Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants: an exercise in narrative-historical hermeneutics

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There is a struggle going on in the church—or at least in parts of the church—over how we should read the New Testament. Basically, as I see it, it comes down to this: do we read through the lens of later theological constructions (Patristic, Orthodox, Thomist, Reformed, Pentecostal, modern evangelical, etc.), or do we interpret according to a first-century Jewish framework of thought and historical perspective?

I am strongly in favour of the latter. I think we should base our “theology”—our self-understanding as the people of the creator God—as best we can on how the New Testament communities understood the texts, not on how the later church, under divergent intellectual and historical conditions, came to understand the texts. But it’s by no means a straightforward task.

A key interpretive method for those who think that the New Testament should be read as a first-century Jewish text is the reconstruction of the Old Testament background to New Testament ideas, stories and arguments, and with the help of good Bible search software this is easily done.

But what are the rules for doing such reconstruction? How much of the context of an allusion or quotation is relevant? How do we know that Jesus or Paul intended not only the literary context but also the historical setting of a quotation or allusion to be taken into account by their diverse audiences? To what extent does the fact of Jesus drive a reappraisal of the Old Testament narrative?

I’m not going to try and answer these questions here, but the interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants has been under discussion here recently and provides a good case in point. In what ways is it dependent upon the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7? Do the parables work in the same way? If Jesus is retelling Isaiah’s story for a new historical context, should we assume that he means to import the same historical frame of reference—that is, Israel facing military invasion and destruction? Or should we suppose that he has transposed the parable into a more symbolic key—that he has in mind some more spiritual form of “judgment”? Or is this all just over-reading the story anyway?

I’ll summarise the two versions of the parable, using the Septuagint in Isaiah’s case, and then make a number of points regarding the relationship between them.

Isaiah’s parable (Is. 5:1-7 LXX)

The beloved constructs a vineyard on a fertile hill and plants it with choice vines. He puts a hedge around it, builds a tower and digs out a wine vat. He waits for grapes but it produces thorns.

The people of Jerusalem are asked to judge between the owner and his vineyard. What more could he have done?

He tells them that he will remove the hedge and tear down its wall so that the vineyard will be trampled down and will become a wasteland.

Isaiah then explains that the vineyard is the house of Israel. The people were a “beloved young plant” but they did not produce the fruit of righteousness. Therefore, they will become captives and their land will be laid waste. The “Lord Sabaoth was enraged with anger against his people, and he laid his hand on them and struck them” (Is. 5:25 LXX). He will summon a distant nation to attack Israel (25:26-30).

A similar telling of the story is found in Psalm 80, though here the critical detail of the failure to produce good fruit is missing. God brought a vine out of Egypt, drove out the nations, cleared the ground, and planted the vine. The vine flourished at first, but God has broken down its walls, and the vineyard has been destroyed. The psalmist prays that God will “have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted” and will punish the enemies which have burned the vineyard with fire (Ps. 80:14-16).

Scholars are divided over whether the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom is in view or the Babylonian invasion of the southern kingdom. But it makes the point that such stories were naturally retold, either to give a new perspective on events or to show how history was repeating itself.

Jesus’ parable (Matt. 21:33-44; Mk. 12:1-11; Lk. 20:9-18)

Jesus’ version is a little more complicated. It is addressed to the chief priests, scribes and elders.

The master of a house plants a vineyard, puts a fence around it, digs a winepress, and builds a tower. He leases the vineyard to tenants and goes into another country. A similar development of the metaphor, though put to quite different use, is found in Song of Songs 8:11: “Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon; he let out the vineyard to keepers.”

The master sends his servants to get the fruit, but the tenants beat them and kill them. He sends his son, thinking that they will respect him, but they plot to get his inheritance and kill him.

Jesus asks his audience what the owner will do. They say that he “will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Matt. 21:41).

