The parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew 21

The Sunday lectionary reading for Trinity 18 in Year A is the second of three judgement parables against the Jerusalem leaders in Matt 21.33–46: traditionally, the parable of the wicked husbandmen, or the parable of the wicked tenants. There is plenty to explore within the passage, and in its relation to the surrounding texts—but it also raises larger questions about the place of judgement in the teaching of Jesus and therefore within our understanding of God and God’s actions.

Charles Talbert, in his Paideia commentary on Matthew, sees judgement as the key theme in the whole of this section of Matthew, which links the different parts of chapters 19 to 25.

The last of Matthew’s five big cycles consists of the customary narrative (Matt 19.3–24.2) and discourse (Matt 24.3–25.46), with the usual closing formula (Matt 26.1a). The two are linked by the theme of judgement: on Israel’s leaders, the temple, inauthentic disciples, and the nations. Judgement is both within history and at the end of history (p 229).

On the first day in the city, after his ‘triumphal’ entry, Jesus has already acted out judgement in the dramatic symbolism of the cleansing of the temple, and added further symbolic action in the withering of the fig tree. On his second day, when he re-enters the temple, his authority for such acts is questioned by the Jerusalem leaders; they appear to be enacting judgement on him, but his return question reflects their judgement back on themselves, so that they are judged by their attitude to Jesus.

There then follows three parables of judgement, all closely related but unhelpfully separated in our Bibles by a chapter division at Matt 22.1. Although the first parable is unique to Matthew, whilst the second is found in all three Synoptics, the relationship between the two is very close:

Parable of the two sonsParable of wicked tenants
Jesus’ introductionMatt 21.28aMatt 21.33a
The parable itselfMatt 21.28b–30Matt 21.33b–39
Jesus’ questionMatt 21.31aMatt 21.40
Opponents’ responseMatt 21.31bMatt 21.41
Jesus’ pronouncement of judgementMatt 21.31c–32Matt 21.42–44

The two parables are also bracketed together by the theme of the leaders’ fear of the crowds, mentioned before the beginning of the first (Matt 21.26) and at the end of the second (Matt 21.46).

Matthew’s different introduction from Mark 12.1 and Luke 20.9 ‘Hear another parable…’ simply reflects the different location of the parable as one of three. But the description of the central character as a ‘master of a household’ or landowner, οἰκοδεσπότης, connects this parable back to the previous uniquely Matthean parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matt 20.1–16.

The fourfold detail of planting the vineyard, protecting it, building a tower and digging a winepress in both Matthew and Mark (omitted in Luke) is a clear pointer to the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5.1–7, and so it is also clear that here, as in Isaiah, ‘the vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel’. It might be possible to read the ‘tower’ as a reference to the temple, especially as this is where Jesus was teaching, but that is not necessary given the correspondence with the detail with Isaiah.

Jesus’ teaching here appears to follow the rabbinical practice of haggadic midrash, by taking a biblical text, expounding it with a parable, and concluding with another biblical text (Talbert p 251); if so, then the form of his teaching would have been no surprise to his hearers.

At some points, Matthew compresses the narrative of the parable, but at others expands it. Mark 12.2–5 sets out the escalation in the bad treatment of the slaves who are sent, where Matt 21.35–36 summarises what happens. We should probably  translate doulos as ‘slave’ rather than servant, since Jews were very familiar with slavery in the empire, and many Jews kept slaves themselves; and yet slaves could be given significant responsibility, including managing tenant farms and collecting rents and other payments.

There is no need for us to consider that the parables of Jesus only have one main point, and contain no allegorical elements; it seems clear that the ‘slaves’ here stand for the prophets that God has sent to his people, who have all too often been rejected and persecuted by the established leadership of the nation.

