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Matthew 21 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Murderous Tenants

As one expects from Jesus' rural parables, this one is true to life. The viticulture is accurate enough (although most of these details stem from Isaiah allusions): fences (often a wall of loosely fitted stones) protected vineyards from animals (Ps 80:12-14; N. Lewis 1983:125), and watchmen used the tower (2 Chron 26:10; Is 1:8), often "a hut of leaf-covered wood or possibly of stone which served both as a look-out . . . and as a shelter for the vinedressers at harvest time" (Anderson 1976:272).

The religious leaders were wicked. Because the vineyard probably refers to Israel (Is 5:2; compare 3:14; Ezek 17:6; Hos 9:10; Jeremias 1972:70, 76-77), the farmers stand for the nation's religious leaders (Mt 21:45). Thus while Jesus borrows the imagery of Isaiah, he adapts it so that the primary evildoers represent not Israel but its leaders. Neither Jesus nor Matthew contends for God's rejection of Israel as a people, but for his rejection of the religious leaders (23:13-36; compare Kee 1977:113; pace Ladd 1974b:114). Israel was unprepared for its Master because Israel's leaders failed in their stewardship to acknowledge the true Lord; when the cat is gone, the mice will play, but a day of reckoning is coming (compare Prov 7:19, 22-27). This threat from Jesus' day also provides a warning for Christian leaders in Matthew's day and our own (24:45-51). The church and many of its leaders have repeated Israel's disobedience enough in history and to a great extent continue to do so today. Many ministers regard the church as "our" field of ministry rather than keeping in mind who our Lord is.

Although small holders may have predominated in Palestine, Galilee had many tenant farmers. Tenant farmers worked the land for its owners, often absentee landlords, and paid them as much as half the resulting produce. While peasants did not enjoy their economic situation, they would not have identified with the foolish tenants in this story; everyone regarded as treacherous the killing of unarmed messengers. The rejected messengers symbolize the biblical prophets (23:29-38; compare 5:12); Jewish tradition not only acknowledged but amplified their sufferings.

God is incomprehensibly kind to his enemies. The landowner here is too nice; whether aristocrats, artisans or peasants, no one would recognize in this figure the benevolence of any patron they knew. But even had hearers not recognized the image of God and his prophets here, no one would expect the benevolent landowner to remain benevolent indefinitely; indeed, the worse landlords sometimes even had their own hit squads to take out troublesome tenant farmers. Everyone also knew that the state would always side with the landlord (even if he was a bad one); in a case of obvious wrong like this one, the murderers of his servants would be excuted or enslaved.

The landowner has no reason to continue his benevolence. At the very least, he must know that the tenants hate him; in antiquity the way people treated a messenger was the way they would treat the sender (compare 10:40-42; t. Ta`anit 3:2). By continuing to appeal to their sense of honor, the landowner has made himself appear a fool; to maintain any vestige of honor, he must retaliate against their repeating shaming of him (B. Scott 1989:250).

Quite in contrast to expectations, however, the landowner acts with such benevolence that ancient hearers could have regarded his action merely as utter folly: he believes that the murderous tenants will at least respect his son as his own representative. Jesus tells us about the death of the landowner's son, the tenants' ultimate act of treachery. Casting him outside the vineyard (compare Heb 13:13), they kill him.

Even God's patience eventually comes to an end. As benevolent as the landowner is, no one will be surprised that he finally retaliates. No law would have actually granted the vineyard to tenants who had murdered the owner's son. As if asking for a legal ruling, Jesus questions the religious leaders what this patient landowner will finally do to the murderers. The answer is obvious. The evil tenant farmers, no match for the landlord's power, were utter fools to doubt that they would die.

It may be no coincidence (compare 21:13; 24:2) that Jesus' contemporaries understood Isaiah's parable of the vineyard (Is 5:1-7) on which this parable draws as referring to the temple's destruction. Jesus concludes by again challenging their knowledge of the Scriptures (which should have made the object of his parable obvious to begin with), as in 12:3, 19:4, 21:16 and 22:31.

Here Jesus cites Psalm 118:22 from the Hallel (Ps 113-18, recited during Passover season), only a few verses away from the praise recently uttered by the children (Ps 118:25-26 in Mt 21:15; compare 21:9). All his hearers would recognize the source of the quotation, and probably its context. (By contrast, many of us today sing "This is the day the Lord has made" [Ps 118:24] out of the context of the day and event the psalmist was celebrating.) In context, the cornerstone or capstone to which Jesus refers is probably part of the architecture of the temple. Hearers might have recognized that he was comparing the covenant community to a temple; some others in his day made that comparison (for example, 1QS 8.5, 8-9; 9.6; CD 2.10, 13; Grtner 1965:16-46). Most clearly they would recognize that he was challenging the builders, here the temple authorities.

Jesus adds a clarifying comment that expands the reproof to all Israel with no vestige of subtlety (v. 43). Thus, he says, these leaders will no longer administer God's reign among his people as God's stewards (compare 23:13; 16:19). Henceforth the holy nation of the new exodus (Ex 19:5-6) will bring forth their fruit-the landowner's rightful portion of the vintage-for God (3:10; Hos 14:4-8; Lk 13:6-9; Jn 15:1-8).

Using the Jewish interpretation method called gezerah sawah, which links verses on the basis of key terms they share, this passage develops the cornerstone idea (compare 1 Pet 2:6-8). Crushed probably reflects Daniel 2:44; falls on this stone, the stumbling stone of Isaiah 8:15 and 28:16. Neither alternative is intended to be pleasant; the Greek term for but here is the weaker one, in this case probably meaning virtually "and."

Finally understanding that he is addressing them, the religious leaders look for a way to seize him (compare Mt 26:5, 50). Because the Jewish crowds believe that Jesus was a prophet, however (21:11), the leaders must bide their time; they are cowardly politicians (21:45-46).

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