Same but different

1. The basic storyline is the same in both Isaiah’s and Jesus’ telling of the story: a man plants a vineyard, the vineyard does not produce good fruit, so the man responds in anger. But there are also significant plot differences:

  • In Jesus’ parable tenants are responsible for the management of the vineyard, reflecting his persistent critique of the leadership of Israel. In the end it is not the vineyard that is destroyed but the wicked tenants, and management of the intact vineyard is transferred to new tenants.
  • In Jesus’ parable the landlord is absent and must send others to get the fruit—first servants, then his son. The fate of those sent by God to Israel is an important part of the Gospel story (Matt. 4:12; 23:34, 37; Mk. 1:14; Lk. 11:49).
  • In Jesus’ telling of the story the crisis culminates in the killing of the son, who is the “stone that the builders rejected” but which becomes the cornerstone (cf. Ps. 118:22-23).

2. No prophet is sent to the vineyard in Isaiah’s parable, but in the next chapter Isaiah himself is sent (“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”) to Israel to prophesy to the people until “cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land” (Is. 6:11–12).

Jesus quotes from the account of the sending of Isaiah when he explains to the disciples why he speaks in parables (Matt. 13:10). The failure of the people to understand his parables is itself a sign that catastrophic judgment is about to come upon the nation. Jesus has made quite extensive use of this section of Isaiah in order to account for his own mission to Israel. He appears not to be using the passage in arbitrary fashion: he finds in these chapters in Isaiah a significant precedent for his own vocation.

3. Both parables function allegorically. The vineyard is Israel, the master is God, and the fruit stands for righteousness, though no meaning is attached to the fence, wall, tower, or wine vat. Jesus’ version is, if anything, more allegorical than Isaiah’s: the tenants are the leaders of the Jews, the servants are the prophets, the son is Jesus, and the “other tenants” are the poor and marginalised who will receive the kingdom. R.T. France comments:

Now that the old dogma that parables cannot be allegories has been abandoned, there is no problem in recognizing in the successive phases of and characters in the story a history of God’s dealings with Israel, even though there is no need to find allegorical equivalents for every circumstantial detail such as the fence, wine-press and tower.1

4. The destruction of the vineyard in Isaiah’s version of the story clearly has reference to the foreign invasion and exile as the judgment of God against his unrighteous people.

Should we regard the destruction of the wicked tenants as likewise a prophecy of the coming judgment of God against Jerusalem, only with a particular focus on the fate of the various political and religious elites? Hagner says: “These words may well constitute an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem.”2

Or is it just part of the story, a more or less incidental detail? France thinks that the coming of the owner “needs no allegorical interpretation (e.g. the destruction of Jerusalem); it is simply part of the story”.

  • As a general point, it seems to me unquestionable that the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels i) spoke of a coming judgment on Israel and on the leadership of Israel in particular, and ii) predicted the Roman invasion and destruction of the temple. Given that Jesus was a devout first-century Jew who knew and repeatedly quoted from the scriptures, not least scriptures referring to the Babylonian invasion in the sixth century, it seems virtually certain that he expected the judgment of God against the leadership in Jerusalem to take the concrete historical form of military invasion.
  • But we also need to take into account his explicit condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees as the “sons of those who murdered the prophets”. Upon their heads will come “all the righteous blood shed on earth”; “all these things will come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:29-36). He then laments over Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”, directly exits the temple, and tells his disciples: “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2).
  • So if Jesus expected the destruction of the temple to come upon this generation and in particular upon these “sons of those who murdered the prophets”, it seems reasonable to interpret the destruction of the wicked tenants in just these terms. In other words, the frame of reference for Jesus’ parable is no less historical than it was for Isaiah’s parable. The death of the wicked tenants belongs to the broad expectation in the Synoptic Gospels that the hypocritical, self-serving, unrighteous elites in Jerusalem would suffer catastrophe in the form of military invasion within a generation, as the concrete manifestation of the wrath of God.
  • Finally, Luke has Jesus add: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (Lk. 20:18). This is a quotation from Isaiah’s warning that God “will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Is. 8:14).
  • 1 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (2007), 810.
  • 2D.A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28 (1995), 622

This all makes perfect sense to me.