From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff–necked and did more evil than their ancestors. (Jeremiah 7.25–26)

The theme of the ill-treatment and killing of prophets can be found both in the OT narrative (eg 2 Chron 24.17–21) and in NT reflection on this (Heb 11.37), and has been referred to by Jesus in Matt 5.11–12, something he will return to in Matt 23.29 in his diatribe against the Jerusalem leadership.

The wicked tenants stand for the leadership; again this has precedent in Ezekiel 34 in its criticism of Israel’s leaders, which is why the ‘chief priests and Pharisees perceived he was speaking about them’ (verse 45).

It is striking that the final action of the wicked tenants, against the owner’s son, is reported in a different order by Matthew; in Mark and Luke, they take him, kill him and cast him out, whereas here in Matt 21.39 they cast him out first and then kill him. Matthew is wanting us not to miss Jesus’ allusion here to his own death, in which he is taken outside of the city first, and then killed.

As with the previous parable, and contrary to Mark and Luke, instead of completing the parable himself, Jesus asks his opponents how the story should conclude—what action should the owner take against the wicked tenants? Once more, Jesus’ opponents are condemned by their own words, as they articulate the only course of action that is open to the owner. Justice requires that they are held to account for their wickedness. (This form of coming to a conclusion through dialogue in question and answer form is more true to the context of Jewish debate, and so we should perhaps take Matthew’s version as the more primitive.)

There are three things worth noting in Jesus’ pronouncement of judgement that follows, as he moves from the world of the parable to the world of his hearers.

First, there is a definitive sense of judgement here that is unavoidable. Jesus has previously articulated the justice of the judgement of God in his pithy aphorism, ‘With the measure you measure it will be measured to you’, memorable in both English and Greek (ἐν ᾧ μέτρῳ μετρεῖτε μετρηθήσεται ὑμῖν, Matt 7.2). The wicked tenants have measured out death and destruction to the slaves who have come to them, and so with that measure will justice be measured out to them.

Secondly, in contrast to the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5, here it is not the vineyard that is destroyed, but the tenants who have been entrusted with its care. Whatever the disastrous fate that overcomes the leadership of the nation, the Israel of God itself is not finished, but will come under new leadership. In Isaiah this only emerges as a secondary theme of hope following exile, with the possibility of the nation’s return and restoration. But in the teaching of Jesus the continuity of the nation is prominent even within the pronouncement of judgement over its leaders. God’s just judgement is always tempered with mercy; even though God’s people are unfaithful, God keeps faith.

If the vineyard in the parable is to be given to new tenants, what does that mean in the real world for Israel? Uniquely in Matthew, Jesus explains that ‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to another nation…’ (Matt 21.43). This time, we can see clearly why Matthew does not use the more general ‘kingdom of [the] heaven[s]’; the vineyard of the owner is the nation over which God rules as king. Some commentators draw a strong distinction between the present reality of the kingdom in the obedient people of Israel, as distinct from the future realisation of the kingdom of God in the eschatological parables. But there is no need for such a strong demarcation; the kingdom of God is realised, imperfectly and incompletely, now amongst the people of God in anticipation of its full realisation in the future.

But the giving of the kingdom ‘to another people’ cannot here be an indication of the kingdom being taken from the Jews and given to Gentiles, since Jesus uses the singular ethnos and not the plural ethne. When he combines this saying with his citation of Ps 118. 22–23, ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the head of the corner’, he is pointing beyond the killing of the owner’s son to his restoration and rule. The new nation who will live faithfully under the rule of God is, as elsewhere in this gospel, the Israel defined by their allegiance to Jesus (both Jew and Gentile) rather than Israel merely defined by ethnic identity.

Thirdly, this reconstituted Israel will be those who produce the ‘fruit’ that the master has been looking for. We have a tendency to interpret this term as pointing to qualities of life and personality, assisted by a particular reading of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ in Gal 5.22. In fact it has quite a specific meaning here in pointing to the kind of holy life of repentance and action required by God, articulated by John the Baptist in Matt 3.8–10, and by Jesus in his teaching (Matt 7.16–20, 12.33–37). This is the Matthean equivalent of the teaching of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel ‘If you love me, you will obey my commandments’ (John 14.15).

