“Terrible Tenants”

Matthew 21:33-46

Today’s Scripture is a continuation of where we left off last week. Jesus has returned to the city of Jerusalem after spending His first day of Passover week tipping over the tables of the moneychangers. He is back at the temple, on the second day and he is teaching. The chief priests and elders have approached Him and questioned His authority. They certainly didn’t invite Him to come to the temple to preach. Jesus diverted that question last week by presenting His own question, which the leaders chose not to answer. Jesus continued by telling the parable we read last week about two sons. He continues with today’s parable of the terrible tenants. Next week, we will read the third parable Jesus offered. 

When we were listening to Daniel read today’s Scripture how many of you immediately remembered another piece of Scripture from the Old Testament? I guarantee you when Jesus sat in the temple and started His parable of the terrible tenants, everyone within earshot would have instantly been reminded of this particular love poem, written by the prophet Isaiah,  

The Song of the Vineyard

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.

He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.

What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?

Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.

I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress 

This was a difficult message that Isaiah had to give to his people. He believed the leaders of Israel had squandered the opportunities God had given them. He was well known as a prophet and not always liked because he told things the way they were and it wasn’t always nice. 

Jesus arrives on the scene, 700 years later, as a prophet, proclaiming the same message, to the religious leaders of Israel, of His day. His message comes in the form of a second parable of what will happen when God’s people reject the Messiah. 

Jesus starts this parable out almost exactly like Isaiah’s love poem, however, instead of ending up with rotting fruit, Jesus puts in His story, rotten tenants. 

Jesus is telling, in parable form, exactly what is happening in the moment as these leaders reject Jesus. 

His parable begins with

> a landowner who planted a vineyard

> he built a wall around it

> he dug a winepress in it

> he even built a watchtower

Almost word for word of Isaiah. But in Jesus’ parable, the owner rents out His vineyard to some farmers and goes on. This would have been a common occurrence in Jesus’ day. Many wealthy men owned farms and hired out farmers to do the work. It was a type of investment property. 

When the harvest time approached, the vineyard owner sent his servant to the farmers to collect his fruit. Now the farmers have been hired to work the land and produce fruit for the landowner. But when the landowner tries to get his fruit, the farmers 

  • seized the first servant
  • beat another 
  • and stoned a third
  • they did the same to even more servants the landowner sent

Okay, Jesus’ parable seems to be getting a bit rough. Was Jesus describing a scene that had happened before, so that everyone listening would understand? 


Was Jesus describing a scene that many hired farmers had possibly pictured in their minds, 

probably yes. 

You see, landowners in the time Jesus was around were not always the nicest of wealthy gentlemen. We know that God had established land ownership rules to allow the poorer landowner the ability to maintain their land against the greedy wealthy landowner. But that is not what happened. Those rules were not followed. In fact, most of the wealthy landowners were not even Jewish. Those who were from Rome and Caesarea had bought up the land and were hiring the previous land owners to work their own land but the produce went to the landowners. Jesus’ story was something the oppressed Jewish landowner, if not already thought, would have quickly related to. Check in to what is happening in this story. There is a mutiny going on. The landowner, who was away, has been sending servants who at this point are being killed. It has become a crazy event and as a last resort, the landowner sends his son. The son should have the most authority of all. 

He would be the embodiment of the family estate and be able to take control. Surely they will respect the son. But when the tenants saw the son, they saw what they thought would be the opportunity to take over the vineyard. They decided to kill the son and thought this would give them his inheritance. 

If you stop and think about this story, it seems ludicrous. How on earth did these hired land workers go from being hired by the landowner, to thinking that by getting rid of the servants and killing the family members of the land owner, they would somehow get an inheritance? They have obviously fostered the illusion that they are going to somehow own the vineyard. And with this illusion they produce some very violent, radical behavior, to kill people, including the son of the owner. 

None of this is true, but the tenants have come to believe that it is. 

Jesus finishes this parable with a question to those who were listening, the chief priests and elders. He asks them, verse 40,

 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 

Okay, at this point in the telling of this parable, Jesus has absorbed those who were listening. Their answer doesn’t miss a beat, the chief priests reply with, verse 41, 

“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”

The chief priests tap into the whole purpose of the parable, or of the landowner, which was to produce fruit. They have the landowner getting rid of the terrible tenants and finding new ones. Ones who will do the right thing and produce the fruit and give it to the landowner. However, they were so wrapped up in getting the correct answer, they didn’t even realize Jesus had set them up. 

Because Jesus has to ask them again, “Haven’t you read your Bible?”

And He quotes another poem from the Old Testament, from Psalm 118. 

“‘The stone the builders rejected

    has become the cornerstone;

the Lord has done this,

    and it is marvelous in our eyes’

As Jesus quotes this piece of Psalm 118 He expects that everyone listening to Him also knows the rest of the poem. Because this poem along with other Psalms was sung in the temple liturgy, specifically during Passover. They all have this memorized. 

Jesus equates His parable of the terrible tenants rejecting the son of the landowner, with the story of the stone that the builders reject, that God chose to be the very cornerstone, the most important. 

What does this all mean? 

Jesus answers in verses 43 & 44,

“Therefore I tell you

Jesus was speaking directly to the chief priests and elders, 

Can you imagine this scene? This had to have been intense. The one who created heaven and earth, who had set up a plan for the leaders of Israel to shepherd God’s people and provide a way for them to come to the temple a meeting place, with God, and to demonstrate to the nations around them that God was the light on the hill was looking them in the eye and basically telling them they had botched the job. 

They had done it in Isaiah’s day and they were still doing so in Jesus’ day. And Jesus was calling them to account. 

that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.  

