The Parable of the Cruel Vinedressers
Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19

© Copyright 1999 by George Lyons


After clearing the temple of beasts and extortioners, Jesus was accosted by the chief priests, elders and scribes (scribes absent in Mt) demanding by what authority he had performed that flagrant act (Mk 11:28 ||). In effect, he responded with a counter-question, "By what authority did John baptize? God's or his own?' In the literal quotation, Jesus carefully avoids the name of God by circumlocution (Mk 11:30 ||). They refused to give an answer for fear of its logical consequences. As a result, Jesus refrained from justifying his conduct, but did respond to their question parabolically (Mk 12:1 ||). The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is Jesus' appropriate answer: "In spite of your rejection of me, I act by God's authority! Since you have proven to be unworthy leaders, you will be replaced."

Matthew's placement of the Parable of the two Sons (q.v.) in this context is probably theologically rather than chronologically determined. His three parables have in common the exclusion of the unworthy leaders of Israel, but seem to have arisen at different points in Jesus' ministry. In its present setting, the parable of the Two Sons only serves to cloud the central issue in the authority controversy.

Exegetical Analysis

The three synoptics reveal a number of significant variations in this parable. The man who planted the vineyard is called a "householder" in Matthew. This term, peculiar to his Gospel, is consistently used when the man represents God (13:27, 52; 20:1; 21:33). Though Luke does not employ the conscious quotation of Isaiah 5:2 in the description of the vineyard (Mt 21:33; Mk 12:1; Lk 20:9), he adds that the owner was gone "a long while." That the owner let the vineyard out (ejxevdeto — "farm out for advantage" — Taylor 475) indicates his hope for a return in due time (Mt 21:33; Mk 12:1; Lk 20:9). For the expression: "when the time came . . ." (Mk 12:2; Lk 20:10), Matthew (21:34) has: "when the season of fruit drew near . . . ." According to Leviticus (19:23-25) this was five years after planting of the tree.

For the servant (Mk 12:2; Lk 20:10) who was to get from the tenants "some of the fruit of the vineyard," Matthew's (21:34) householder has his servants "get his fruit." To the description of the beating of the servant (Mk 12:3, Lk 20:10), Matthew (21:35) adds that the tenants killed another, and stoned another," but does not mention that the survivor was "sent away empty-handed." Matthew (21:36) describes the treatment of the second delegation of servants by the tenants—"they did the same to them." Mark (12:4) says "they wounded him in the head" (kefalaiovw — only here the New Testament. It may mean "knocked on the head" [Taylor 474] or "beheaded and outraged" [Dodd as cited by Nineham 312]). Luke (20:11) has instead: also they beat . . . and sent him away empty-handed." Mark and Luke agree in that they "treated him shamefully." Matthew does not mention a third delegation of servants (as Mk 12:5; Lk 20:12) Luke has this servant "wounded and cast out." Mark's is "killed." He also adds "and so with many others, some they beat and some they killed."

In desperation, the owner of the vineyard considered his next alternative (Lk 20:13): "What shall I do?" Mark (12:6) implies that they owner's son was another of his servants. This was his gracious final overture to the wicked tenants (Mk 12:6; cf. Heb 1:1-2). Mark (12:6) and Luke (20:13) call the final envoy "a beloved son" (uJiov" ajgaphto"). Matthew (21:37) has simply "my son." In Mark (12:8) the wicked tenants killed the son before they cast him out of the vineyard, the reverse of the other synoptics (Mt 21:39; Lk 20:15).

Though some have questioned the reasoning of the wicked tenants, recent discoveries have revealed that according to contemporary law, the estate of a proselyte who died intestate could be regarded as ownerless property and claimed by anyone, though with the proviso that prior right belonged to a claimant already in occupation (Nineham 312).


Assuming that the owner was dead, they hoped that by killing the heir (Mt 21:38, ~ 12:7, Lk 20:14) the property would be theirs (Jeremias 75-76).

Concluding the parable, Jesus asks in all three synoptics, "What will the owner then do to the wicked tenants?" (Mt 21:40; Mk 12:9; Lk 20:15). In Mark and Luke, He seems to answer his own question: "He will come and destroy the [those] tenants, and give the vineyard to others" (12:9, 20:16). In Matthew (21:41) the people respond, "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." But in Luke (20:16), upon hearing Jesus' answer, in horror the crowd cried, "God forbid! (Mhv gevnoito)" — i.e., "Perish the thought!" or "May it not be so!" Chalilah, probably the Aramaic equivalent, is the antonym of Amen (cf. Gen 44:7, 17; Josh 22:29).

According to all three accounts, Jesus substantiated his parable by quoting Psalm 118:22 and 23 (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10-11). It was this very Psalm that the crowds quoted as Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem that previous Sunday: "Hosanna!" Matthew (21:43) has the concluding application, "Therefore, I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it" (Jer 31:10). Luke (20:18) and Matthew (21:44 — most ancient manuscripts, except D) add a freely paraphrased conflation of Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45; and Isaiah 8:14-15: "Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on anyone it will crush him."

The meaning of the parable was so transparent that the chief priests and Pharisees made an (unsuccessful) attempt to arrest Jesus on the spot. The charges of blasphemy and sedition for which they later convicted him to death may have originated here.