Question about the last bit

“The death of the wicked tenants belongs to the broad expectation in the Synoptic Gospels that the hypocritical, self-serving, unrighteous elites in Jerusalem would suffer catastrophe in the form of military invasion within a generation, as the concrete manifestation of the wrath of God.

Finally, Luke has Jesus add: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (Lk. 20:18). This is a quotation from Isaiah’s warning that God “will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Is. 8:14).”

Do you find/detect a qualitative difference between being broken to pieces and being crushed and falling on, and having it fall on? The Isaiah quotation would seem to put everything qualitatively negatively, *except* saying God will be a “sanctuary” which seems positive contrast to the negative stumbling stone. How is God a “sanctuary’ AND a stumbling stone?

If you fall on the rock is that good? Since you are “broken in pieces” as a kind of death-to-self which finds God to be a sanctuary too?

@p duggan:

The point, I think, is that the Lord will be a sanctuary to the prophet but a “stone of offence and a rock of stumbling” to Israel and Judah. Isaiah is instructed no to “walk in the way of this people” and not to fear what the people fear (ie. the king of Assyria) but to honour the Lord (Is. 8:11-13). But this presumably puts him in some danger, so the Lord reassures him that he will be kept safe, both from the anger of the people and from the coming distress (Is. 8:15, 21-22).

So falling on the stone corresponds to Isaiah’s idea that the two houses of Israel will stumble over the stone of offence, which is YHWH, fall and be broken. Jesus means that the leaders of the Jews are taking offence at him, but they will likewise stumble, fall and be broken.

The second part of Luke 20:18 (“when it falls on anyone, it will crush him”) may be an allusion to the stone that destroys the image of a man in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:34, 44-45). But the thought of the victory of God’s kingdom over the pagan nations seems to go beyond the argument of the parable.

peter wilkinson | Sun, 04/09/2017 - 09:38 | Permalink

I’m no longer entirely sure what your broader point is in comparing the two stories. I still think Jesus’s story operates quite differently from Isaiah’s, and is not an allegory, but a polemic. But that seems secondary to a larger issue which you flagged up in the first four paragraphs pf your piece, the third in particular.

Your interpretation of the parable is just fine with me (though not for the wicked tenants). There is one disagreement: Jesus’s parable does not say the vineyard produced bad fruit (as you say it does). My larger question is your assertion that there are only two ways of reading the bible, either the traditional one or your own.

A third way might be this. Yes, Jesus spoke about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. He spoke about the “kingdom of God” being taken from the tenants and given to a people “bearing the fruit of it”. But maybe the coming of Jesus, his death and resurrection, simply did not fit into the larger narrative of the Old Testament. Maybe it was so unexpected, so off the radar, that new and creative ways had to be found to connect it with Israel’s story at all.

So I think there is a third way of understanding and reading the bible in the light of the New Testament and Jesus in particular. Jesus is deeply embedded in Israel’s story in one sense: he grew up with it and grew out of it. He never dissociated himself from this background. Yet the fact is that to make sense of who he was and what he did, the gospel writers and the Paul especially had to interpret the OT in ways which actually run counter to much of the actual sense of the OT in context, and introduce new ways of looking at Israel and the world which simply find no reference in the OT.

I am becoming increasingly convinced of the importance of this argument, and while not denying in some broad ways Jesus does connect with OT prophecy and ideas, in the most important ways he does not. It is especially in the ways he does not connect with the OT that his significance for us lies today. So I think it is in the end misguided to try to fit Jesus into a simple trajectory of OT patterns, mechanisms and prophecy. It doesn’t work.

