If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 21. We continue our study of the gospel of Matthew. We have been in the last week of Christ’s earthly ministry before the crucifixion for a number of weeks now as we have studied the word, and Jesus is speaking now parables, stories, to the Pharisees. Last week we looked at the story of the two sons, which is unique to Matthew, and we saw it set forth a beautiful word of comfort to those who have repented of their sins. The son who said, “I will not” and yet felt remorse, and came and did the will of his father; and at the same time it sets forth a terrifying warning to those who claim to be doing the will of God, and yet have not embraced that will with their hearts and with their lives. It is a warning against hypocrisy, and especially against the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders of the state of Israel in Jesus' day. Jesus warns against the spiritual state of Israel. It's a depiction, that parable, a depiction of how Israel stands as the Messiah has come to minister to her. And it's a depiction of the judgment that awaits Israel.
Today we are going to be looking at this parable here in Matthew 21, verses 33 and following, the parable of the landowner. Both parables speak of a vineyard. That's an image borrowed from the prophets; they used it frequently to speak about Israel, Israel as a vineyard. Isaiah chapter 5, for instance, uses that image. And both of these parables condemn the Jewish leaders. But this parable, the parable of the landowner, is not only longer and more detailed, it is much more like an allegory than the other parable.
Both parables, as we have said before, have a main point, but this parable has many specific points of representation. The landowner in this parable is clearly God. The vineyard is Israel. The tenant farmers in the vineyard are those chief priests and Pharisees that have been set up to tend the vineyard of God. The slaves or the servants that are sent by the landowner are the prophets that God has sent to Israel over the years. And of course, last but most importantly, the son of the landowner is Jesus Christ. So there are many details filled with significance in this parable. And so this is one of the differences. As we come to this passage together, let's look then at Matthew 21:33-46, and hear God's holy word.
Our Lord and our God, this is Your word for our hearts. As we attend to it, we pray that you would give us seeing eyes and humble souls to reveal the truth, to embrace it. We ask, O Lord, that we would be hearers and doers of the word, responding humbly and repentantly, and being encouraged and strengthened by the truth all at once. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.
Once again Jesus is telling a story that He is holding up like a mirror before the religious leaders of Israel. And may I say more broadly than that, to all those who are unbelieving in Israel. He is holding a story up like a mirror to show them themselves. He wants them to see what they look like in the eyes of God, with regard to the way that they have responded to His ministry, to the ministry of John the Baptist, and frankly to the ministry of the prophets before them. As Jesus shows them this picture it is not a flattering picture. The mirror's reflection is not an easy thing to look at. Even as He shows that to them and warns them of the coming judgment, He is showing them a picture of God's love and grace and patience. That picture of God's love and grace and patience, which we'll see in the parable today as we study it, ought to have evoked from them a response of humility and repentance and wonder and love and praise. And the fact that they responded as they did shows us the gracelessness of their hearts, but also warns us as we study the word today of the danger of rejecting the gracious overtures of God.
I'd like to study this passage with you in three parts. The parable and the story and the explanation around it break easily into 3 sections. If you look at verses 33-41 you will see that story telling about the rejection of Israel of its own Messiah. The Son, the Messiah, is finally rejected, and killed by those who are vine-growers in Israel. And then if you look at verses 42-44, you will see Jesus take the parable and explain it and apply it according to Scripture. In those verses, He pronounces His judgment, His word of judgment, against the chief priests and against the Pharisees. And then in verses 45 and 46 you will see the reaction of those same chief priests and Pharisees when they understand the import of what Jesus is saying. And I would like to look at these things with you today.
I. God’s love and patience are unparallelled, and our sin dire.
The first thing I would like you to see is in verses 33-41. As Jesus tells this story, surely one of his great concerns is to show the spiritual leaders of Israel, and to show to unbelieving Israel as a whole how hard their hearts have been towards God. God has sent the prophets to them. God has sent John the Baptist to them. God has sent His own Son, and He has experienced in each of those sendings a rejection by unbelieving Israel. And yet even as that picture is painted for us by our Lord, we see the love of God displayed in this parable. In fact I would like to propose to you that here we see God's love and patience are unparalleled in human experience, even as we see the dire consequences of a hardened heart of sin. Let's look at that for a few minutes.
