What Jesus Really Said: Rejection and Judgment in the Vineyards

Young blond man reading the Bible with bright green background

Matthew 21:33-46

33 “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. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 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.”

42 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’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet. i

Faith Letterpress

This summer, we’ve been looking at Jesus’ parables. Jesus tells parables to instruct his disciples about him and his Kingdom while hiding his teaching from those who reject his authority. Speaking in parables is a judgment to those who refuse to trust in Christ.

God demonstrates his power and glory through those who willingly judge themselves by refusing Messiah Jesus. Admittedly, it is upside-down to our fleshly, right-handed thinking. Like the 1st-century Jewish leaders, a great portion of the professing Church thinks Messiah ought to exercise direct, right-handed kick-butt-and-take-names power right now and that we ought to be helping him do so.

That makes it hard for us to see Jesus’ crucifixion as the glorious victory it truly is. Jesus described his crucifixion as entering into his glory (Lk. 24:26; Jn. 1:14; 12:23-24). That seemingly upside-down way of understanding God’s present kingdom work is what Martin Luther called the “Theology of the Cross.” The road to eternal glory is marked with temporal, worldly hostility which God uses NOW to glorify himself and his kingdom.

God is glorified in the persecution of his people. He is glorified in the martyrdom of his people. He is glorified in all the things and circumstances we don’t like and in all the stories that do not end the way we think they ought to resolve. His Kingdom is not at all dependent upon America’s politics (or any other nation’s for that matter).

So as Jesus uses parables to pronounce judgment upon those rejecting him and to teach those trusting him, he is bringing glory to his Kingdom as the wheat bears the fruit of repentance and the weeds persistent in their rejection. Rejection is judgment.

These two vineyard parables in Matthew 21 are parables of judgment over Israel’s unfaithfulness in light of her Messiah’s arrival. Jesus tells these parables during his final week in Jerusalem as he ratchets up his words of condemnation for the shepherds of God’s people.

We looked at them last summer. But we’re revisiting them this morning because we have gained a larger perspective on Jesus’ parables and because they are two of Jesus’ most clear judgment parables.

MESSIANIC ARRIVAL (21:1-32)

Royal Visitation

Jesus’ parables not only speak about a “new world order,” but they actually speak the new order into existence. That’s a function of the office of a prophet. As soon as Jesus discloses the mysterious realities of the kingdom, the fulfillment begins to unfold. The Lamb is about to be sacrificed for both judgment and blessing – both of which are glorious.

As we saw last week, Matthew 21 records Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a royal procession, with shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mat 21:9). Jesus becomes the center of attention in the royal city of David. “And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee’” (vv. 10-11).

Judgment

With his triumphant entry, Jesus begins to assume lordship over the Temple Mount. First, he drives out the sacrificial animals and those selling them; that shuts down sacrifices during the busiest time of sacrifices, Passover week (vv. 12-13). Second, he receives the blind and the lame into the temple and he heals them (v 14). Jewish leaders considered this a ceremonial defilement of the temple. Jesus is drawing the “outsiders” inside and healing them. He is removing the defilement of the defiled!ii

Livid over the crowds celebrating Jesus as Messiah, the chief priests and scribes confront him asking for a sign to prove his authority. He tells them HE is the temple to be destroyed and raised up in three days. They don’t get it (which is another sign of their judgment). Jesus departs the city for the evening (vv. 16-17).

The next day, Jesus returns and pronounces a curse on the fig tree (a symbol of Israel and its leadership), saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. iii (vv. 18-19). Explaining the action to his disciples, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain [the temple mount], ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. (vv. 20-21)

Jesus is NOT promising that enough faith in God will earn us our wish fulfillments. He’s NOT promising that if you believe hard enough you can move mountains. Jesus is saying that trust into him as the new and true meeting place between men and God makes the Jewish temple mount, with its types and shadows, no longer relevant. A new era has come.

Authority

Everything Jesus does and says during his final week in Jerusalem is scandalous, even blasphemous to the religious leaders of Israel. “By what authority are you doing these things?” the leaders demand (v 23). At the beginning of Mark (1:22), the crowds had marveled at how Jesus spoke with authority.

Now, in his final days, that same un-derivative authority (operating by no one’s consent but his own) is on display. Jesus’ seeming interventionist authority brings shouts of worship at his triumphal entry, at his condemnation of the temple, at his healing of the blind and lame. But the non-interventionist mystery of his authority (his left-handedness) will be the cause of the citizens of Jerusalem forsaking of him on Good Friday.iv

Jesus’ authority is based on WHO he is, not upon what he can prove himself to be. The Messiah requires repentance and simple trust, not a mere agreement that he might be from God. Jesus refuses to fit himself into the Judean authorities’ preconceived notions of a right-handed Messiah and a right-handed Kingdom.