Put together, all this means that Jesus’ language about judgement is surprisingly hopeful in contrast to the response of his opponents. They only point to the fate of the tenants, which is entirely negative. By contrast, Jesus focuses on the fate of the vineyard itself: God has not given up on his vineyard, his people, and he will do what is necessary in order for the vineyard, his people, to be fruitful and grow.

All this leaves us with three important theological questions about God’s relationship with his people and with humanity.

First, does God judge? I was recently in conversation with someone online who is a fairly prominent author and commentator, who argues that all the language of judgement, of ‘outer darkness’ and of ‘fire’ is about purging and purifying, and not of ultimate judgement or destruction. He believes this because he is convinced that the ‘irreducible element of the gospel’ is that God only ever judges to forgive, and is revealed to be merciful. There is no doubt that God surprises us with his mercy, and that God’s judgements will be surprising—and therefore that we need to leave judgement to God rather than try and anticipate it for ourselves. But there is also no doubt that this kind of universalism is appealing to our culture, and is very hard to square with Jesus’ language of judgement throughout the gospels. The possibility of judgement is inseparable from the freedom and responsibility that God gives us; without it, the gospel is not something that calls for response, but is reduced to an insight that we need to attain, a new way of seeing the world rather than a new way of life to respond to and embrace through costly obedience.

Secondly, does God judge Israel? One danger of reading this and the texts that follow is that, taken out of context, they can be read as anti-Judaic. In his theological reflection on this section, Talbert notes three reasons why we should not take Jesus’ polemic in this way.

First, the First Evangelist is a Jewish teacher in conflict with other Jewish teachers in a diverse Jewish community of the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the first century. With his polemics, Matthew’s Jesus seeks to delegitimate the established leadership. He does not deny the fundamental legitimacy of Israel. To do so would destroy the basis for his own group (p 262).

He notes that Jesus’ language here echo the classical prophets’ own critique of Israel (eg Is 3.13–15, and of course Isaiah 5), the Essenes, Josephus, rabbinical writings, and in fact the Pharisees’ own criticism of Jesus (Matt 9.34, 12.24).

His second reason is that ‘Matthew’s critique reflects Mediterranean conventions of dealing with opponents’.

The way Matthew talks about Jews is the way all opponents talked about each other in the ancients Mediterranean world. Compared to other polemic of the time, Matthew’s language is a bit mild! (ibid)

But thirdly, Matthew is writing not merely to tell a story of the past, or remind his readers of what Jesus said and taught then—but also to teach his readers about their present.

Matthews’ language, whilst seeming to be directed to nonmessianist opponents, is really aimed at insiders with the Matthean community. The evangelist is using the technique of covert allusion…The warning for the church is that its members must not be like the scribes and Pharisees, for if God did not spare Jerusalem, God will certainly not spare an unfaithful church (p 262–3).

That is not in any way to suggest that our salvation is unsure, or that we should question God’s faithfulness. But it is a reminder faith without actions is dead, and that real trust in Jesus will always make itself known in the fruit of repentance lives, as the Holy Spirit shapes us in holiness.

Join Ian and James as they discuss this passage together:

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27 thoughts on “The parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew 21”