The story is understandable to anyone who would have been standing around Jesus listening. The practice of a wealthy landowner who had enough land that he could farm out his land to tenant farmers, who would then give him the proceeds of the fruit of that field, and then he could to off to a large metropolitan area and live very comfortably, and that was not an uncommon experience in the rural Roman empire. It happened all the time. You could find many, many wealthy families who had land spread all over the empire whether it be in Italy, or north Africa, or in Palestine; and they would have servants or representatives who would come and collect a certain portion of the produce that had been agreed upon by the tenant farmers, and they would bring those produces back, or they would sell the produces and gain money for that, and bring that back to the owner, and it allowed the wealthy landowner to live in relative luxury. And so this practice would have been very common, and would have been immediately recognizable to those to whom Jesus is speaking.
And He tells the story about one of these landowners. But there is something very different about these landowners. These wealthy landowners were not known for being particularly charitable towards their tenant farmers. In fact they were known to be very hard towards their tenant farmers. In fact as you look at this passage, those of you who are familiar with the stories of the highland clearances last century in Scotland may be reminded of this. The wealthy landowners who moved off to London discovered that they could make more money by having sheep on their property than having tenant farmers. And so they cleared the farmers off of their property, and they put sheep on their property. They displaced the tenant farmers. They ran them out of the country so that they could have sheep on their farms. So the people were very, very upset at the way the landowners had treated them. That would have been very common in the experience of the people to whom Jesus was speaking.
But Jesus speaks of a landowner who is incredibly lavish in his patience towards tenant farmers who are unfairly treating his servants and refusing to give him the produce of his own land. And so Jesus paints this picture of a landowner who has farmed his land out to these tenants, and he sends his representatives to them to gain his part of the earnings, and they abuse his representatives; and they run off his representatives; and finally they kill his representatives. And he doesn't stop. He continues sending to them servants to collect his due. And they continue to abuse and mistreat. And finally he sends his son. And they kill his son. And so the picture here is of a hardened attitude of rebellion against the rightful owner of the land.
The details of the parable, as we have said, represent very significant things. The vineyard represents Israel. That's an image drawn from Isaiah chapter 5, verses 1-2. The landowner is God. The vine-growers are Israel’s spiritual leaders of the day; and down through the ages, those who in unbelief have rejected the rightful rule of God. And it, of course, also represents the whole nation in its unbelieving rebellion against the Messiah. The servants are the prophets sent by God to speak His word, and to stake His claims in His vineyard. The landowner's son is Jesus Christ Himself. And so Jesus is telling a story about just what the chief priests in parables are doing to Him. They are abusing Him, and in but a few days, a few hours, they will take Him outside the walls, and they will kill Him. And Jesus is holding this up as a mirror and saying, “This is what you look like to God. You are in rebellion against the truth.”
Now I’d like you to look at two particular details in this story, because these are details that people who think about this passage immediately seize upon. The first detail I’d like you to think about is the exaggerated patience of this landowner. Many of the liberal critics who have studied this passage have said, “This story is totally unreasonable. No landowner would have acted this way.” Well that's the point. No human landowner would have shown this kind of patience. In fact, when the Pharisees finally give their answer to what will happen, their answer is not overstatement; it's understatement as to what the landowner should have done. You see what Jesus is saying is that if God had done what He could have done in his justice, then every time there had been a rebellion against the prophets by Israel over the years, a heap of stones could have been poured over Israel like that heap of stones over Aachan. But the God of whom Jesus speaks here is a God whose love is everlasting, and is patient, and is unparalleled in our human experience. This God continues in His love, and in His grace through the prophets to make overtures to His people. And every time His people reject Him, He continues to send more. And finally He sends His own Son. Jesus is highlighting in the very details of this parable the greatness of the love and patience of God. We see a beautiful picture of God's grace.