Mark's (12:1) use of plural "parables" may indicate an attempt on his part to express the unusual nature of this parable. Perhaps Jesus began to speak figuratively, i.e., "allegorically," is the intent (Nineham 311).

In its present form this is undoubtedly the most allegorical of Jesus' parables. The owner of the vineyard is certainly God. The vineyard is a well established symbol for Israel (Ps 80:8-15; Is 5:1-7; Jer 2:21; 12:10). The tenants are the leaders or the Jewish nation as a whole. The servants are the Old Testament prophets (cf. Jer 44:4; Mt 23:34-35). A number of Old Testament figures were known as the servants of the Lord: Moses (Jos 14:7), Joshua (Jos 24:29), David (2 Ki 3:18), and various prophets (Am 3:7; Zech 1:6; Jer 7:25). Matthew's twofold sending closely conforms with the Jewish distinction of "former" and "latter" prophets. The beloved son is Jesus himself (Mt 3:17, 12:18, 17:5 from Is 42:1 and Ps 2:7). The "rejected stone" is also applied to Christ, and the "builders" to the leaders. The new tenants (Mt 21:41; Mk 12:9; Lk 20:16) of the vineyard, i.e., "the nation producing the fruits of it" (Mt 21:43) refers either to the Gentiles or to the Christian Church. Other details appear only as scenery for the story.

That Jesus deliberately constructed an allegory cannot be discredited. Old Testament parables bear some allegorical elements (e.g., 2 Sam 12:1-7) as do certain rabbinic and parables of Jesus (e.g., Tares, Sower, etc.). Bultmann's (177) and Jeremias' (71ff.) arguments to the contrary only reveal their unwarranted predisposition to the uniform application of Jülicher's overly narrow, one-point theory of parable interpretation, not sound exegesis (Hunter 95).

Matthew and Mark's use of the LXX of Isaiah 5 may indicate only their attempt to agree with the scripture version already in the hands of their readers (contra Jeremias 71. The use of the RSV in English translations of German works is a modern example of such a practice.) Apparently the title "Son of God" did have Messianic overtones even in the time of Jesus (Longenecker 93-99; contra Jeremias 73). The rabbinic parallels to this parable (contra Jeremias 73) are an apparent attempt to confute the all too well known Christian understanding of Jesus' original. Matthew's omission (cf. Mk and Lk) of his often used Messianic expression "beloved Son" (3:17; 12:18; 17:5) speaks against an attempt on the Evangelist's part to construct an allegory. This Messianic designation (ajgaphtov") is used in the same sense as John's "only begotten" (monogenhv", e.g., in Jn 3:16; Taylor 474). If Matthew and Luke changed the order of the killing and casting out of the son to coincide with the historical crucifixion, why do they later make no reference to Jesus' death outside the city gates as do John (19:17) and Hebrews (15:12-13)? The omission of any reference to the resurrection is the most decisive argument against those who claim the parable to be an early Church construction (Taylor 472). The most probable explanation for the frequent references to Christ as the rejected stone may be primitive Christianity's memory of Jesus' use of Psalm 118 in his attack on the Jewish hierarchy (Taylor 477).

Statement of Teaching

In the greatest crisis of all, with the skies lowering and calvary looming near, our Lord himself, in his tale of the wicked vinedressers, employed his own death sentence as a  weapon in his cause (Hunter 13).  If this parable is genuine and the criticism that rejects it will be capable of getting rid of anything in the gospels it can only mean that Jesus claimed to stand in a special relation to God, a relation which he himself chooses to describe as that of the son to father.  Manson Teaching 104)


Beyond this, Jesus publicly predicts his death, though not to the extent revealed to the disciples (Mt 10:388, 16:24, 20:18-19 ||; Jn 11:13; 12:33). Jesus was aware of the plots of Israel's leaders against his life, and warns them of its dire consequences — shades of the fall of Jerusalem and the Gentile mission (Plummer 296).

Jesus allegorically discusses the salvation history of Israel (Heilgeschichte). Possibly no other parable so poignantly reveals the persistent, sacrificing love of God (Buttrick 219). The Prophets had continually reminded Israel that God's favor entailed special responsibility more than privilege. But her current leaders "had lost sight of the end of Israel's calling . . . 'Fruit, did you say? We have occupied the position of vinedressers, and duly drawn our wages; what more do you want?'" (Bruce 453). By a slightly altered analogy, Jesus repeated the message of John the Baptist to Israel: "Every tree . . . that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Mt 3:10; 7:19; Lk 5:9; Jn 15:2, 6). He offered them a last ditch chance to alter their ways:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you could not!  Behold your house is forsaken..... (Lk 13:34-35)



Jesus reveals the love of God in his tireless effort to woo his people to Himself. Such love was costly — the death of His only Son. "In a sense the tale was autobiography; the Man who told it was its central figure; and within a few days of his telling it, it came true." Israel spurned God's final appeal — his son. "They slew him, on an April morning, outside the northern wall of Jerusalem" (Hunter 88). This was the cost of our redemption. "So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him" (Heb 13:12-13).