  1. This is the story of God and his chosen people- The Jews. Us Christ-followers are merely grafted in. Adopted in. Which is great. But it isn’t mainly our story now. It is still the story of God and Israel. When Jesus returns soon, and he will, he will return to where? Israel. This is still and forever the story of Israel and their Jewish God. Any anti-semitism must surely flee in the realization of our own (gentiles) ridiculously poor treatment of God. Yes, the Jews did what they did, and yes- we did what we did too.
    Jesus is all about the Judging. When he returns it is as Judge. He is going to Judge the living and the dead.
    Universalism is rife. But it is unbiblical. It is a lie.
    “Don’t judge me, you can’t judge me!” atheist and churchified sinners scream, along with half of the cherry-picked, out of context ‘woman caught in adultery’ bible verse to match.
    God is not seen as Judge. Atheists and many church people alike have scrapped this idea.
    In fact God has been stripped of so many attributes and promises that he has declared about himself that he is rewritten increasingly to a ‘god in your pocket’.
    We are told to pray always for the peace of Jerusalem. And so we must.
    We are told that Jesus will return as Judge. Jesus is all about the Judging. And so should we be. That way we can make sure that the body of Christ is in a fit state when the bridegroom arrives.

  2. Hi Jeannie
    “That way we can make sure that the body of Christ is in a fit state when the bridegroom arrives”.
    And how is that “body of Christ” formed? Ephesians 5:31–32 tells us it is by the affinity union of Genesis 2:24:
    “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh [family]’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
    So—are the elect the same as the “body of Christ”? If so—the whole of the elect come to God via the affinity union and there is no distinction for the blood union with Jacob.
    Or—are there two different elect bodies: those that have come to Christ through the affinity union, and others that come to God via the blood union?

    For myself Scripture is clear—the ‘seed promise’ of Genesis is fulfilled metaphorically through the Abrahamic seed. The bride of Christ ‘marry’ the seed of Abraham —Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16) —thus they inherit that seed promise through their ‘father-in-law’ Abraham ‘counted as’ (i.e. metaphorically) being in that family as a wife is ‘counted as’ being in her husband’s family.

    “This means that it is not the children of the flesh [blood union] who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are ‘counted as’ offspring.” Romans 9:8

    It is, I suggest, the essence of the new covenant: John 1:11–13.

    • Thinking is good. 🙂

      Another one to ponder—have you noticed that in the protevangelium of Genesis 3:15 —the original seed promise—is clearly to be fulfilled metaphorically:

      “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

      —neither Satan nor the woman have a ‘seed’.


        • Hi Steve,
          Most take it to mean (and I agree) it is Jesus Christ descended from Eve via the virgin conception—so no literal human seed involved, hence the unusual expression the ‘seed of the woman’.

          Believers are metaphorically the ‘seed of God’ as they belong to him via their relationship with Christ—and unbelievers are metaphorically the seed of Satan.

          “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. … No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil.” 1 John 3:8–10

          Hence John 8:44 —it is not an anti-Semitic statement, it is simply the position of all unbelievers.

          • Reformed theology has seen the great divide as being between those who are ‘in Adam’ and those who are ‘in Christ’.

            But the Bible is clear from Gensis to Revelation —the great divide is between those who are ‘in Satan’ (Jew and Gentile) and those who are ‘in Christ’ (Jew and Gentile).

          • It would be interesting to see how you expand on this serpent seed-line doctrine, Colin, following through the whole of Genesis through Revelation. And what do you do with the scriptural contrast between being “in ” Adam (disobedience. rebellion, follower of lies) and “in Christ, the last Adam, the Promised Seed.
            Where does scripture speak about being “in” satan?

          • Colin, the phrase ‘in satan’ is not used. However, we do have texts like:

            “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col 1:13-14, NIV)

            “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. ” (Eph 2:1-2, NIV)

            Jesus was keen to teach about the Kingdom of God. It seems to me that the kingdom/dominion where people are is (also) a significant image.

            In the context of the passage under discussion, let us also remember that the “Son he loves” is also “great David’s greater son”, and so the king over Israel.

  3. The concept of being ‘in Adam’ or ‘in Christ’ is not specifically taught in Scripture but is a deduction from a couple of texts —in my view it is a false deduction: Adam led us to death/Satan (Genesis 3; Hebrews 2:14) —and Jesus led us from Adam is the deduction.

    But I suggest the Bible is saying that Jesus leads us from Satan. If somebody led you into blazing building —it is no good being delivered from them—you need to be delivered from the building.