We are told that some landowners in the rural Roman empire, if you were a tenant farmer who refused to pay over a course of years, that those landowners would actually hire assassins to take you out of the picture. This God, however, sends servant after servant; His prophets and then His Son, because He does not delight in the destruction of the wicked, but He delights when sinners turn from their ways, and are converted unto Him. So Jesus, even as He gives this great warning to the Pharisees and the chief priests and to Israel, is showing them a glorious picture of how much God is waiting to pour out upon them and bless them, if they will but recognize themselves, and recognize their sin, and turn and repent.
The second thing I would like you to see in this parable is the tenants' plan to kill the son. This may seem a strange thing to you. You're reading the parable and you say, “How do they think they're going to inherit the field by killing the son? That doesn't make sense.” Well, these tenants, apparently having reasoned that they had killed numerous servants, seeing the son on the horizon, immediately assume that the landowner must be dead. I mean, what man in his right mind after sending a succession of servants, if he were still alive, would send his son. And so when they see the son coming, they think, “Well, the landowner must be dead, and if we kill him, then we can take the matter to court, and we can say, 'we're the ones who have been farming the land. We ought to inherit the land now.'” The point that Matthew is making, the point that Jesus is making, is that these tenant farmers, and here read these ‘spiritual leaders of Israel,’ have forgotten that the vineyard is God's. It's not theirs. They are treating the vineyard as if it belongs to them, when in fact, it belongs to God and to His Son. And instead of bowing the knee to the son, and instead of bowing the knee to the representatives of God, they have usurped their authority. And they have placed themselves in God's place. And so we see a picture of the kind of heart rebellion against the Scripture, against the prophets, against John the Baptist, and against the Son, which these leaders were guilty of.
But as we look at this parable which so beautifully sets forth the love of God, and which also sets forth the wickedness of Israel in Jesus' own time, we cannot stand back in objective detachment and say, “Tsk, tsk. Isn't it terrible how they have acted.” Because this parable is for us. This parable is for any people who has experienced the religious privileges which have been heaped upon us in the church of God, where the word of God has been given to us, where faithful ministry has been given to us, and in this congregation for over 16 decades, faithful ministry of the word has been carried on by the deacons and by the elders, and by the pastors of the congregation. And by generations of faithful Christians ministering the word to one another. And in face of those privileges, if we harden our hearts against God's word, if we harden our hearts against his rebukes, then we are standing right where the chief priests and Pharisees stood. We must not misuse the privileges of God. We must not forget the kingdom belongs to the lord. We are just His servants. We are His humble servants to hear and to do. He desires us to produce fruit in accordance with our repentance; and that fruit to give back to his praise and glory. And now all of us are called thereby to self examination when we come to this parable. This parable isn't just about them. It's about us.
II. God’s kingdom will be established despite Israel’s rejection.
I'd like you to see a second thing here in verses 42-44 where Jesus pronounces His judgment against the chief priests and Pharisees. We learn again that God's kingdom will be established despite Israel’s rejection of the Messiah. Not only in this parable do we see a glorious picture of God's love and His patience, and of the dire consequences of sin, but we see that God's kingdom is going to be established despite the rejection of Israel. Jesus turns and questions the people who are standing around them, and immediately turns to an explanation of the parable. He takes them to Psalm 118, and basically He says this, “Have you people never read what it says in Psalm 118, verses 22 and 23?” He's saying, “I just told you a parable that describes perfectly what God said would occur when He inspired the words of the psalmist in Psalm 118, 22 and 23.” Those verses refer to the rejection of the chief cornerstone, or the capstone, by the builders.
Their proximate reference is to David and to Israel, but Jesus has said, ultimately these words apply to Me, and do you not see that in the Psalms it was predicted that those who were in the place of the builders of God's kingdom, those who were in the place of the tenant farmers of God's vineyard, they were going to reject the one who was the very cornerstone of the building. It was predicted so long ago, and it has come about in Christ.
And Jesus is appealing, in verse 44, to the stone about which Daniel spoke in Daniel 2, verses 34 and 44. And He's saying, “My kingdom is the kingdom about which Daniel was speaking, and My kingdom is going to be established just like that stone spoken of in Daniel’s prophecy destroyed the idolatries around it, and established a kingdom that would be forever and ever. So My kingdom is going to be established even if the chief priests and Pharisees oppose Me.”
