The Parable of the Wicked Farmers

The Parable of the Wicked Farmers

The Parable of the Wicked Farmers.

“But when the tenant farmers saw his son coming, they said to one another, ‘Here comes the heir to this estate, Come on, let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves!’ So they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard, and murdered him.”  (Matthew 21:38-39).

Please read this parable in Matthew 21:33-46; refer also to Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-20.

Context. Much excitement and drama was in the air during the hours before this parable was told. Jesus had entered Jerusalem with much fanfare on a donkey, and been hailed as the Messiah by the adoring multitude. Everyone seemed to enjoy this Messiah parade. The religious leaders, of course, looked down on this celebration with distaste and were dumfounded that this man Jesus was successful at posing himself as the long-awaited Prophet. After dismounting from the donkey, Jesus headed straight to the Temple and proceeded to kick over merchant’s tables in a rage. He forcefully expelled both sellers and buyers from the courtyard, whipping them in the process. He saw that the Temple was being used as merely a common throughfare, so He blocked the entrance for a number of hours and wouldn’t let anyone in or out. In His zeal Jesus made a holy spectacle of Himself as He seemed to assume to be the authority in the Temple. The religious leaders were appalled, and immediately sent a delegation of chief priests, scribes and elders to question Jesus. In sending this official delegation, the leaders made a bold statement, implying that this is a serious business. They asked Jesus by whose authority He did all these things. And Jesus never gave an answer. He refused to offer them a simple explanation. He instead told them this story of the wicked farmhands in a vineyard.

Allegory. This rather dramatic parable reads more like an allegory, because all the elements of the story are direct symbols of something particular Jesus has in mind.

Vineyard Owner. This character in the story is a symbol of God, the owner of all things, the Lord of the vineyard. God is the landowner in this parable who responsibly prepared the vineyard by digging the wine press in order to receive all the juices from the grapes, and he built a watchtower for the tenant farmers to stay in so they can observe the vineyard and protect it from thieves. Before he left on a long journey, he hired farmers to do the work at making the vineyard profitable and fruitful.

Vineyard. This is a symbol of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, based on a similar parable in Isaiah 5:1-6. Like the vineyard, Israel is owned and managed by the Lord God, who wants Israel to grow in holiness and fruitfulness.

Farmhands. These tenant farmers rented out the vineyard to do the work to make the vineyard productive. They were left to themselves to manage the whole process. Since the owner lived away from the vineyard, the farmers were trusted to operate in good faith. In the story they are symbols of Israel’s religious leadership, entrusted with the spiritual care and religious development of the people of God. Just as the farmers were the caretakers of the vineyard, the Temple leaders were the caretakers of Israel.

Owner’s Servants. These servants sent by the owner to the vineyard stood for the prophets of God who were sent to Israel to speak the word of God and hold them accountable to the Lord. These special messengers were responsible to represent God and His purposes for Israel. As told in the story, these servants of the owner were badly treated, disrespected, and even killed (Mark‘s version of the story) by the wicked farmers. This part of the story has Jesus retelling some of the history of the nation of Israel and how they treated their prophets.

Owner’s Son. Jesus is referring to Himself in this story, the Son of God. This is rather poignant, because He is foretelling His own death at the hands of the religious establishment. Jesus even has the owner talking about his “beloved son” (Luke 20:13). This takes us back, doesn’t it, to the unforgettable moment at His baptism when the Father says, “You are my beloved Son, and you bring me great joy.” (Luke 3:22). It is very moving to see that Jesus considered Himself beloved of the Father, right to the end.

Other Nation. Jesus closed His conversation with the delegation by saying that the Kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to “another nation.” This other nation is the Church, the new Kingdom of Jesus made up of Jewish and Gentile believers who will bring Israel, and the world, to the next level.