@Doane :

It’s what Luke says he did. Luke says something similar in v.44. He doesn’t say how he explained these things. Then he says Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures: again not saying what this means. Then he says “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day”. But there is nothing about a messiah doing these things in the O.T. Only if you read Jesus into the O.T. can something like this be pieced together from verses that don’t really mean that in context. It’s creative eisegesis. Jesus did it. The gospels do it. Paul does it spectacularly.

@peter wilkinson:

Luke 24:44
Jesus says everything written about “me” in the law, prophets and psalms. It would seem that if you cannot see Jesus in the OT, then your eyes have not been opened.

@Doane :

Thanks for pointing that out.

@Doane :

Hold on Doane. The text says Jesus open their (his disciples) eyes.  Not every human being that will even exist.  That was some bad theology.

I do disagree with Peter when he says, “Only if you read Jesus into the O.T. can something like this be pieced together from verses that don’t really mean that in context. It’s creative eisegesis. Jesus did it. The gospels do it. Paul does it spectacularly.”

Peter, I think the reason it seems that way to us is because we don’t correctly understand the context which the OT was written in and thus what it was communicating.  Neither did the OT Jews though which was by the design of the Father.  Not so much to keep Israel in the dark as to keep other forces in the dark (see Heiser’s books The Unseen Realm and Reversing Hermon).  It was all hidden until the end, which was in the 1st century.  Jesus, Paul and the other Apostles were then unveiling the truth of all that the OT was saying. That is why Jesus had to open the eyes on his disciples.  Even Paul himself said what he received was not from men but by revelation (Gal. 1:12).  So, the reason we think they (NT writers) seemed to practice eisegesis is because we don’t understand the OT’s message.  The NT writers did, thus we should read back into the OT what they have communicated in the NT.


I would add that Jesus opens their eyes(disciples) gives them a multi week bible study teaching them all about The Kingdom. Im assuming the greatest bible study in the history of the world. Then when the Spirit falls we get the beginning of the Disciples understanding/preaching/teaching even more of what the OT was saying. “This is what Joel spoke of” seems to kick off what would be The Spirit and the Disciples opening the eyes of all who will hear and see. That would include those like us 2000 years later, reading the witness that was given to us. Something like that:)

@peter wilkinson:

There is one disagreement: Jesus’s parable does not say the vineyard produced bad fruit (as you say it does).

I wrote: “the vineyard does not produce good fruit”. I presume that’s what you are referring to—I couldn’t find any reference to “bad fruit”. It was meant to sum up the fact that in both parables the master failed to get the fruit—either because the vineyard yielded wild grapes or because tenants refused to give the fruit due to the owner. It was an attempt to conflate the two outcomes for the sake of economy, but since I’ve had to explain it, it was clearly a false economy.

@Andrew Perriman:

I did send a small addendum which seems to have evaporated into the ether. But first just to clarify my last comment to Douane: if my eyes haven’t been opened to any specific O.T. prophecy of a crucified and risen messiah, then great is my darkness.

There are differences between the way Jesus uses his parable of the tenants, and Isaiah’s prophetic allegory, though it may well be that Matthew/Jesus had Isaiah’s vineyard allegory in mind. That said, the implication that Jesus had in mind the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, and possibly Israel itself, isn’t really in question, is it? So there’s a parallel of sorts with the destruction Isaiah was prophesying.

Also it’s not Isaiah that Jesus is quoting in 21:42, but Psalm 118:22-23. If the Isaiah stone/rock is also an allusion, something even more remarkable is being claimed by Jesus than Isaiah. In identifying himself with the rejected heir in the parable, he will become “the capstone” (of the temple). This goes far beyond anything suggested by Isaiah’s rock prophecy, and once more raises the extraordinary status Jesus is claiming for himself as a direct challenge to the Chief Priests and Pharisees, and indirectly, to us.

@peter wilkinson:

I’m not sure there’s any reason to connect the stone which is rejected and then becomes “head of the corner” with the “capstone” of the temple. Did the temple even have a “capstone”? In the Psalm it looks like a simple building metaphor.

