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Matthew 21:33-46 Biblical Commentary:
MATTHEW 21:23 – 22:14. THE CONTEXT
This controversy section began with Jesus cleansing the temple (21:12-17) and cursing an unfruitful fig tree (21:18-22). The chief priests and elders asked Jesus, “By what authority do you do these things?” (“these things” meaning the cleansing of the temple). Jesus countered by asking, “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” When his critics refused to answer him, Jesus refused to answer them. He then responded with three parables of judgment (or four, depending on how you count 22:1-14):
• The Parable of the Two Sons (21:28-32)
• The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-46)
• The Parable(s) of the Wedding Banquet (22:1-10) and the Wedding Garments (22:11-14). These are often counted as one parable because of their common setting, but verses 1-10 and verses 11-14 make different points, and may therefore be considered two parables.
MATTHEW 21:33-41. THE PARABLE OF THE TENANT FARMERS
33“Hear another parable. There was a man who was a master of a household,(oikodespotes) who planted a vineyard, set a hedge about it, dug a winepress in it, built a tower, leased it out to farmers, and went into another country. 34When the season for the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the farmers, to receive his fruit. 35The farmers took his servants, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they treated them the same way. 37But afterward he sent to them his son, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But the farmers, when they saw the son, said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and seize his inheritance.’ 39So they took him, and threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40When therefore the lord (Greek: kurios—Lord) of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers?”
41They told him, “He will miserably destroy those miserable men, and will lease out the vineyard to other farmers, who will give him the fruit (Greek: karpous—fruits) in its season.”
“Hear another parable” (v. 33a). This is one of only three parables to be found in all three Synoptic Gospels (see also Mark 12:1-13; Luke 20:9-19)—the other two being the Parable of the Sower (13:1-23) and the Parable of the Mustard Seed (13:31-32).
The Parable of the Tenants is an allegory—a story in which each of the elements (people, things, and happenings) has a hidden or symbolic meaning:
• The landowner/Lord is God.
• The vineyard is the nation of Israel.
• The tenants are the people of Israel or its religious leaders.
• The servants/slaves are the prophets.
• The son is Jesus.
• The other tenants are most likely the church, although some scholars find other meanings for tenants.
NOTE: Allegorical interpretation has a bad reputation due to historical misuse, and many people shun it. However, most scholars today agree that this parable is allegorical, but warn us not to push the allegorical approach too far—not to impose a special meaning on every element (i.e., the fence, wine press, and watchtower).
Once we understand the code, the meaning becomes clear:
• God established a covenant with Israel (planted a vineyard).
• God sent the prophets (his servants/slaves) whom the tenants (the Israelites) killed (see 1 Kings 19:10, 14; 2 Chronicles 24:18-22; 36:15-16; Acts 7:51-53; Matthew 23:29-39).
• God sent his Son (Jesus) whom the tenants (the Israelites) killed.
• God put the original tenants to death (pronounced judgment upon Israel). From Matthew’s perspective late in the first century, this means the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., which took place several years prior to the writing of this Gospel.
• God leased the vineyard to other tenants (the church) who will “give him the fruit in its season” (v. 41).
“There was a man who was a master of a household, who planted a vineyard, set a hedge about it, dug a winepress in it, built a tower” (v. 33b). The people to whom Jesus was speaking would recognize the vineyard imagery from Isaiah 5:1-2 where the landowner planted a vineyard, built a watchtower, and hewed out a wine vat. Jesus uses each of these elements in his story:
• In Isaiah, the owner “looked for it (the vineyard) to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes”—the disappointing grapes being the fruits of the people of Israel. Therefore the owner destroyed the vineyard, removing the hedge, breaking down the wall, and commanding the clouds not to rain upon it (Isaiah 5:5-6).
• In Jesus’ story, the outcome is not the destruction of the vineyard but is instead its transfer to “other farmers, who will give him the fruit (karpous—fruits) in its season” (v. 41).
This landowner must be wealthy. He spends money freely to make this an excellent vineyard even though it won’t produce fruit for at least four years. It would be possible to plant a vineyard without a fence or wine press or watchtower, and that is what most landowners would do. This landowner, however, does everything right—everything! He spares no expense in making this a first-class vineyard—a vineyard that lends itself to efficient operation—a vineyard that gives the tenants every advantage.
When we understand this parable as an allegory, this means that God has done everything possible to give Israel every advantage. He has established an everlasting covenant with them—has led them through good times and bad—has given them the Promised Land as their inheritance—has given them the law and prophets to guide them.
