Commentary on Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46
We have here a parable spoken to the unbelieving chief priests and elders of the people.
It is the history of the Israelite people told in parable form. In fact, it is more of an allegory than a parable as each of the persons and incidents described point to real people and real events. Some scholars feel that what we have here is really an early Church document rather than something directly from Jesus. What seems more likely is that a parable spoken by Jesus has been modified in the light of later events.
The owner of the vineyard is clearly God. The vineyard is the house of Israel, where God’s people are to be found. The tenants of the vineyard are the people of God. The servants sent to collect the harvest are abused in various ways – beaten, killed, stoned.
The servants represent the prophets and other spokespersons sent by God to his people, many of whom were rejected, not listened to and even abused. Finally, the owner decides to send his son. “They will respect my son.” On the contrary, they saw that, if they got rid of the son, they could take over the whole vineyard for themselves. They could carry on without the owner.
So they seized the son, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. A clear reference to Jesus being crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem.
And what will the king do then? Jesus asks. The leaders condemn themselves by answering the question: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end” as happened when the city of Jerusalem was totally destroyed in 70 AD.
Instead, the vineyard is let out to new tenants – those Jews and Gentiles, the new people of God, who believe in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. The stone rejected by the builders becomes the cornerstone. “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” (This is one of only two instances where Matthew uses the term ‘Kingdom of God’ rather than ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.) The Gentiles had for long been rejected as unbelievers and outsiders. Now, it is on them, together with those Jews who accepted Jesus, that the Kingdom will be built.
The Gospel ends by commenting that Jesus’ hearers understood his message perfectly but, because of Jesus’ popularity with the people, they could do nothing in retaliation for the moment.
Again and again it has happened in world history that fighters for truth and justice have been rejected, jailed, tortured and eventually found themselves the saviours of their people. Pavel in Czechoslovakia, Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther King in the US, Gandhi in India.
Let us make sure that we are listening to the right people, the people who have the message of truth, love and justice and that we follow them. Jesus our Saviour still speaks through his followers.