    As David points out, as above, the Bible uses many metaphors to describe our predicament ‘in Satan’. Here are a selection of verses — the the order might seem random but it follows through different concepts of who we belong to and how the Bible has different mechanisms/metaphors for transitioning from the seed of Satan to the the seed of God that 1 John 3 is so clear about:

    Genesis 3:15; Matthew 13:36–39; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 John 3:4–10; 1 John 5:19;
    1 John 3:12; John 8:39–44; Acts 13:10; Acts 26:18; Ephesians 2:1–6
    Colossians 1:13; Romans 6:1–14; 7:1-4; Ephesians 5:31–32; Colossians 2:15;
    Hebrews 2:13–15; Revelation 2:7; 22:2; Revelation 22:11,14;
    Revelation 22:19; John 12:31–32; Revelation 20

    • In short the trasnition is from death to life – not from Adam to life.

      Jesus was incarnate as the son of Adam (the son of man) —it is incoherent to suggest that the cross reversed the incarnation.

      The division of the lost in the saved is within Adamic humanity. Christ came to rescue the elect of Adamic humanity not from Adam—but from Satan.

      C S Lewis had it right all along. Aslan rescued Edmund from the Witch.

        • “The concept of being ‘in Adam’ or ‘in Christ’ is not specifically taught in Scripture but is a deduction from a couple of texts”

          I am sure most on the blog know what I am talking about – Romans 5; 1 Corinthians 15. But I have strayed from the precise theme of the blog post.

          But Reformed theology in my view is confused in its Adamic theology, and as we know it is fractured in its understanding of the position of Israel/the Mosaic Covenant and the new covenant. In my view, it is the biggest fault line in Tom Wright’s theology. But somebody once explained to me that the church runs on wheels of confusion. So my wife and I are very happy in our Anglican church. -:)

  4. Hello Colin,
    What David has written is clear and scriptural; the doctrine of being *in* satan isn’t.
    The splurge of scripture references do not of themselves, or taken together, systematically
    seemm to corroborate your espousal of the doctrine of seed of satan. And it doesn’t follow through the whole of the canon, (particularly the OT ignoring as it does God’s choice and promise-keeping covenants, let alone his Sovereignty, common and salvation Grace, his opposition to idolatrary, false gods and worship.

    Scripture is also clear about the spiritual battle. There is significant reformed teaching on this. As there is in the Charismatic tradition from which you come, if memory serves well but it also stands to be corrected.
    It is also about Jesus being the last Adam and a new humanity “in” Him, in union with him.There is significant scriptural and reformed teaching on point.
    It seems Colin that you have a bee in your bonnet over reformed teaching, which I think is amiss as is your thesis that God divorced Israel.

  5. Geoff,

    I do not know where to start – or finish, with this confusion.

    But just one last comment on this particular post, my book, Finding God’s Will has been published in the UK, the USA, and translated into French and published for Francophone Africa and is a systematic rebuttal of charismatic claims.


    • Hello Colin,
      Am I wrong in recalling that you have said on this site, some time ago now, that you have ben a leader/ pastor of a charismatic church? A leader/pastor of any church?
      What is sure is that this is a substantial distraction from Ian’s post.
      It seems that his site attracts, now and again, hobby horse riders of varying degrees of expertise and none.

      Thanks for blog your article Ian.

  6. I feel that we so often forget that our Christianity is a Judao-Christianity and often we fail to see that the New Testament is predicated on the Old, which scriptures “are able to make us wise unto Salvation.”
    In MATT>21
    The dialog with the Jewish leaders requires an understanding of Jewish history and God’s covenants.
    The Jewish promise to obey God is expressed in the covenant that their ancestors made with God at Mount Sinai. Here, God promised to enter into a long-term relationship with the children of Israel. This relationship included giving them a homeland and rewarding them with physical prosperity.
    The Israelites’ side of the bargain was to obey those commandments that God revealed to them, they said
    *all that God has commanded, we will do and we will hear/obey* (Exodus 24:7