That is the key to understanding the Parables of the Two Brothers and the Wicked Tenants. Jesus is pronouncing judgment on those who refuse to trust Messiah Jesus based solely upon his self-authoritative claim.

PASSPORT OF TRUST

Two Sons (Matt. 21:28-32)

There are only two considerations in Jesus’ ministry then or now: 1) his authority as King; and, 2) your trust or distrust of in him. Jesus is not in the business of arguing for anyone’s attention. He refused to submit his authority to the scrutiny of the priests, the scholars, or the political leaders. He only invited them to repent and trust.

“This is the hard stone in the gracious peach of his Good News”: salvation is not by human efforts – be they physical, intellectual, moral, political, or spiritual effort. Salvation is entirely by trust into the perfect, law-keeping life and sacrificial death of the Promised Seed, the resurrected Messiah Jesus. v

Before the Parable of the Wicked Tenants we read this morning, Jesus tells the story of two brothers asked by their father to work in his vineyard. One declined to go but eventually showed up to work; one agreed to go but didn’t show up at all.

The two sons represent the two different responses to the Father’s offer of Christ and his Kingdom: repentant trust and self-glorifying distrust. These two parables in Matt. 21 are not about future Jew-Gentile church distinctions (i.e., you Jews reject me so I’m saving the Gentiles instead). These judgment parables are simple binary representations of trust and distrust.

Who gets judged? Judgment falls upon the one who does not do the Father’s will. What is the Father’s will? John 6:29, “Jesus said, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”vi And in John 6:40, “For this is the will of my Father, that the one seeing the Son and trusting into him should have eternal life, and I will make him stand up on the last day.vii

Entrance into God’s kingdom does not come by inheriting genes from Abraham and Isaac; it does not come through the mere ritual of circumcision (or baptism); it does not come by being a political or religious ruler or spiritual superstar; it does not come through scholarship and learning. It comes by trust into the Christ of God as the Lamb of God offered as the real, true sacrifice for MY sin and YOUR sin, the sacrifice that removes defilement.

The initial response of either son is not the point of the parable. The point is judgment falls adversely on unfaith alone. And those responsible for shepherding God’s people are being judged for not repenting of their unfaith, their distrust, their refusal to accept Messiah Jesus’ authority.

The Judean authorities’ willingness to work in their Father’s vineyard only on their own terms (v. 30, “I go, sir,” but did not go.) meant they never really arrived at the place they needed to be. They did not submit to the Father’s will by accepting His Son’s authority.

John the Baptizer’s required repentance was a recognition of violating God’s perfect law. It was an outside-the-temple ministry. Jesus’ judgment upon Israel’s leaders is more specific. He enters the temple, judges it, and demands Israel’s repentance for creating their own idolatrous ideas of right-handed Messianic salvation in the face of God the Father’s revelation of HIS MESSIAH as a King of grace + nothing.

DISSING THE FATHER (21:31-46)

Self-attesting Son

Jesus isn’t making an argument for why he IS the Son, he’s simply holding himself out AS the Son. Even when Jesus is drawn into a discussion by Israel’s leaders, he does not reach out to convince them with compelling arguments. He refuses to prove himself with miracles performed at their requests (by what sign, Jn. 2:18; 6:30). He simply stands there in all the attracting/repelling fullness of his divine authority and dares them to repent and trust.

So it is with you and me – God’s whole will, his entire plan of salvation – is that you trust in Jesus, nothing more and nothing less. In Christ you are forgiven, reconciled, raised up out of death and seated with Jesus in the heavenly places.

Better yet, if you’re trusting into him, Jesus himself has already pronounced upon you the approving judgment of having done his Father’s will. There is no need for you argue your defense in a case the judge has already dismissed. In fact, if you don’t shut up in the face of Jesus’ dismissal of the charges, you will never hear the blessed silence of his un-condemnation over the infernal racket of your own voice.viii

If you are trusting into Christ, there IS no evidence against you! There is no courtroom in which to display your great legal skills. It’s all over but the fun of celebrating with the Judge during the eternal Happy Hour of Jesus’ already-present Kingdom. To the extent you do not celebrate that Good News, you reject not only the Son but also the Father. You are “dissing” the Father when you fail to fully trust the Son in all his authority remove defilement.

But even your failure to completely rest in the Son – your lack of more than a mustard seed-sized faith in Jesus’ salvation – is absolved by the faithfulness of Jesus the Promised Seed. For our weak faith, we receive refreshment in the Assurance of Pardon every Lord’s Day in our worship; we are fed by God’s Word and Sacraments (hors d’oeuvres before the eternal feast).

Christians are both justified and sinners. As long as you are a sinner, you will still be required to trust more and more and more into Christ. That’s why we do a corporate repentance and receive a corporate absolution every Lord’s day. Life in Christ is a life of trust, trust, and more trust.

