The Wicked Husbandman: Animosity and Retribution

“He then begins to speak to them in parables. A certain man plants a vineyard, fences it in, excavates a winepress, builds a watchtower, leases it to tenants, and travels to a distant country. At the end of the season he sends a servant to collect the proceeds. They seize him, lash him, and send him back empty handed. The owner sends another servant, but him they stone, wound him in the head, and drive him away insulted and maltreated. He dispatches another and they murder him. He sends many others, but some are beaten and some are killed.

The only one left is his beloved son, so he sends him thinking, ‘Surely they will respect my son.’ But the tenants conspire among themselves and say, ‘This is the future owner; let us kill him and the property will be ours.’ So they seize him, murder him, and dump his body outside the vineyard. What will the owner do? He will come, put the tenants to death, and lease the vineyard to others. Can it be you have never read this text, ‘The very stone the builders reject is made the head cornerstone. This is the work of the Lord and we beheld it with awe and wonder?’ They seek reasons to arrest Him, but are afraid of the people, for they know He has aimed this parable at them. They then withdraw.”  (Mark 12:1-12, paraphrased)

Jesus has consistently refused to tell the religious leaders the source of His authority. Just two days before on Palm Sunday, He triumphantly enters Jerusalem and allows the people to honor Him with the Messianic title, “Son of David” (Lk. 19:38). The Pharisees rebuke Him for accepting such praise (v. 39). He later enters the temple and overturns the tables of the money changers (v. 45). If Jesus clearly and boldly proclaims He is the Messiah, He will start a revolution. But as the time of His arrest draws near, He shares His mission in parabolic form. The Sanhedrin adamantly refuses to acknowledge that John the Baptist or Jesus are divinely sent messengers (Lk. 20:1-8). Jesus teaches this parable in the temple in response to those who constantly question His divinity.

For the past six months, Jesus has reminded His disciples that Jerusalem’s rulers will kill Him (Mt. 16:21; 17:23 & 20:18). But the proud Pharisaic teachers are now mere pupils as Jesus begins His narrative and exposes their true motives. The vineyard owner is God, his servants are the prophets, the vineyard is the nation of Israel, and the tenants are the religious rulers. This parabolic teaching is a thinly veiled judgment upon them. The story pictures the patience of God despite the rejection of the Messiah by the very nation He comes to save. This lesson is of such paramount importance, it is recorded in the other two Gospels as well (Mt. 21:33-46 & Lk. 20:9-18).

Because of the extensive allegorical references to the nation of Israel as God’s vineyard, Jesus’ listeners can easily relate to this story (Jer. 2:21). It is a revised version of Isaiah’s parable, but taught with more authority and with a different purpose (Isa. 5:1-7). In Isaiah, the nation is denounced for producing the wild grapes of unrighteousness. Jesus teaches this parable to rebuke the self-centered leaders of the nation. It summarizes God’s gracious dealings with Israel, their sinfulness, His perpetual pleas for repentance, and their adamant resistance to His prophets. He reveals their willingness to kill even their own Messiah and the terrible judgment awaiting presumptuous leaders.

v. 1

The vineyards that yield the largest dividends require continuous care and cultivation. A site is selected, the ground is plowed, and rocks are removed. Vines are then planted and an encompassing wall is built. A watchtower is constructed of stone or wood and men are posted to warn of danger from predators and thieves. A winepress is comprised of two parts and is either hewn from solid rock or dug into the ground and lined with stones. The upper reservoir holds grapes which are crushed by the workers feet. The juice flows through a connecting trough into a lower reservoir from which wineskins are filled. Everything is carefully designed to ensure the owner’s endeavors are rewarding (Isa. 5:4).

In a similar way, God “plants” Israel in a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:8). He hedges it on all sides by His laws to keep His people separate from the surrounding idolatrous nations. From their “prophetic towers” prophets announce clear warnings regarding “the little foxes that spoil the vines” (Song of Sol. 2:15). Everything is carefully prepared to ensure the owner’s property is protected. The Lord departs for a while, leaving his vineyard in the hands of men he trusts will reap a rich harvest (Song of Sol. 8:11). 

vv. 2-3

The owner has a right to expect a profit from his investment. At the end of the season, a servant is sent to collect it. As the proprietor of His “vineyard nation,” God has a right to demand the fruits of repentance and obedience. The Son of God comes to the Pharisees, the representatives of the nation, seeking such fruit (Lk. 3:8).