    That they rejected the many prophets, including John the Baptist, who called them to repentance and to trust God, along with the message of Jesus and the Disciples
    “Repent and be baptized the kingdom of God is at hand” Jesus sent the 12 to the lost sheep of Israel and then 70 to preach to anyone the same massage

    The first foundational message of the Church was “Repent and be baptized and you shall receive the Holy Spirit.”
    As Paul declared “the kingdom of God is righteousness joy and peace in the Holy Spirit”, not rituals.
    The tax collectors and harlots obeyed the Gospel after rejecting the Law.

    I recommend an interesting article which gives an indication of Jewish history and thinking
    Alas,When a man gives himself up to the government of a ruling passion,–or, in other words, when his HOBBY-HORSE grows head- strong,–farewell cool reason and fair discretion.

  7. Wasnt the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple a direct judgement of God on the Jewish people, not just the leadership, at the time for rejecting God’s visitation in person to them?

  8. JERUSALEM was *destroyed* in many and various ways, the last was a more thorough destruction. It was not so much their rejection of the man Jesus but, more I think, the rejection and silencing His call to repentance [as with the prophets]
    1 Corinthians Chapter: 10
    But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
    10:6 Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.
    10:7 Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
    10:8 Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand.
    10:9 Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents.
    10:10 Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer.
    10:11 Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.
    10:12 Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.

  9. In The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard the owner is patient with the workers’ lack of urgency and hires more, even at the end of the day, simply to get the job done. His mild rebuke is only to replace a response of words like ‘frustration’, exasperation’ , “you’re wearing my patience thin”, with “generous” . He calls himself generous instead of rebuking them.
    Now however, Jesus in this parable of the tenants He is more pointed and describes the workers as “wicked”.
    Jesus starts off mildly to get attention. He paints a typical scene of vintage gathering: Lazy incompetent workers and poor business acumen by the owner. All His listeners smile at the scene he paints; then He tells “another” that really strikes home.
    The first parable was never about God’s generous nature . He was only describing His patience at the time.

  10. Ian Paul
    October 5, 2023 at 10:01 am
    (Why are you using the AV here? There are much better, modern translations…!)
    Bless you Ian! I was not aware of your antipathy to KJV .
    I hereby resubmit my post using a Modern Translation. I have other translations if this on is not acceptable.
    JERUSALEM was *destroyed* in many and various ways, the last was a more thorough destruction. It was not so much their rejection of the man Jesus but, more I think, the rejection and silencing His call to repentance [as with the prophets]
    1 Corinthians Chapter: 10 Amplified Version
    But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
    Now these things are examples (warnings and admonitions) for us not to desire or crave or covet or lust after evil and carnal things as they did.
    Do not be worshipers of false gods as some of them were, as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink [the sacrifices offered to the golden calf at Horeb] and rose to sport (to dance and give way to jesting and hilarity).
    We must not gratify evil desire and indulge in immorality as some of them did–and twenty-three thousand [suddenly] fell dead in a single day!
    We should not tempt the Lord [try His patience, become a trial to Him, critically
    appraise Him, and exploit His goodness] as some of them did–and were killed by
    poisonous serpents;
    Nor discontentedly complain as some of them did–and were put out of the way entirely by the destroyer (death).
    Now these things befell them by way of a figure [as an example and warning to us];
    they were written to admonish and fit us for right action by good instruction, we in whose days the ages have reached their climax (their consummation and concluding period).
    Therefore let anyone who thinks he stands [who feels sure that he has a steadfast mind and is standing firm], take heed lest he fall [into sin].

    • hider lisÞ intransiciọ̄n beyonede c’mprehension!
      intransiciọ̄n not th’ KJV toī uncǒu a’d outlandish for ich.
      pleasæ submiÞ in ain tonguæ Ich can understanede forthwith.
      thanketh thee.


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