The Parable of the Longsuffering Vineyard Owner

The Parable of the Longsuffering Vineyard Owner

The Parable of the Longsuffering Vineyard Owner.

Please read Matthew 21:33-43 (also refer to Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-18).

THE CONTEXT. Jesus had just completed two Big Events in his life: the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and the Cleansing of the Temple. Both were audacious, unprecedented, and greatly offended the religious leaders. And both events seemed to make him even more popular with the people. They “hung on his word” and they considered him a prophet. But the leaders demanded answers… What gives you the right to do these things? On whose authority do you do them? Who do you think you are, anyway? Jesus doesn’t answer their questions directly. He tells them this story, which implies an answer, which only offended the leaders even more. The bottom line is, as Jesus said elsewhere, the Son finds his authority in the Father. “I do nothing on my own authority, but I only speak the truth that the Father has revealed to me. I am his messenger and he is always with me, for I only do that which delights his heart.” (John 8:28-29). It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t tell the leaders this truth straight out, but instead told them a parable.

ALLEGORY. Usually, the parables of Jesus are not strictly allegorical. But this particular parable is mostly an allegory, a story in which this represents that. Jesus wanted the chief priests and scribes to take this personally, so that is how he set up the story. The owner of the vineyard is God. The vineyard is Israel. The vinedressers are the tenants, the caretakers of the vineyard, and they represent the religious leadership of Israel. The son in the parable is Jesus. The owner’s messengers are the prophets sent by God.

THE VINEYARD. It has been hand planted by God himself, with special care and attention and purpose. The vineyard itself was never rebuked or criticized in the story. The grapes are healthy, the vines are fruitful. Israel remains a productive possession of the Lord. And this parable is not, as many have claimed, about how God rejects Israel, replacing it with the Church.

THE VINEDRESSERS. a. They were chosen by the owner to take good care of the vineyard, to dress it properly, to maintain its condition, to harvest the produce in season. But they started taking advantage of the owner’s absence, and wouldn’t give produce back to the owner as arranged in their agreement. They would mistreat the owner’s messengers as they were sent by the owner, and then they would send the messengers back empty-handed.

b. They were not the owners of the vineyard, of course, but they began to think they were. They wanted to claim “squatter’s rights,” which stated that if someone has physical possession of the land for three years, that person can claim ownership. They beat up and sent away one messenger after another, and finally killed the heir, so that the ownership of the vineyard would be theirs. The vinedressers obviously had no shame, and were acting out of ambitious self-righteousness.

c. The story outlines a history of Israel. The religious leadership would reject one prophet after another, claiming ownership of God’s direction for his people. Jesus is historically accurate of course, since we know that Jeremiah was stoned, Amos was murdered with a club, John the Baptist was beheaded, and later Stephen was martyred by the church leaders. Finally, in the parable, they killed his beloved Son, thinking that would end all competition for Israel’s religious leadership.

THE SON. a. The son in the story was described as “the beloved son.” This is the tip-off that Jesus is referring to the true Son of the Father, who called Jesus his “beloved son” at his baptism. Jesus is referring to himself as Son, and so the story is clearly messianic. This parable focuses heavily on the son.

b. The son in the story is killed, outside the vineyard, by the wicked vinedressers. In this parable Jesus predicts his death at the hands of the Temple leadership. And Golgotha is definitely outside the Temple environs. He also forecast the destruction of Jerusalem in verse 16. Just as the son is the heir in the story, Jesus is the Heir as well, ready to die for the true and intended heritage of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus is ready to go all the way to redeem the nation of Israel, extend the reach of the chosen people, redeeming the whole world in the process.

c. Then Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22, referring to himself as the fulfillment of that scripture. He claims to be the stone that the builders rejected, who has become the chief cornerstone. Through this reference, Jesus anticipates both his passion/death as well as his resurrection. The Son will be rejected, but the Son will end up as the capstone that holds everything together through his conquering of death. Jesus Himself is the stone that will be rejected and killed yet will survive and become the cornerstone.