Isaiah 28:16 is relevant: “See, I will lay for the foundations of Sion a precious, choice stone, a highly valued cornerstone (akrōgōniaion) for its foundations, and the one who believes in him will not be put to shame.” It is later applied to Jesus as the akrōgōniaios of the new temple. But that seems more than Jesus is claiming for himself in connection with the parable. In Psalm 118 the stone is Israel’s king (or “son”), who was surrounded by his enemies but has been vindicated. The temple idea seems a later development by the post-resurrection church.


@Andrew Perriman:

My New Bible Commentary says that Matthew/Jesus links the Matthew stone of 21:42 with Isaiah 8:14, so evidently others think the same as you. I’ve also just noticed that 1 Peter 2:4-8 links the stones of both Isaiah 8:14 and Psalm 118:22-23 with the stone of Isaiah 28:16. This is getting out of hand.

How post-resurrection does the connection of the stone with the temple have to be? The 1 Peter passage links the stone with the temple (vs.5, 9) so I’d have thought it’s likely to have been there before the resurrection. This is confirmed by a clear link between stone and temple in Psalm 118, which is also decisive for Matthew 21:42. The Psalm describes a procession up to the temple gates (v.19), then to the altar (v.27) with a dialogue between a group and an Individual. Priestly gatekeepers state the conditions of entry (v.20) and their colleagues of the sanctuary greet the incoming Individual as the stone (v.22).

The stone in Isaiah 8:14 also has a temple connection, since YHWH is said to be a (temple) sanctuary (14a), as well as a “stone” (14b). So maybe that provides some sort of tenuous connection with Matthew 21:42 and the tenants parable.

I suppose one conclusion of all this is that the translators were not off the mark in using “capstone” to describe what is elsewhere translated as “head of the corner” and “headstone of the corner” in Psalm 118:22 (the rejected stone which is quoted in Matthew 21:42 as a gloss on the rejection of the heir in the parable of the tenants). Jesus is a chief temple stone, as well as a foundation stone and a messianic “stone”.

All these stones use the same Hebrew word eben. In Psalm 118:22, the stone eben becomes the head gulgoleth, which also means poll or skull, which could be related to Golgotha, but let’s not go there. I’ll take your word for the LXX translations, but the connections seem unassailable, and “head” seems to have an obvious point of comparison with the human head, the top of the body, hence “capstone”.

While I’m on stones, to these stones should be added the stone of Daniel 2:34, which is the kingdom cut from the mountain (Mount Zion?) which breaks up the other kingdoms and lasts for a very long time, if not forever. Since Jesus introduced the gospel of the kingdom, and was its prime representative, it’s not unreasonable to associate him in a personal capacity with Daniel’s stone, the messianic stone, and all the other stones. 

The association of Jesus with temple seems clear. He is more than any random stone which “causes men to stumble/fall”, or any “foundation stone” unrelated to the temple. He is the fulfilment of the temple in person, and this at the end of a parable which has not even hinted at the temple, in a reference which also does not hint at the temple’s destruction, apart from putative further associations with Isaiah 8:14, which may have a tenuous connection with Isaiah 5:1-6.

Back to where I began: Jesus is suggesting more than the destruction of the temple/Jerusalem (if at all) in Matthew 21:42. The quotation of Psalm 118:22 connects him personally and triumphantly with the temple, having been rejected, like the heir to the vineyard. In the light of further developed associations in the letters and then AD 70, he is and will be the new temple.

The rest is silence, maybe.

@peter wilkinson:

I really don’t see how Psalm 118:19-22 supports the idea that the stone rejected becomes the corner-head of the temple. The temple is not in need of a new stone. In fact, the integrity of the temple, with its gates of righteousness, is part of the premise of the Psalm. There is no precedent in the Old Testament for such an association of the king with the construction of the temple. I think you are reading too much into the simple collocation. I haven’t found a commentator who supports your argument.