Through Jeremiah the Lord says, “I send you my servants the prophets who call you to amend your ways” (Jer. 35:15).

A servant is sent as the owner’s representative, but instead of a welcome he receives a lashing. “Beat” (dero) literally means to flog or scourge severely. Just before his martyrdom, Steven challenges his opponents to name a prophet their forefathers have not persecuted and notes they have betrayed and murdered them all (Acts 7:52). 

vv. 4-5

The vineyard owner is undaunted by the cruelty of the tenants. He dispatches another servant. They stone him, wound him, and send back shamelessly maltreated. Incredibly, each act of cruelty is met with great mercy. The idea of the owner sending “many others” who are beaten or killed is intended to force Jesus’ listeners beyond the parabolic framework and into the history of their own nation. Throughout the centuries, many rulers and kings are infuriated when the prophets arrive to remind them of their neglected responsibilities.
For example:

• Jeremiah is beaten and put in stocks for public ridicule (Jer. 20: 1-2). He is flogged and incarcerated (37:15). Later he is placed in a deep slimy pit in a dungeon (38:6).
• Moses is threatened with stoning (Ex. 17:4).
• Micaiah is struck in the face (I Kgs. 22:24).
• Obadiah hides prophets in a cave from the wrath of Jezebel (I Kgs. 18:4).
• Jehoiakim kills the prophet Urijah (Jer. 26:20-23).
• According to tradition, Isaiah is sawn in half by King Manasseh (Heb. 11:37).
• Zechariah the son of Jehoiada is stoned to death by the commandment of the king (II Chron. 24:20-22).

v. 6

At this juncture, Jesus’ parable turns prophetic as He exposes the enormity of the crime about to be committed. The story begins to allegorize how God’s Son is treated. He will be crucified in just four days.

The phrase, “well beloved” (agapetos) indicates it is the father’s only son. Sending him is an inexplicable act of grace. Extreme imagery is necessary to portray the extreme wickedness of the Jewish leaders. The parable stretches the imagination for no human father would give his son this assignment. For God to send His only son does not depict Him as being foolish, but rather illustrates His patient love toward sinners.

Jesus’ words form a portrait of the merciful character of God. There is intentional pathos in the phrase “surely they will respect (entrepo) my son.” Entrepo can refer to “those who become ashamed and change their minds.” Numerous opportunities are given for the tenants to repent and make restitution. The son makes this journey, not because he is the only one left, but because he is the father’s perfect representative. Christ is God’s final messenger to the nation of Israel. Jesus is God’s ultimatum.

v. 7

The tenants clearly recognize the owner’s son. This is not a case of mistaken identity, for the tenants say, “This is the heir: let us kill him and the inheritance will be ours.” But their thinking is flawed in presuming the death of the son will guarantee their possession of his father’s property.

If one simply fails to understand Jesus is the Messiah, this is a pardonable mistake. But it is because the rulers do recognize Him as God’s Son that they seek to kill Him. Christ is a threat to them while He lives, for they view themselves as lords over God’s heritage. If He is removed, the Sanhedrin, Pharisees, and scribes assume their positions are secure. In the history of the human race, no crime is more heinous.

It is ironic that the offices of the Sanhedrin and Pharisees are originally established in order to represent the people to God. They measure their authority and positions by the care the Lord lavishes on His vineyard rather than by the fruit they should produce for Him. Although messengers are constantly being sent to awaken them to their duties, they serve themselves instead of the people. Because God’s punishment is delayed, they grow more and more presumptuous through the centuries. Their arrogance culminates by plotting to kill the Son of God. Although men may reject God’s messengers and kill His Son, they can never steal that which belongs to Him alone.

v. 8

When Jesus indicates the worst atrocity is reserved for the owner’s son, He is predicting His own death. The son is “taken” (labontes), a term which infers a violent seizure. They murder him and his body is disposed of by throwing it over the wall. This parallels the account of Jesus’ execution on Calvary outside of Jerusalem’s walls (Jn. 19:17-18). His crucifixion outside the city symbolizes His excommunication by the nation of Israel (Heb. 13:12). By killing the son, they defy the owner and challenge him to do his worst. 

v. 9

Those who hear this parable know this atrocity demands retribution. In Mathew’s account, Jesus asks the listeners what the vineyard owner will do and judgment is immediately passed on the tenants. The people respond, “He will terribly destroy those wicked men and give his vineyard to others” (Mt. 21:41). The owner ensures the punishment of these murders fits their crime. It is easy to ascertain how the parable applies to the blind religious leaders, for it clearly exposes their intentions.