And that's the meaning of that seemingly enigmatic statement in verse 44 where it says, “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomever it falls it will scatter him like dust. There's an old rabbinic saying that goes something like this, “If a pot falls on a rock, woe to the pot. If a rock falls on a pot, woe to the pot.” Either way, “woe to the pot.” It's crushed either way. If you stumble over Christ as the Messiah, you are broken. If you oppose Him, you're broken. Christ's kingdom will be established.
And He speaks here very clearly in verse 41 and in verse 43 of God taking the leadership and the kingdom away from them and giving it to others. And here again, Matthew alludes to this glorious inclusion of the gentiles in the plan of God. It's not the first time he's done it, and it won't be the last time. Here in this passage, he is showing that it doesn't matter whether Israel’s leaders reject him or not. His kingdom is going to be established. And so, before them they have one of two choices. They can either be a part of that kingdom and be blessed, or they can oppose it and be crushed by the stone of the kingdom.
III. Sometime it is hard to tell the wounds of a friend.
And that leads us to the last thing that I’d like to share with you today. If you look at verses 45 and 46, we see the reaction of the chief priests and the Pharisees. And let me say, as we look at this passage, this passage reminds us that sometimes it is hard to tell the wounds of a friend. As Jesus comes speaking this message of judgment against people who have usurped the authority of God, even Jesus’ message of warning contained a message of love.
And even that message of love was missed by the Jewish leaders because of their guilty consciences. When the prophets came to Israel, and when the prophets came to Israel’s king to rebuke them, the prophets did not come to the kings of Israel because they didn't like them. They didn't come to Israel’s kings because they wanted them to be destroyed. They came to Israel’s kings for their own good. Prophetic rebuke is not the act of somebody who does not like you. Prophetic rebuke is the act of someone who is so desperately concerned for your soul, and sees the danger that you are in, that he appeals with all the force of his might, that you would turn from that sin which will destroy you and embrace the blessings of God. And when Jesus comes and pronounces this judgment against the chief priests and Pharisees, He does it in the spirit of the landowner, the God who had sent prophet, after prophet, after prophet to Israel, and Israel had hardened its heart. He desires that they would turn from their sin.
Jesus words, though they are strong, though they are words of reproof, though they are words of rebuke, were words of grace designed to shake these men from their spiritual slumber, and from their religious rebellion against God, and cause them to turn to Christ. He is holding up this parable, this story, as a mirror before them, and saying, “Look what you look like. This is what you are. You're rejecting God. You're rejecting His word. You're rejecting His prophets, you're rejecting John, you're rejecting Me and I’m the Messiah. Now forsake that rejection and flee to Me.” And when they saw it, their response ought to have been to have humbled themselves and fled to Christ. But we read here in verses 45 and 46 exactly what they did. They understood that he was speaking about them, and they decided “we have got to get rid of Him. We must seize Him.” And the only thing that prevented them from carrying out at that moment their deed was fear of the people around them. And so their reaction shows us their hearts.
The way we respond to God's word of rebuke to us in the Holy Scriptures is a mark of the presence or absence of grace. If you find yourself responding to God's warnings and rebukes by rebellion, “I don't care about that. I don't care what the word says.” Or if you find responding to those rebukes and warnings by apathy, “so what. That's fine for others. It's fine for the preacher to say that. It's fine for the preacher to think that. He's religious. He's supposed to think about things like that.” Rebellion or apathy puts you right where the Pharisees were. And that's why this parable isn't for them. It's for us. We don't stand back in cold, detached judgment of them right now. We stand under the word. But in the warning, see the hope. Because Jesus is saying, “You deserve to be like Aachan with a pile of stones over your covenantally judged body, but by My death, I’ll give you the vineyard if you'll but trust in Me.” And that's the message of this word for us this day. May the Lord bless it to our hearts. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the truth of Your word, and we pray that You would give us the grace of repentance. In Jesus name. Amen.