The Parable of the Two Sons looks at trust and distrust from man’s perspective. The Parable of the Wicked Tenants looks at Israel’s rejection-by-distrust from God’s perspective.

Vineyard and Tenants

Israel, the Wicked Tenants Parable teaches, is God’s vineyard leased to the scribes, Pharisees, scholars, ruling elders, and priests – the Judean authorities. Jesus is judging their failure to honor the terms of their legal arrangement (covenant) with God.

God sent his prophets to the leaders to remind them of their covenant duties of repentance and trust. The servants/prophets were beaten, stoned, and killed (25:35). God sent, even more, servants/prophets with the same results (v. 36). The fruit the landowner was due was the recognition that HE ALONE was perfect and holy and worthy of worship while the tenants, despite their apparently-productive labor, were law-breakers desperately in need of the landowner’s undeserved mercy.

Can you see how left-handed, how upside-down is God? He keeps on sending his servants out to die. So important-but-offensive is God’s message of repentance and trust, the messengers are sent to their death to deliver it. You parents: would YOU send YOUR CHILD to his or her own death? Would you send your child out to people who clearly hate you with a message that has repeatedly enraged them to the point of murder?

That is NOT the right-handed, direct, take-the-bull-by-the-horns power the world knows and respects. In Jesus’ parable, the father says, “They will respect my son” (v. 37); but God the Father knows otherwise; God planned otherwise (because he is absolutely sovereign over absolutely EVERYTHING). But in the parable, the father’s wish that his son will be respected is a setup for the condemnation and execution of judgment that follows.

Even the reason the tenants give for their plot to kill the son is absurd. There is no real chance that murdering the heir of the vineyard will result in the tenants inheriting the vineyard – especially when the vineyard owner (the father) is still alive. They’ve invented their own laws to justify their actions. They have set the terms of their own (false) reward.

At best, the tenants can only hope to hold the vineyard until the Day of Judgment comes. But since the Father seems so far away, so tame, so bereft of any real (right-handed) power they have decided they can live out their lives free from any real consequences, free to enjoy the rewards of their labor (c.f. Matt. 6:1-18).

The tenants believe that when any real judgment actually does come (in the very distant future), it will be recognizable as a right-handed operation that will make the political nation of Israel into the world’s political top dog; and it will also come with a recognizable, invincible Messiah (Son of Man) as a nose-punching interventionist.

The tenants are not at all prepared for the appearance of some ineffective messiah whose idea of salvation involves aggravating God’s representatives into exterminating him in the most humiliating and excruciating way. They can only conceive of the landowner executing the most vindictive kind of judgment possible: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death…” (v. 41).

But hidden in Jesus’ parable is the truth that the landowner’s REAL (left-handed) judgment was in sending his OWN SON to a miserable death. God’s judgment and his full authority and glory are displayed in the death of his own Son!

Because Israel’s leaders will not trust the Son in such a mild arrival, because they can only conceive of their own vindictive version of God’s coming judgment, because they staunchly refuse to see their own covenant-breaking sins, the REAL judgment is already upon them – God’s judgment that inquires ONLY if they have trusted.

Judgment is NOT over whether they have managed the vineyard of Israel well or poorly, not how many hours they labored, not what their good or bad intentions were. The real judgment is already upon them, condemning their unrepentant unfaith, their distrust.

To drive in the final nail, Jesus quotes Ps. 118:22-23 (the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone) to show that the OT supports HIS kind of Messiah (Isa. 53), not theirs. His left-handed rule is the marvelous (better: astonishing, shocking) cornerstone upon which they fall.

The stewardship of the mystery of salvation, says Jesus, will be taken away from the tenants who have managed it so very poorly. The land, with all its produce, will be given to others who exercise simple trust. They alone will be able to stand in the judgment that looks ONLY at trust; they will have done the one thing necessary. They will have accepted the Son in all his divine authority displayed in left-handed, indirect, humble power.

The passport into Messiah’s Kingdom does not depend on experiencing Jesus’ presence. The authorities of his day were as involved with Jesus as anybody could be – Caiaphas the High Priest, the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling elders), even Judas, were all intimately involved with Jesus’ saving power. They all prepared the Lamb of God for sacrifice. They were all condemned.

It was not their experience of Jesus or their experience with Jesus that judged them condemned. It was their simple refusal to trust Jesus – the Jesus right before their eyes – that was their ruin.

Christ’s Kingdom has only one entry fee for people of every tribe and language and nation: trust. And what God requires, God provides. The just shall live by trust (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38); and trust is a gift of God’s one-way love (Eph. 2:8).

“…the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

i The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 21:33–46.

ii Horton, Michael. The Parables of Jesus, Parts 1,2. White Horse Inn Discussion Questions. Oct. 10, 2010.

iii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 21:19.

iv Capon, 442-443.

v Capon, 443.

vi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Jn. 6:29.

vii Author’s translation.

viii Capon, 448.