Monday, August 27, 2012

The Teachings of Jesus (VI), Week 35: Jesus' Authority Challenged - The Parable of the Tenants (Mt 21:33-46)


Briefly, let me remind you of what we have learned the last several weeks.

Starting in Matthew 19, Jesus' influence had reached such a height that the Jewish leaders were questioning His authority, trying to discredit His rising popularity among the crowds. When He cleansed the Temple of the moneychangers just after the Triumphal Entry, tensions between Jesus and the Jews reached a fevered pitch and they openly tried to force Him to claim to be a Divine Prophet, in the hopes of driving a wedge between His followers.

Instead, Jesus turned the discussion around on them, challenging them to deny that John the Baptist--who had anointed Jesus--was not a real prophet. Fearing to do so, the Jewish leaders refuse to condemn John as a non-prophet.

This leaves the door open for Jesus to claim Divine Authority without driving a wedge between His followers. (The wedge would come a few days later at Passover, unfortunately). Two weeks ago (week 33), Jesus subtly says that He and John both have authority from the same source--and as the Jewish leadership noted at the time, John was universally accepted as a prophet.

Then, last week, we saw Jesus share the Parable of the Two Sons, in which He identifies His followers as those who truly did the Father's will, and the Pharisees and scribes as those who follow God with words only. This again is a claim of prophethood.

In this week's passage, He shares the Parable of the Tenants, saying:

“Hear another parable. 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 and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “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.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: "‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
Matthew 21:33-46, ESV

Let's break this passage down bit-by-bit.

Hear another parable. 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 and leased it to tenants, and went into another country.


The master of the house is God the Father, and the vineyard He creates here is the kingdom of Israel. The fence refers to the fact that God protected Israel through His covenant with Moses; the winepress speaks to Israel's fruitfulness and the tower (which reaches toward heaven, reminding us of the Tower of Babel) is a reminder of the Temple connecting God to man. So here Jesus is talking about how God and Israel formed a covenant, and God offered to lease them the "land flowing with milk and honey", to keep it and take care of it for Him. And His expectation was that they would bear spiritual fruit: they were to be His people, recall, and He was to be their God.

When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.


But unfortunately, as documented throughout the Old Testament, the people of Israel routinely abandoned God, and failed to give Him the fruit desired. When God sent "servants" to the tenant to find the fruit--the servants being His prophets--they were routinely attacked. Here Jesus talks about the servants being killed, and indeed the prophets of the Old Testament were greatly persecuted by the Jews of their day. The Old Testament records prophets being beaten, imprisoned, exiled, thrown into wells, and many other persecutions. In addition, ancient traditions held that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Micah were all martyred.


Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “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.”


To we Christians of course we now know to whom Jesus is referring as the son of the Father--Himself. Jesus here again is prophesying His own death. He then asks what the owner of such a vineyard would do--and He hears the correct answer. The master obviously would put such a group to death and put new people in their place to give them the fruit that was desired.


Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: "‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”


Here, Jesus gets really bold. Here Jesus flat-out says that the Pharisees and scribes of the day are no different than the ancient Jews who killed the prophets. And remember the context: they are here debating Jesus' authority. Jesus is not only claiming prophetic authority in this parable, He is going much further: He is actually claiming that their opposition to Him is the same as the evil martyrdom of ancient prophets.

I cannot overstate how bold Jesus' statement is here. The Jews of the day would no doubt shake their heads in wonder: how could the ancient Jews have been so evil as to kill God's chosen prophets? And here, Jesus is equating His opposition to these slayers of prophets. This is a "point of no return" in Jesus' ministry: you cannot take this back and become friends with the Pharisees.

Then Jesus goes further. Let no one say that Jesus does not share Paul's teachings of a Gentile Gospel! For in verse 43, Jesus says: "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits." Jesus says that Jews have for centuries rejected God's prophets, just as the tenants in His parable. And now God has sent His own Son, and they reject even Him. And therefore, Jesus says, the Jews will lose their rights to the kingdom of God, and they will be turned over to others.


Do you see how critical, how absolutely critical, contextual understanding of Scripture becomes? If you do not know that Jesus is here debating His authority, then you miss a clear-cut presentation of the Gospel. Jesus says that His authority is prophetic--indeed, He goes so far in the prophesy as to call Himself the son of the master (Son of God). He says that the Jewish rejection of Him is just the culmination of centuries of rebellious persecution against God's propehts. And then He says that for this reason, their access to the kingdom will be removed and given to others.

Which begs the question: Who are these others?

Obviously the easy answer is, "Not the Jews"--that is, either all Gentiles or some subset of Gentiles. Recall now that this parable is told at the same time as the Parable of the Sons, and you see your answer: the kingdom is removed from the Jews of the Mosaic Covenant (who outwardly follow God but inwardly rejected His prophets), and instead is given to those who accepted Him as their Christ--even though they were sinners and tax collectors.

Whew. That is a bold, bold statement, isn't it? The kind of statement that causes prophets--and Sons of God, apparently--to be martyred.


There is one more interesting nugget:
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.


First of all, I have to chuckle when I read the first part. Really, Pharisees--only at the end did you "perceive that He was speaking about" you? Dur. He wasn't exactly subtle about it.

Secondly, notice that they now fear to arrest Jesus. Why? Because the crowds held Him to be a prophet. Do not forget that earlier in this very chapter, they were challenging Jesus to claim prophethood because they thought they could ensnare Him! With these parables Jesus has won the crowd over to His side--not only do they dislike the chief priests and Pharisees, but they now universally believe Jesus to be a prophet of God, speaking with divine authority.

And Jesus ain't done yet.




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