would make their produce difficult to sell. But by killing him offsite, they could maintain the cleanness regulations. Do you see the problem? They were paying attention to God’s laws for clean/unclean while conspiring to steal and murder! There’s no way these tenants could look any worse.
Aside: The Purpose of Israel
There’s a very important side note from this parable: the landowner expected “fruit” from his tenants. This strongly implies that God had a purpose for Israel that they were not meeting. My guess is that they assumed God wanted their sacrifices (you can refer to David’s sermon series for proof of this!). But clearly that wasn’t it. Rather, we look back to God’s promise to Abraham—”the whole world will be blessed through you.” We see two trends in Jewish history: (1) let’s conquer the people around us using the world’s methods (advocated by Sadducees in Jesus’ day), and (2) let’s hunker down and try to preserve our relationship with God (the Pharisees). Neither was what God wanted, which was for the Jews to take what God had taught them to the world so the world would know what the kingdom of God was supposed to look like. Thus God created the church.
Do you find it as ironic as I do that Christian churches have since taken both of those failed approaches to God’s mission?
Bonus Aside: The Pharisees
Just in case you need a refresher—the Pharisees were one of two major sects of Jewish leaders (with the Sadducees). They believed that, in order to keep major calamity from happening to Israel again, they need to hold very fast to the Law. To make sure that nobody broke any of God’s laws, they made up their own laws that were even harder and made the people keep them. Their original intention was fine. But then they started treating their own laws as of equal authority with God’s . . . And they started enjoying the adulation that came with being a known ‘holy” man.
Part 3: The Son Vindicated (Matthew 21:40-45)
Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers?” “He will completely destroy those terrible men,” they told Him, “and lease his vineyard to other farmers who will give him his produce at the harvest.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This came from the Lord and is wonderful in our eyes? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing its fruit. [Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whoever it falls, it will grind him to powder!]” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they knew He was speaking about them.
Everyone listening knows how this story is going to end: the landowner will come in and wipe out those wicked tenants. And everyone knows that that’s what the landowner should do; he had been way too nice and patient to this point. And that’s exactly where Jesus is going with this. He knows that the religious leader are plotting to kill Him. And this is completely in keeping with prophecy and expectation. Jesus quotes Psalm 118—the very psalm the people used to celebrate Him as the coming Messiah King at the triumphal entry! The psalm itself foreshadows the treatment of Jesus. In Psalm 118, a Davidic king celebrates a hard-fought victory; when he returns to Jerusalem, he confronts those people who thought he was not fit to be king—this victory is proof that God approves of his kingship! Well, that’s exactly what Jesus is saying. His victory (the resurrection) was coming very soon, and God’s plan would be revealed, and to everyone with eyes to see it would be wonderful. And the kingdom would be taken away from the Jews and be given to a new group. Today, we know He meant the church. I can’t imagine what the religious leaders thought Jesus was saying about who God would replace them with! They certainly knew He was talking about them. They were certainly angry, but not convicted enough to admit their own guilt. There’s a phrase is brackets in the passage because it doesn’t appear in some of the oldest manuscripts from Matthew; but, it does appear in Luke’s version of this story, so we know that Jesus said it.
Now—what do we do with all of this? There are two main points to the parable, and I think you make them the two main points to the lesson:
the Jews, who should have known better, had turned away from God;
there comes a point when God will no longer have patience (namely when we reject His Son Jesus).
To make this point, I would take your class to the story of King David and Nathan the prophet (2 Sam 12) that David preached about on Sunday. King David had done an awful thing. How did Nathan confront him, and why was his method so effective? Ask your class how they would have felt in David’s shoes. But then ask, what would have happened if David had doubled down and killed Nathan, too? Yikes! That puts an awful twist on things. But that’s exactly what the Jewish religious leaders were doing. Unbelievable!
Take your class down this path: how do you feel when someone confronts you with a sin you’ve committed? I imagine you would feel pretty rotten and either embarrassed or indignant. What are you supposed to do when confronted with your sin? We’re supposed to repent. What happened if we don’t repent? We get another chance. And another. Think about your own life—what has happened inside of you when you have carried around an unrepented sin? My life tends to go downhill until I repent. But what happens if you continue to reject God defiantly all the way to the bitter end? Well, you get cast out and destroyed. I don’t see any other way of understanding this than to mean sent to hell when you die. That is the price for rejecting Jesus. Does this mean a Christian can lose his salvation by rejecting Jesus? That’s not the way I read it. I mentioned the parable of the weeds earlier, in which God allows weeds to grow along with the wheat, only to be destroyed at the harvest. Being among God’s people doesn’t make you one of them. By definition, a Christian is someone who has not rejected Jesus, and it would be impossible to change one’s mind about that. But if you think about your life as this vineyard, how do you fare? Do act like you’re the owner, or are you a grateful tenant? Think of ways that you can worship God this week in gratitude for all of His many blessings.
Aide: Rocks and Stones
We see “stones” used in many different ways in the Bible; in those days the strongest structures were built with stones: walls, palaces, columns, temples, and paved roads. Three types are commonly mentioned. The cornerstone was a large stone cut to precision on which the entire wall angle would be based. The capstone and keystone would be found at the top of buildings anchoring the walls (or arches) together. Sadly, the perfect stone for this particular building in Jesus’ story was rejected, causing the eventual failure of the building. Go and look up Psalm 118:22, Isa 8:14-15, and Isa 28:16.