This unusual allegory from Jesus was very clear and straightforward. There was no confusion or controversy about its meaning. Jesus may have told this story to the gathering multitude, but there is no doubt about its intended audience. And one can certainly confirm the story as effective when you notice the reactions of the religious leaders. It’s obvious that Jesus wanted them to take the story personally. And they knew they were discredited by this popular prophet of the people. The delegation was offended by the story, to say the least, and their reaction meant they ended up condemning themselves. They knew the story was told against them, and they wanted to destroy Jesus. But they dared not take Jesus in hand, because the people revered Jesus as the Messiah, the Prophet, the Anointed One.

The Wicked Farmers.  These tenants forgot about who actually owned the vineyard. They somehow started believing that they were the owners, and they certainly acted like it. They mistreated every servant sent by the owner, every servant, one after the other. The farmers beat the servants and then sent them on their way empty-handed. The servants were simply the owner’s representatives who wanted to bring a share of some of the produce and profits to the owner. Of course. these farmers needed to pay the rent as well. But the farmers felt no moral obligation to the owner, and refused to comply with the servants’ wishes.

The Owner. The owner of the vineyard is showing remarkable patience in giving these evil farmers such a long grace period. The owner had every right to arrest the farmhands and give them over to the authorities. But he didn’t. He kept reaching out to the better natures of the farmers, hoping that they respond in good conscience. The owner was vulnerable to a lot of abuse in the face of all that violence and thievery. Finally, the owner sent his ‘beloved son”, alone and unarmed, to try to change the wicked minds of the farmers. The owner is aware that his son is also the heir, but he sends him to the farmers to make it all right. Surely they won’t harm my son, the owner thinks. Certainly they won’t do anything shameful to my dear son.

The Farmers. As it turned out, the farmers knew no shame. They knew the son was the heir to the property, so they plotted to kill him and take advantage of the “squatter’s rights” law in effect at that time. This law stated that if someone could hold possession of a property for three consecutive years, they had the right of ownership. So they think, let’s get the heir out of the way, and we’ll soon become owners of this vineyard! The owner’s strategy of appealing to their conscience and sense of responsibility fell flat…. they had no conscience to appeal to.

The Son. So these vicious farmers take the son outside the vineyard and kill him. After all, they wouldn’t want the dead body to defile or corrupt the grapes! Jesus foretold here that he would suffer death at the hands of the religious authorities by being taken outside the city, away from the Temple.

The Owner. Finally, the owner’s patience ran out. He’d seen enough. The grace period was over. The evil farmers have demonstrated the inability to change their ways, and the time for judgment has come.

The Son. At this point in the story, Jesus wanted to rub some salt in the wounds of that delegation, and He told them that some of them will reject the cornerstone of Ps. 118, and will stumble over it, be broken to pieces, and crushed by the rejected stone. By claiming to fulfill that messianic psalm, Jesus is declaring to the religious leaders that He is in fact the Messiah, the cornerstone. 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.

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).

Going Further. 

  1. Do you agree that the Hebrews verses offer a few of the elements of the parable? Why not?
  2. By coming down so hard on the religious leaders, was Jesus revealing that the time of His death was fast approaching? By discrediting and judging the Temple leadership, was He just adding a few more nails to His coffin, maybe even speeding up the process?
  3. Jesus seemed to imply that the religious establishment was just plain dense. Why did he portray the evil farmers as being so slow-witted? Did the farmers really believe that the owner wouldn’t show some accountability at some point?
  4. Is Jesus implying in the story that the religious leaders weren’t aware of the fact that God would hold them accountable of their mismanagement of the spiritual welfare of Isarel? Or were the leaders not even aware that they had badly managed their spiritual responsibilities?
  5. It appears that Jesus blamed the historical leadership for the deaths of prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, John the Baptist, and Stephen. Should the Temple leaders take all the blame for that?
  6. Why was the owner so slow in responding to those wicked farmers? Is God like that now?
  7. Is the leadership of the contemporary Church in any danger of unthinkingly becoming like the evil farmers, forgetting about their spiritual responsibilities? What would be various signs of mismanagement today?

Big Question: What did we learn about the nature of God and the character of Jesus after studying this parable?

Sources: Various Study Bibles; Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, by Kenneth Bailey; All the Parables of the Bible, by Herbert Lockyer.