Although there is a limit to God’s grace and mercy, the Pharisees are apparently clueless concerning how transitory their power really is. Within a few years, Jerusalem will be utterly destroyed by the emperor Titus in 70 A.D. This results in the global dispersion of the Jewish people and the permanent disbanding of the Sanhedrin. The vineyard has been given to others, the “holy nation” known as the Church (I Pet. 2:9). 

vv. 10 – 11

The Lord’s imagery now changes from a vineyard to a building. The tenants become the builders and the Son of God is the cornerstone. This important stone is carefully placed at the base of two adjoining walls to govern every angle of the building. Many stones are examined as possible candidates to serve the key position as the cornerstone.

To “reject” (apodokimazo) means “to put to the test.” The Messiah is scrutinized and disregarded by the Sanhedrin, having not met their specifications. But the ignorance of the builders is overridden by the Architect, for only the Father determines the position His Son will hold. Although the builders discard Him, Jesus is now the cornerstone in an entirely new “temple” soon to be constructed: His Church. In this building we serve Him as “living stones” (I Pet. 2:5).

Jesus openly insults the alleged intelligence of the rulers by asking if they are familiar with a certain passage of Scripture. He suggests they do not comprehend a particular Messianic text (Ps. 118: 22-23). Jesus choice of Scripture is not incidental, for the same Psalm is quoted by those who cry “Hosanna” during His triumphal entry into Jerusalem two days earlier (Ps. 118: 26).

“This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes” is a verse which proves God’s plan of salvation is not an afterthought (Ps. 118:23). Such divine intervention must be attributed to the Lord alone apart from human wisdom. These events are “marvelous in our eyes,” for Christ’s atonement bears the uncontestable stamp of divine compassion. Humankind must marvel, for no one except God could have exalted His Son who was despised, rejected, ridiculed, beaten, crucified, and resurrected to the highest position in the universe “far above all principality, power, might, and dominion” (Eph. 1:21). 

v. 12

Jesus publically exposes the hitherto secret motives of the Sanhedrin. The premeditated murder of their own Messiah is disclosed. He has shown the tactics religious egotists must employ to retain their titles. These men are now more determined than ever to wreak vengeance on Him. Luke notes that after Jesus speaks this parable, the Pharisees send spies to watch Him (Lk. 20:20). The exasperated priests, scribes, and elders are convinced Jesus is a dangerous revolutionary determined to turn the people against them. But as thousands of Jews fill Jerusalem as Passover begins, they realize any attempt to arrest Him is political suicide.

“They knew He had spoken this parable against them.” The rulers could not have perceived they are included in this parable without seeing the Son of God in the story as well. John records their private thoughts (Jn. 11: 47-48). By characterizing these men as wicked tenants, He gives them a final opportunity to repent, just as the vineyard owner does.

For the past two millennia, people continue to reject Christ, not because they lack evidence He is God’s Son, but despite the evidence.


Points to Ponder

1. What other phrase, found in Psalm 118, is also used by the people during Jesus’ triumphal entry (Luke 19:38)?

2. Who do many of the people consider Jesus to be (Mt. 21:46)?

3. Name a Pharisee who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah (John 3:2).

4. What does the high priest Caiaphas prophesy regarding the Messiah (Jn. 11:49-52)?

5. Paraphrase the remarks concerning the rejected stone which Matthew adds but Mark omits (Matthew 21:43-44).

6. “There is a man sent from God whose name is John” (Jn. 1:6). Describe his treatment (Mk. 6:27).

7. What do Joseph’s brothers say regarding their father’s beloved son (Genesis 37:19-20)?

8.  What particular question does Jesus ask on four different occasions in the Gospels (Mt. 12:3; 19:4; 21:16 & Mk. 12:10)?

9. Paraphrase the secret thoughts of the Sanhedrin (John 11:47-48).

10. Describe the basic differences between Isaiah’s parable and Jesus’ parable (Isaiah 5:1-7 & Mark 12:1-12). What does Isaiah say regarding productivity? Is productivity a factor in Jesus’ parable? If not, why not?


Maxim of the Moment

The height of your accomplishment will equal the depth of your convictions. - William Scolavi