Dahood, interestingly, identifies the stone with Israel: “Though considered unimportant by the great empires, Israel received an honorable and important place in the building of Yahweh’s kingdom” (Psalms III 101-150).

So I don’t think you have made a case for connecting the cornerstone of Jesus’ parable with the akrōgōniaios of Ephesians 2:20 and 1 Peter 2:6. Jesus, of course, makes Peter the “rock” (petros rather than lithos) on which he will build his church (Matt. 16:18). For Paul the image is associated with the inclusion of Gentiles in the commonwealth of Israel and for Peter it is a metaphor for the vindication of those who believe in the resurrected Lord—two good reasons why the identification of Jesus with the cornerstone belongs to the post-resurrection period.

In the parable, therefore, Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22 to make the point that he will be rejected by the leadership of Israel (who are building a kingdom, not a temple), but will be saved and vindicated by God and set in a position of central importance in the coming kingdom. He will inherit the kingdom (cf. Matt. 21:38). The temple has nothing to do with this argument.

There is no temple in the parable, as you point out. So why do you feel the need to overrule Jesus on this matter? Just because the modern reader can perceive all sorts of connections between similar images and ideas doesn’t make them part of the historical meaning of the text.

Peter makes no reference to the temple when he quotes Psalm 118:22 in his defence before the high priest in Acts 4:11. He means by it no more than that God has raised and vindicated the man whom they rejected.

Hagner says: “Following its use by Jesus, the early Christian found in this cryptic proverb concerning the rejected stone that was made the most important one a perfect analogy to the rejection and exaltation of Christ” (Matthew 14–28, 622). Nothing to do with the temple.

In Psalm 118:22, the stone eben becomes the head gulgoleth, which also means poll or skull, which could be related to Golgotha, but let’s not go there.

A good reason for not going there is that gulgoleth is not found in Psalm 118. The rejected stone becomes the “head of the corner” (roʾsh pinnah; Gk. kephalēn gōnias).

@Andrew Perriman:

I’m puzzled by your standpoint. The context of Psalm 118 is the temple. What else would the chief cornerstone have to do with? Likewise the context of Ephesians 2:20 and 1 Peter 2:2:4-9 is the temple, into which believers are being built as “living stones” and Jesus, “the stone the builders rejected” has become the chief cornerstone” — Psalm 118:22 quoted in the adjacent verse. Not to see the temple meaning of “capstone” seems obtuse.

There is actually a reason for Jesus referring to the temple in the parable of the tenants, and himself as the rejected stone. It was to challenge the Chief Priests (v.45) who were among those listening to him. He would not only replace them, but the entire temple.

@peter wilkinson:

Well, I gave my reasons in the comment. I don’t think I have anything else to add. The temple is not in need of a cornerstone. The chief cornerstone doesn’t have to do with anything else—old Testament scholars seem to regard it as proverbial. The later New Testament texts are not interpretations of the parable. There is no temple in the parable; the son doesn’t become part of anything. I’m afraid you’ll just have to stay puzzled.

@Andrew Perriman:

There may be something else to add. Perhaps a couple of things, and I’m simply putting this out for further consideration.

Zechariah 4:7 introduces another stone, eben roshah, which Zerubbabel brings out to complete the rebuilding of the temple, vs.8-9. This stone is a capstone rather than a cornerstone, but we are in the same world of ideas. The action is prophetic, not just historical description, as Joshua (the high priest) and his associates (ie Zerubbabel) are “symbolic of things to come” - 3:8.

This would be a further reason in the world if associations with the “stone” metaphor for identifying the “stone” of Matthew 21:42 with Jesus as temple builder and temple replacement.

Goind back to Daniel’s “stone” which was cut out of a “mountain”, Daniel 2:45, in the world of ideas from which Daniel was drawing in deploying these key words, it cannot have been without significance that the original 1st temple was built from rocks cut in a quarry underneath the temple itself, on the original Mount Zion. The stone which destroyed the statue and became a kingdom which filled the whole earth was a temple stone.