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Jesus told many parables in the temple during the week before His crucifixion. All three synoptic gospels record the parable of the vineyard in considerable detail. We can get the full picture by reading all three accounts.
Luke 20:9 begins the parable by saying,
9 And He began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey for a long time.”
Luke omits details that identify this parable with Isaiah’s “Song of My Beloved” that is recorded in Isaiah 5:1-7. Matthew’s version, however, fills in those details, and if we compare the two, we see immediately that Jesus drew material from Isaiah’s Song. Isaiah 5:1, 2 begins,
1 … My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. 2 And He dug it all around, removed its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine, and He built a tower in the middle of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; then He expected it to produce good grapes, but it produced only worthless ones.
Compare this with Matthew 21:33,
33 Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey.
See also Mark 12:1, which says,
1 And He began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard, and put a wall around it, and dug a vat under the wine press, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey.
In each case, for security the owner built a tower for the watchmen and a wine press (or vat) to make wine. Isaiah adds that He “removed its stones,” but this is omitted by both Matthew and Luke. Jesus used Isaiah’s Song to portray the overall prophecy of Israel being planted in the land of Canaan, but He adapted it to His own circumstances.
Even as God had led Moses to commission Joshua (Yeshua) to plant Israel in the land of Canaan, so also was Jesus (Yeshua) commissioned to plant a new vineyard after destroying the first.
The reason for this destruction, according to Isaiah, was that “it produced only worthless ones,” that is, sour grapes. In other words, Israel did not produce the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23) that God desired from His vineyard. But Jesus’ version applied more specifically to Judah and to Jerusalem in His day, so He gives a new reason for the destruction of the vineyard. Here the vineyard actually did produce fruit, but that fruit was stolen by the vineyard-keepers, who claimed the produce for themselves.
In all three of these gospels, those who had been hired to care for the vineyard usurped the fruit of the vineyard, refusing to recognize the right of the Landowner to enjoy it fruits. While the precise wording of the gospel writers differ, the details are largely the same. Luke 20:10-13 says,
10 And at the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers, in order that they might give him some of the produce of the vineyard; but the vine-growers beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 And he proceeded to send another slave; and they beat him also and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. 12 And he proceeded to send a third; and this one also they wounded and cast out.
Matt. 21:35 and Mark 12:5 indicates that the vine-growers actually killed some of the servants of the Landowner. Luke says only that they beat them and mistreated them. In any case, these servants are obviously the prophets that God sent to Israel in past centuries, John the Baptist being the last of that era. This accords with Luke 13:33, 34,
33 … it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem. 34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her!
Jesus’ parable focuses upon the problem of the religious leaders in Jerusalem—dating back many centuries—in which they had violated the First Commandment. Instead of recognizing God as their King, and seeing themselves as stewards under God, they ruled as if they owned the “vineyard.” For this reason, they mistreated and even killed the prophets throughout their history. Then, as we read in Matt. 23:29, they adorned the tombs of the prophets and hypocritically honored them after they were safely dead.
Jesus continued His parable, bringing it up to the present, saying in Luke 20:13-15,
13 And the owner of the vineyard said, “What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” 14 But when the vine-growers saw him, they reasoned with one another, saying, “This is the heir; let us kill him that the inheritance may be ours.” 15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What, therefore, will the owner of the vineyard do to them?
Jesus was obviously referring to Himself as the “beloved son” of the Landowner. He knew that He had come to Jerusalem, not to be crowned king, but to die on the cross. He already had prepared His disciples for this outcome. The usurpers were not ignorant of the Son’s identity. In fact, they would not have killed Him if they had not recognized that He was indeed the Son of God. Their motive was to steal His inheritance, which in this case was the crown itself—the divine right to rule.
Many have attempted to downplay this part of the parable, preferring to claim that the chief priests were ignorant of Jesus’ true identity. They treat the religious leaders as if they were blind—and, indeed, they were blind on a deeper level, for they did not believe that they would fail in the end. However, they were not blind to the fact that Jesus was the Messiah, nor had their forefathers been blind to the fact that the prophets in times past had been sent by God. In fact, their knowledge of the prophets’ calling was what motivated them to honor them posthumously, pretending that they were in agreement with their word from the beginning.