The temple was going to be destroyed. Jesus was the new covenant, the new temple, the new cornerstone of a temple that was no longer a building, but a movement, a new path for Israel to follow. Jesus was claiming Himself as the new leader of the people of Israel. Not only that, Jesus gets downright intense, He then states, 

Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” 

Again, Jesus quotes from Old Testament prophets, Isaiah 8 and Daniel 2, and predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, because they have rejected their Messiah. 

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 

That is about the time you can see the steam coming out of the ears of the priests and elders. They have been had, and they were ripped. Their first instinct was to have Him arrested but they think better of the idea, because the people love Jesus and think He is a prophet. Can you imagine the looks on their faces and the disgust in their eyes?

Time to check in.

What just happened? 

Jesus has told the highest people in His religious leadership they were guilty of total mismanagement. They had an opportunity to be brought into God’s story and to be a part of what God wanted to do in the world, 

but something happened within their minds and their hearts and now they were going to murder the Son and reject the chosen stone. But God is planning to do something marvelous, He is going to reverse their decision. He’s actually going to undo the murder and take the rejected stone and make it the cornerstone of God’s Kingdom. 

How does this fit into our lives? 

This passage was a conversation between Jesus and the chief priest and elders of the Jewish synagogue. That’s not us. He wasn’t talking to His disciples, He was talking to leaders of Israel. 

But what was the purpose of this whole metaphoric parable? Let’s go back and look at verse 43, 

“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 

The Kingdom of God will be given to people who will produce fruit. What is good fruit? Right relationships, between God and His children and God’s children with each other. 

God is on a mission to redeem, restore and set right what we have made of His good world. He’s doing that through His Son Jesus, and those who are part of His kingdom. And if we go to the end of the story, join me in going to end of Matthew, chapter 28, verse 18,

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Jesus came and took the authority from the priests and the elders and He is now in control. 

Therefore go (my farmers) and (produce fruit) make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. 

(All the instructions Jesus provided beginning with the Sermon on the Mount, were instructions on how to produce fruit.) And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The warning Jesus provided to the religious leaders becomes a warning for all of us who are called to produce fruit. Beware, as a disciple of Christ, not to miss the whole point of following Him. Jesus wants us to produce fruit. 

The failure of the leaders of Israel becomes a warning to us. How do you get to the mindset, where you reject the son? Where someone has invited you to be a part of their deal, but you come to think of it as being your deal. Then all of a sudden you see everything as owed to you and belonging to you, and because of this you start behaving in ways that are totally irrational and destructive. They don’t make any sense. 

In this parable they get so wrapped up in themselves they don’t see that it was never about them but was about producing fruit. And they start doing whatever it takes to protect what they think is theirs, and everyone is the enemy. 

At what point do people get to the place of the chief priests and elders? 

It happens to humans all the time. We get so wrapped up in our own world. We get sucked up in our day to day and in the world around us that we forget we have accepted the invitation to be a tenant of God’s vineyard. Without even recognizing it we come to think of our lives, our resources and our relationships as “mine.” If you look back at the Sermon on the Mount and through Jesus’ life one of the major themes Jesus tried to get across was that life is a gift. Remember the stories of the flowers and the trees and anxiety? Who is really taking care of things? Part of the reason we are stressed out is because we start thinking that life is about us and everything you have belongs to us. So it is either owed to you or if you don’t have it, you are angry about it and Jesus just flips everything on its head and says, “Hello! You have forgotten, everything is a gift.” Everything is a gift from who we know as the generous Father. When I start viewing my life as mine, then the possessiveness begins. It’s a delusion. 

Jesus is challenging us to cultivate the mindset that every day is a gift. Every breath is a gift, the people in my life, everything in my life is a gift. But with gifts comes responsibility. 

When Lydia was in eighth grade, Mr. Stenstrum taught an after school class on archery. She loved it and wanted a bow of her own. Had we given her a bow and arrow prior to middle school it would have been dangerous. 

Either her or Emily would have had an arrow in the head or back because they weren’t mature enough to understand you aren’t supposed to shoot people. Or they wouldn’t have had the strength to even pull back the bow. When we gave them their bows we had a conversation with them about the responsibility they needed to have in order to own it. 

The responsibility in this parable is to produce fruit.

Take a look at next week. Wherever you find yourself, whatever God has placed in your life to do, whether it is a job that you go to every day or its taking care of the house or your family. Whatever you do on a daily basis, God isn’t that concerned with the minor details. What He’s really concerned about is your heart, and are you doing something to produce fruit for the Kingdom? All of us are part of a family of some sort. 

We can start there, and I encourage all of us to see our family, whether we like them or not, as part of a gift. Part of the vineyard that God has called us into to produce fruit. By doing what? Doing what He has commanded, Loving God and loving my neighbor. If we can cultivate the mindset that I don’t own my family, or my house, or my job, that they are gifts, and that we have been hired to work in the vineyard to produce fruit, we won’t end up like the chief priests and elders.  

The moment I begin to think that everyone owes me, that God owes me, I deserve _______ you fill in the blank, it all goes downhill. It’s the delusion Jesus exposes in this parable. 

And whether we live in the delusion or we are trying to wake up from the delusion, God loves us, and He is committed to us. 

So this week, think of the family members that you hate, or you don’t like or estranged from, and you may have to be around them, what are you going to do, how can you produce fruit for the kingdom? What about your workplace, or whatever your situation, maybe you don’t like it? What are you going to do this week? Wherever we find ourselves, what are we going to do? 

May we remember Jesus has given it to us as a gift. May we see it as an opportunity to produce fruit for the kingdom. 

Let’s pray.