THE OWNER. a. He is the true hero of the story. “He is in a position of power who can exact vengeance on his enemies, but chooses not to do so.” (Bailey). He shows remarkable patience with his vinedressers. When they mistreated one messenger, he would just send another one to try to solve the problem. One after another. The owner was incredibly forgiving and persistent to try and work things out. But then he made himself vulnerable through the grace of sending his beloved son, alone and unarmed. Surely, the owner thought, this will resolve the issue. The owner revealed an amazingly magnanimous heart. He could at any time have called the authorities and driven out the vinedressers. The owner kept trying to appeal in good faith to the vinedressers. God patiently stayed on the trail of Israel, never forgetting his covenant with them.

b. Finally, the owner decides to replace the vinedressers with another whole new crew. The listeners to the story were aghast. They understood the story as it was being told, and the audience was shocked that God would replace the vinedressers with “others.” The audience couldn’t imagine it, and said “May this never be! God forbid!” But the vinedressers/Temple leaders were no longer worthy. Israel would no longer be entrusted to the care of the current Temple leadership.

THE CHIEF PRIESTS. They understood the story. They knew it was told against them. They knew that Jesus accused them of betraying God, of monopolizing religious life, of mistreating prophets sent by God, including God’s own Son, Jesus. They also acknowledge that, according to Jesus, they will be replaced by a more honorable and faithful people for spiritual leadership. That’s why they wanted to lay their hands on Jesus right then and there. But they couldn’t. Jesus was too popular with the crowd. They considered Jesus an important prophet. So they waited for a more opportune time to take Jesus down.

The Writer of Hebrews. The book of Hebrews starts out by seemingly providing a summary of this parable of Jesus. “Throughout our history God has spoken to our ancestors by his prophets in many different ways. The revelation He gave them was only a fragment at a time, building one truth upon another. But to us living in these last days, God now speaks to us openly in the language of a Son, the appointed Heir of everything, for through Him God created the panorama of all things and all time.”  (Hebrews 1:1-2).

FINAL THOUGHT. This parable is like a history lesson, a work of historical fiction. It’s a brilliant story, and everybody in the audience no doubt got the point. If they missed it in the story itself, they couldn’t have missed Jesus’ allusion to Ps. 118, a messianic psalm. The verses in that psalm that immediately follow the reference to the rejected stone are significant. They were no doubt remembered immediately by the audience at the time, since scripture references were usually recalled in context and with the verses before and after. And Jesus’ followers were sure to remember those verses following the Resurrection as well: “The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  (Psalm 118:23-24). That’s a classic Resurrection verse.


  1. Jesus is upping the ante with this story. He just challenged the leaders earlier, calling them self-righteous, disobedient, and spiritually unworthy. After all that, Jesus slips in one more story for their “edification.” In this parable, he is going to call them murderers, comparing them to the villainous vine dressers! What do you think the priests and Pharisees were thinking with His adding one more pinch of salt to their open wounds? Why is Jesus being so offensive with the religious leaders?
  2. Jesus told the Temple leaders that vile sinners, even tax collectors and prostitutes, were going to heaven ahead of them! These pious religious leaders were in the back of the line, as far as Jesus is concerned. Is He using hyperbole, or literal fact? If you were in the crowd surrounding this confrontation, overhearing Jesus’ words, how would you have reacted?
  3. The vineyard owner in the story is gracious, patient, long-suffering. That seems to be his character. Is this the same angry God who is the Lord of the Old Testament? How did this gracious, merciful God get typecast as being merely a God of judgment? For a true character analysis, read the Lord’s self-description in Exodus 34:6-7.
  4. Did the dense farmhands really believe that the owner wouldn’t show some accountability at some point? Why did Jesus portray the evil farmers as being so slow-witted? Did Jesus really believe that the religious leaders were not very bright?
  5. Jesus knew. He somehow knew He was going to be executed. He also knew He was going to experience a resurrection. For the third time, Jesus recently predicted His death once again in Matt. 20:17-19. And now here again in this parable Jesus predicts His death. Could Jesus literally see into the future (since He is a divine being), or was He simply seeing the logical consequences of His life and anticipating what would happen to Him? Both, somehow?
  6. Is the leadership of the contemporary Church in general or of the individual churches in particular, in any danger of unthinkingly becoming like the evil farmers? What would be signs of a pastor’s mismanagement of the vineyard?

Resources: Dr. Brad Young, Jesus, the Jewish Theologian; Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father; Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes; Patrick Reardon, Christ in the Psalms; Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible.