The Parables of Jesus: Lesson 14: Two Parables in a Vineyard Setting

The Unusual Vineyard Owner: Matthew 19:30-20:16

Immediate Setting

In Matthew 19:16, a man approached Jesus: “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?”  Jesus then brought up God’s Law (vs. 18-19), to which the man responded, “I have kept all these.”  So, Jesus told him something He knew he couldn’t do, “Go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  For the man wanted to earn his way to heaven, which is impossible.

When the disciples heard this, they were astonished and asked, “Then who can be saved?”  Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (vs. 25-26).

Peter not “getting it,” asked Jesus, “We have left everything and followed you.  So what will we get?”  Jesus then tells Peter, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (vs. 30), followed by a parable.



Jewish Background

As a backdrop to this parable is a Jewish Midrash.  A Midrash is a commentary of the Old Testament written down and passed on in Jewish tradition.  Here we find a Midrash parable as a commentary for Psalm 37.

With whom may David be compared?  As a laborer who worked all his days for his King.  When the King did not give him his hire, he was troubled: “Am I to go forth with nothing in my hands?”  So, the King hired another laborer who worked for him for only a day.  After, the King set meat and drink before him and paid him his hire in full.

The laborer who worked all his days for His king objected.  “Such reward for this one who did no more than work but one day for the king?  How much more must my reward be since I labored for the king all the days of my life!”  The other worker went away, and the one who worked all his days for the king was glad in his heart.

Read Matthew 20:1-2

The standard workday during the grape harvest was 12 hours.  Since the landowner hires workers “early in the morning,” this shows this to be harvest time.  A denarius was the average wages for a day’s labor.

  • What does the parable describe?


  • Who then is the “master of the house”?


  • What Peter asked brought Jesus to tell this parable. If Peter represents a laborer in the vineyard, when would he have been hired?


“hire”: Greek, misthoo, usually means “hire” but can also mean “reward.”


Read Matthew 20:3-7

  • What is the hiring sequence of the workers?


  • With the others hired, the owner found “others standing idle in the marketplace.” What does this tell us about where they were not earlier?


  • How long will those hired at the 11th hour work?


The Torah required hired help to receive their earnings by sundown at the end of each workday (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

Read Matthew 20:8

  • In what order does the owner choose to pay the workers?


  • How does this help begin to reinforce what Jesus earlier told Peter, “the first will be last and the last first”?


Read Matthew 20:9-12

  • How much does each worker get paid?


  • How do those hired first react? How does this mirror Peter’s attitude?


“grumbled”: Greek, goguzo, to grumble, complain, or murmur.  We find God using this same verb to describe the people of Israel, “How long will this wicked community grumble against me?” (Numbers 14:27, LXX).  In Numbers 14:2 and 36, it describes the people complaining against Moses and Aaron.  So, this grumbling is not God-pleasing.

  • How does the early workers’ complaint, “you have made them equal to us,” reveal about the Kingdom of God?


Read Matthew 20:13-16

  • How does the owner explain his actions?


  • This parable is about the kingdom of heaven. What does this parable reveal about the “rewards” God gives at the end of the day (symbolizing the Last Day, in Matthew 25)?


  • What does “do you begrudge my generosity?” reveals concerning who decides what “reward” each gets and what it is based on?


“go”: When the master told the grumbling workers to “go,” this is an imperative, command.  “Rewards” not based on grace and God’s generosity have no place in the kingdom of God.

“begrudge”: literally “Is your eye evil” (ponaros).  The accusers become the accused, having “evil eyes” against the good (agathos) master.

  • How is Jesus’ parable different than the Jewish Midrash?


The Vineyard Owner: Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, and Luke 20:9-19


Grapes were one of the most important crops in ancient Israel.  The imagery of the vineyard develops a theme present in Noah’s planting of a vineyard (Genesis 9:20), in which he as “another Adam” fails to establish a new paradise.  This theme reappears in the description of Canaan as the land of grapes (Numbers 13:23) and Israel as God’s vineyard (Psalm 80:8-9; Isaiah 5:1, 27:2; Jeremiah 2:21, 12:10; Hosea 10:1).

Jesus tells this parable to the Jewish leadership in the Temple.  He starts out, “There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower …”  This imagery is deliberate.  Isaiah 5:1-7, also mentions a fence, a winepress, and a tower.

I [God] will sing about my beloved [Hebrew, yedidi, which resonates the name “Solomon,” yedideyah, 2 Samuel 12:25], a song about my beloved’s vineyard: The one I love [Hebrew, dwd, an allusion to David] had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  He broke up the soil, cleared it of stones, and planted it with the finest vines.  He built a tower in the middle of it and even dug out a winepress there.  He expected it to yield good grapes, but it yielded worthless grapes.

So now, residents of Jerusalem and men of Judah, please judge between me and my vineyard.  What more could I have done for my vineyard than I did?  Why, when I expected a yield of good grapes, did it yield worthless grapes?  Now I will tell you what I am about to do to my vineyard: I will remove its hedge, and it will be consumed; I will tear down its wall, and it will be trampled.  I will make it a wasteland.  It will not be pruned or weeded; thorns and briers will grow up.  I will also give orders to the clouds that rain should not fall on it.  For the vineyard of the Lord of Armies is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah, the plant he delighted in.  He expected justice but saw injustice; he expected righteousness, but heard cries of despair.