In Luke 20:14 they say, “This is the heir.”
In Matt. 21:38 they say, “This is the heir.”
In Mark 12:7 they say, “This is the heir.”
Recall that this entire drama was a re-enactment of the conflict between David and Absalom a thousand years earlier, when Absalom overthrew his father and usurped the throne for a season (2 Sam. 15-18). It is obvious that Absalom knew who David was. In fact, Absalom’s motive was based upon that knowledge. He did not accidentally overthrow David in some case of mistaken identity. He knew exactly what he was doing. He even received help from Ahithophel, David’s counselor and friend who betrayed him. Ahithophel was the Judas of that day, and all of David’s references to Ahithophel in the psalms applied later to Judas. (Compare Acts 1:20 with Psalm 69:25; 109:8, and compare also John 13:18 with Psalm 41:9).
So both David and Jesus were not overthrown by mistake. These were deliberate acts, done by men who disagreed with the rightful heirs of the throne and coveted the crown.
From Matthew’s account, we know that before Jesus pronounced the final verdict, He first asked the religious leaders to judge what ought to be done to the usurpers of the vineyard. Their response is given in Matt. 21:41,
41 They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers, who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.”
Matthew then treats Jesus’ verdict as self-evident and saw no need to repeat it. However, Mark 12:9 and Luke 20:16 record what Jesus said after the religious leaders had correctly judged themselves. Luke 20:16 says,
16 He will come and destroy these vine-growers and will give the vineyard to others. And when they heard it, they said, “May it never be!”
The idiom, “May it never be” is usually translated in the KJV as “God forbid!” It implies strong disagreement or contradiction, as if to say that God would never do that. In essence, this statement makes an appeal to God to overrule what has just been said. So Jesus responded to their appeal, saying in Luke 20:17, 18,
17 But He looked at them and said, “What then is this that is written, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief corner stone’? 18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces but on whomsoever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.”
In verse 17 above, Jesus quoted Psalm 118:22, which was prophetic of an event that must have taken place during the construction of Solomon’s temple. This may also explain why the foundation for the temple was not laid until Solomon’s fourth year (2 Chron. 3:2, 3). It appears that the first foundation stone was rejected, and that this prophesied of Christ’s rejection in His first appearance. Paul said in Ephesians 2:20 that Jesus Himself was the corner stone on which the true temple is being built.
In verse 18 above, Jesus referred also to another stone prophecy, this one found in Daniel 2:35. This is the stone kingdom that was to arise after the end of men’s kingdoms. Daniel 7 refers to the kingdoms of men in terms of “beasts,” but in Daniel 2 they are pictured as metallic parts of an image of a man: head of gold, arms of silver, belly of bronze, and legs of iron. The Kingdom of God is then seen as a stone crushing the image, beginning with its feet. Daniel 2:35 says,
35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed all at the same time, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
Later, in Daniel’s interpretation in Daniel 2:44, it says, “it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever.” Hence, when Jesus said in Luke 20:18 that “on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust,” He was referring to the great stone at the end of the age, which will fall upon the empires of men and crush them into “dust.”
This was Jesus’ second witness to the verdict given at the end of the parable. He was implying that Jerusalem had joined the kingdoms of men in their hearts. Their rebellion against God and against the Son was to result in their destruction, for the stone Kingdom was to crush them along with all other kingdoms of men.
More specifically, He was prophesying that they would be found sitting on the feet of the statue in Daniel 2, and that is the reason for the final destruction of Jerusalem according to the prophecy in Jer. 19:11.
Luke 20:19 gives the reaction to Jesus’ words:
19 And the scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them.
Matt. 21:45, 46 gives further details, saying,
45 And when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. 46 And when they sought to seize Him, they feared the multitudes, because they held Him to be a prophet.
The importance of this parable is seen in the fact that it was recorded by all three synoptic gospel writers. Matthew and Luke seem to tell us that this was the parable that so enraged them that they decided to kill Jesus. When we understand that this parable was spoken on Monday at the time of Christ’s second triumphal entry, and that it also occurred shortly after He had cast out the bankers from the temple, we can then see that this was when the chief priests selected Jesus as the Lamb on that tenth day of the month.