“leased it out to farmers, and went into another country” (v. 33c). This would be a sharecropper arrangement where the tenant would keep a certain percentage of the fruit and would give the rest to the landlord.
The allegory breaks down somewhat at this point, because this landowner becomes an absentee landlord, but God has never been absent from his people. However, we should never expect an allegory to be exact in every detail.
“When the season for the fruit drew near” (v. 34). In verse 41 the chief priests and elders say, “He will miserably destroy those miserable men, and will lease out the vineyard to other farmers, who will give him the fruit (Greek: tous karpous—the fruits) in its season.” Then in verse 43, Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and will be given to a nation bringing forth its fruit.” (karpous)
The triple emphasis on “fruit” in these verses reflects the importance of the word throughout this Gospel (see also 3:8; 3:10; 7:17-18; 12:33; 13:23 and 21:19). For Matthew, fruit connotes the produce of one’s life. The Jewish leadership, which failed to produce good fruit, is being disenfranchised, and the vineyard is being given to the church, which will produce good fruit.
“When the season for the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the farmers, to receive his fruit” (v. 34). This is a new vineyard, so the owner cannot expect much fruit for the first several years. It is important, however, that he show diligence in collecting his rent (or his portion of the produce). If the tenants can show that they have had unsupervised ownership of the land for three years, they stand a good chance of establishing title in their own names—taking legal possession of the land. By collecting rent on a regular basis, the landowner is protecting his title to his land (Morris, 540). The amount collected is less important than the fact that the owner collects it and re-establishes his ownership.
“The farmers took his servants, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other servants more than the first” (v. 35-36). At this point, the story takes on an exaggerated character, because in real life the landowner would send soldiers to punish the tenants. This is a story of God’s grace, however, and exaggeration is appropriate to a story of God’s grace.
The allusion is to Israel’s treatment of God’s prophets. They killed Zechariah by stoning him (2 Chronicles 24:21)—beat Jeremiah and placed him in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:2)—killed the prophet Uriah (Jeremiah 26:21-23)—and “killed your (God’s) prophets that testified against them to turn them again to you (God)” (Nehemiah 9:26). (See also Matthew 5:12; 23:29-37).
“But afterward he sent to them his son, saying, ‘They will respect my son'” (v. 37). The son, as the father’s heir and official representative, acts with the father’s authority and is entitled to the same respect as these tenants would show the father.
The author of Hebrews expresses the same thought, saying, “God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
“But the farmers, when they saw the son, said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and seize his inheritance'” (v. 38). The tenants, however, see an opportunity to inherit the vineyard by killing the heir. This stretches the limits of the story. A tenant who killed the landlord’s son could not expect to get the son’s inheritance unless the tenants somehow overcame the landlord—and law enforcement as well. However, a parable doesn’t have to fit reality at every point. Jesus is telling this story to make a point—that he is God’s son sent to redeem the world, and that the Jewish authorities are going to kill him.
“So they took him, and threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him” (v. 39). If they were to kill him in the vineyard, the ground would become unclean, contaminating its produce, so they throw him out of the vineyard before killing him. This murder outside the vineyard will correspond to Jesus’ death on Golgotha, outside Jerusalem (27:33)—”Therefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered outside of the gate” (Hebrews 13:12).
“When therefore the lord (kurios—Lord) of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers?” (v. 40). The landowner (oikodespotes—master of the house) of verse 33 becomes the Lord (kyrios) in verse 40. However, this verse does not point to the Second Coming. It is simply an incidental part of the larger story and requires no allegorical interpretation.
“They told him, “He will miserably destroy those miserable men, and will lease out the vineyard to other farmers, who will give him the fruit in its season” (v. 41). In this verse, the chief priests and elders pronounce judgment on themselves as they tell Jesus how unfaithful tenants should be treated. Matthew writes this Gospel after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and surely associates this judgment with that event as well as the call of the Gentiles.
This parable could tempt us to spiritual pride or anti-Semitism, but neither is appropriate. God has taken the vineyard from those who were not worthy (Israel) and given it to those who are (the church). However, the judgment pronounced on the original tenants serves as a warning to the new tenants.
We see this principle acted out in the rise and fall of denominations and congregations. We could be discouraged as we see the waning (falling) of denominations that have long held sway—and that is sad for those of us who have loved those denominations. We could get discouraged by impressive old buildings that house small groups of aging worshipers. But the Holy Spirit brings about the birth of new churches that, although they might seem unattractive to us, are nevertheless faithful and fruitful. And sometimes, the Holy Spirit breathes new life into the old bones. We need not worry about the church of Jesus Christ. It is alive and well, and Christ will see that it stays that way.