By mentioning a vineyard with a wall and winepress, the listeners are expecting this to be a story contrasting the care God lavishes on His people against their ingratitude and lack of the fruits of faith.

After planting a vineyard, it normally took four years for the vines to mature and begin producing harvestable grapes.  Not until the fifth year did the crops and profits begin, according to the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 19:23-25).  So, not only did the landowner own the land, build the facilities, and plant the crops, he also subsidized the tenants in the four unproductive years before crops appeared.



The Parable

Read Matthew 21:33-34

“fruit”: The term used to represent the results of good or evil conduct (Isaiah 3:10; Jeremiah 6:19, Matthew 7:16-20).  God wishes to find in His people this: From the seed of righteousness the fruit of love (Hosea 10:12).  For the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, piety, and good deeds” (Galatians 5:22).

  • If the master “went into another country” [heaven], how will he communicate with His tenants?


Read Matthew 21:35-36

Mark 12:5b: “And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed.”

  • Who then are these servants whom God sent to His people?


The Old Testament is full descriptions on how badly the Israelites treated God’s prophets: 1 Kings 19:10, 14; 2 Chronicles 24:19-21; 36:15-16; Nehemiah 9:26; Jeremiah 2:30, 7:25-26, 26:20-24, 37:15.

Read Matthew 21:37

Mark 12:6 and Luke 20:13: “beloved son.”  This recalls God’s words spoken at Jesus’ baptism.

  • Whom does the son in the parable represent?


Read Matthew 21:37-28

  • What did they do with the son?  Why?


  • Does it make sense to think they will inherit the property if the son is dead?


“Come let us kill him”: This is the exact same phrase Joseph’s brothers used in Genesis 37:20a (LXX) when they were planning to kill him.  Jesus is telling this parable to Jewish leaders, so they won’t miss the Old-Testament reference to the hideousness of this evil.

The tenants representing Israel rejected the son because they were unwilling to relinquish control over the vineyard.  They stopped being stewards of what was God’s and began to seek to become the owners.

Read Matthew 21:39

  • How does this foreshadow how Jesus will die?


John 19:17: Carrying the cross by himself, [Jesus] went out to what is called Place of the Skull [which was outside the city gates], which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.

Hebrews 13:12: Therefore, Jesus also suffered outside the gate, so that he might sanctify the people by his own blood.

Jesus now asks the Jewish leaders a question.

Read Matthew 21:40-41

  • How do they answer Jesus’ question about what the owner (kyrios, Lord) of the vineyard will do?


Luke includes more of their response: “But when they heard this they said, ‘That must never happen!’” (Luke 20:16).  The response is visceral and considered unimaginable.

Read Matthew 21:42

Jesus is quoting Psalm 118:22-23, which celebrated the Lord’s rescue of Israel from her enemies.  The psalm compared Israel’s vindication over its foes to a rejected stone, which became the cornerstone (“head of the stone”).  First set at the corner of two walls, this stone joined and strengthened both walls.  No cornerstone, no building.

A pilgrimage song, the people would sing Psalm 118 as they made their way into the Temple to worship (Psalm 118:19-26).  So, the “head of the stone” in this psalm didn’t refer to any ordinary building but the Temple of the Lord.  With Jesus identifying Himself the stone without which the Temple would not stand, He is referring to Himself as the Temple.

John 2:19-21:

Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days.”  Therefore, the Jews said, “This temple took 46 years to build, and will you raise it up in three days?”  But he was speaking about the temple of his body.

If Jesus was speaking the parable in Aramaic, the “wordplay” strengthens the linkage between the son and stone.  For the son (ben) they rejected now becomes the stone (eben), which is the “head of the stone” for the Temple.

Read Matthew 21:43-44

Continuing to use the stone imagery, Jesus’ words about someone who falls on this stone alludes to Isaiah 8:14-15, where the Lord becomes a stumbling stone for the unfaithful:

He [the Lord of Hosts] will be a sanctuary; but for the two houses of Israel, he will be a stone to stumble over and a rock to trip over, and a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.  Many will stumble over these; they will fall and be broken; they will be snared and captured.

  • In the Jewish way of grouping the world, you have Jews and Gentiles. So, if the Jews rejected Jesus, then to whom will the kingdom of God be given?


Read Matthew 21:45-46

  • What do the Jewish leaders realize about the parable?


  • What keeps them from acting?


Such irony.  Imagine how the first hearers of Matthew’s Gospel marveled at the opposition of the religious leaders.  For they recognize themselves as the ones planning to kill God’s Son (21:45).  Now, we realize they realize Jesus is more than a prophet, something which the crowds well understood.

Those listening to the parable of the vineyard identify they are the untrustworthy tenants, yet they still proceed to kill Jesus—as the parable says (21:33-46).  The Parable of the Wedding Feast follows this, which becomes the second judgment on them.  The Jews, who recognized themselves as responsible for Jesus’ death in the parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:45), reject another chance for inclusion in God’s kingdom in the Parable of the Wedding Feast (22:1-14).

In both parables, Gentiles take the place of Jews as God’s people who will constitute the church (Matthew 28:19).  For in the Parable of the Wedding Feast, the son killed by the tenants in the earlier parable, is now alive in the second parable.  Joyous life follows treacherous death.


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