MATTHEW 21:42-44. THE HEAD OF THE CORNER
42Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures,
‘The stone which the builders rejected,
the same was made the head of the corner.
This was from the Lord.
It is marvelous in our eyes?’
43“Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and will be given to a nation bringing forth its fruit. 44He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomever it will fall, it will scatter him as dust.”
“The stone which the builders rejected, the same was made the head of the corner” (v. 42). Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23. The rejected stone—the crucified Christ—will become the cornerstone (Greek: “head of the corner) of God’s new edifice. In a physical building the “head of the corner” could refer to a stone that supports two walls at a corner—or it could refer to the headstone in an arch.
In Isaiah, God uses cornerstone metaphorically to assure Israel of her secure future (Isaiah 28:16).
In Ephesians, the author speaks of “the household of God” (the church) “being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19)
A bit of wordplay! Jesus most likely speaks Aramaic, and the Aramaic words son (ben) (vv. 37-38) and stone (eben) (v. 42) form an alliteration that links son with stone.
In verse 43, Jesus tells the religious leaders, “the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and will be given to a nation bringing forth its fruit.” When plural, ethnos typically refers to Gentiles. However, it is singular here, perhaps referring to the church, composed of Jews and Gentiles—a new ethnos (people) of God.
God is looking for people who will bring forth fruit. What kind of fruit? Holy lives—lives lived in accord with God’s will. God won’t judge us based on the number of sermons we have preached or the number of people we have baptized. He will count us as fruitful if we have been faithful.
“He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomever it will fall, it will scatter him as dust” (v. 44). This verse is missing in several important manuscripts, but most scholars today regard it as authentic. It has roots in two Old Testament passages:
• “He will be a sanctuary, but for both houses of Israel, he will be a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Many will stumble over it, fall, be broken, be snared, and be captured” (Isaiah 8:14-15).
• “You saw until a stone was cut out without hands, which struck the image on its feet that were of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces… In the days of those kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people; but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever. Because you saw that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God has made known to the king what shall happen hereafter: and the dream is certain, and its interpretation sure” (Daniel 2:34, 44-45).
Verse 44 warns us that the cornerstone becomes a stumbling stone for the unfaithful. It has been said, “You can’t break God’s laws; you can only break yourself on them.” A practical illustration of that principle has to do with the law of gravity. God in his grace has created gravity to anchor us to Earth. We can use other physical laws to counter gravity to permit flight, but the person who tries to ignore gravity or who miscalculates its force can find him/herself crushed by its power. So also the person who fails to live according to God’s will can find him/herself crushed by God’s power.
It is interesting to imagine how Israel’s history would have been different had its leaders accepted Jesus. It is unlikely that they would have provoked the Romans to the war that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Jesus warned, “There will not be left here one stone on another, that will not be thrown down” (24:2). That actually happened.
This should serve as a warning for us. The day will come when God will demand an accounting, and the stone, intended to provide us a strong foundation, will crush those have failed to position themselves in proper relationship to it.
MATTHEW 21:45-46. THEY SOUGHT TO SEIZE HIM
45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he spoke about them. 46When they sought to seize him, they feared the multitudes, because they considered him to be a prophet.
“the chief priests and the Pharisees” (v. 45). Earlier, the chief priests were paired with the elders of the people (v. 23), but here they are paired with the Pharisees. It is an odd coupling, because most priests are Sadducees. Pharisees and Sadducees have different belief systems and are often rivals. Here, however, they come together against a common foe—Jesus.
“they perceived that he spoke about them” (v. 45). It dawns on the chief priests and Pharisees that the parables of the two sons (vv. 28-32) and the vineyard (vv. 33-40) are really stories about them and their disobedience.
“When they sought to seize him, they feared the multitudes, because they considered him to be a prophet” (v. 46). This crowd is composed of people who have little power as individuals. However, together their influence is sufficient to block the actions of religious leaders who have considerable power.
In the Gospels, crowds are usually loyal to those like John the Baptist and Jesus whose lives reflect the presence of God. However, a crowd will soon turn on Jesus and shout, “Let him be crucified” (27:22-23). Will those be the same people who favor Jesus now? We don’t know, but it is hard to believe that they are.
There are two alternatives: First, they are the same people, and the religious leaders will persuade them to abandon their support of Jesus. Second, the religious leaders will pull together a crowd of people on whose support they can count, and it is this different crowd who will call for Jesus’ crucifixion. I favor the second of these alternatives, but cannot prove that it is correct.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Myers, Allen C., The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
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