What’s the Meaning of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants?

What is the meaning of the parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:33-41; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-18 )?

Like Israel’s prophets, Jesus brought a message that repelled the political, cultural, and religious leaders. But His message was even more inflammatory than the message of the prophets. It was so inflammatory that He didn’t bring it to the center of political power until the end of his ministry, realizing that when He did He would be killed (Matthew 16:21; Luke 9:51 ).

The parable of the vineyard/wicked tenants in Matthew, Mark, and Luke represents one of Jesus’ most consistent prophetic themes. Its symbolism was especially compelling to Jewish listeners because of its prominence in earlier prophecy. Psalm 80 portrays Israel as a great vineyard planted by God but ravaged by outsiders. The psalmist begs God to mercifully restore and reestablish Israel. The prophet Isaiah also uses the image of the vineyard, but in a way strikingly similar to the way Jesus uses it. The whole fifth chapter of Isaiah is dedicated to its exposition. Here is an excerpt:

I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5:1-7 NIV)

Like Jesus, Isaiah describes a vineyard that has gone to waste because of the wickedness and neglect of its tenants. Because of their wickedness, judgment is coming. In chapter 27, Isaiah returns to the theme again;

  • In that day—Sing about a fruitful vineyard:
  • I, the Lord, watch over it;
  • I water it continually. I guard it day and night so that no one may harm it.
  • I am not angry. If only there were briers and thorns confronting me!
  • I would march against them in battle; I would set them all on fire.

But here Isaiah ends with a message of hope. Although God will judge Israel, if the nation repents it will be restored to its original purpose.

Or else let them come to me for refuge; let them make peace with me . . .

In days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the whole world with fruit. (Isaiah 27:2-6 )

Although Jesus’ parable of the vineyard clearly alludes to Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5, He introduces a shocking change.1

“A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When the people heard this, they said, “May this never be!” (Luke 20:9-16)

Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, along with many of His prophecies, warns Israel that it is about to carry out the most decisive act of rebellion in its history of rebellion—Luke 11:29-32, 51; 12:58-59; 13:1-9; 14:7-11, 15-24; 16:312 In His parable, Jesus identifies Himself as the last of a series of prophets calling Israel to repentance. Israel rebelled against God many times in the past and suffered military defeats, massacres, starvation, and exile as a consequence. In spite of its rebellion, the vineyard had been plundered but never taken from Israel. Now, however, the rejection and murder of the Heir by Israel will have irrevocable consequences. The killing of the beloved Son and Heir will place Israel beyond any hope for restoration as mediator of God’s truth and blessing. The true Heir’s rejection will result not only in the recurrence and intensification of Israel’s past sufferings, but in the vineyard being given to others.

The apostle Paul makes it clear why the vineyard would be given to “others” when he writes:

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29; see also Romans 4:1-16).

Jesus Christ is both the personal definition and fulfillment of Israel’s calling (John 1:17; John 14:6; Acts 13:32-39; 2 Corinthians 1:20). Descendants of Abraham who reject Him have abandoned their calling.

It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Romans 9:6-7; also see John 8:39-41).

While Paul makes it clear that God hasn’t utterly abandoned and rejected His covenant with Israel (Romans 11), Israel will be saved only through judgment (Romans 9:27-29).

And the “others” to whom the vineyard—the true tradition of the law and the prophets—was given?

To you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,”and, “A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:7-10; compare with Exodus 19:6).

It is the church of Jesus Christ. (Also see Luke 12:32; 1 Corinthians 3:17; Revelation 1:6.)

  1. “May this never be!” (Luke 20:16). “The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them” (Luke 20:19) Back To Article
  2. Luke 13:1-9: When asked whether some Galileans killed by the Romans and a group of people on which a tower fell were killed because of their sins, Jesus denied that they were being singled out for punishment, but said that unless His questioners repented, they too would be killed by Roman swords and falling buildings. Immediately following this warning, Jesus told the parable of the fig tree, describing how the owner nurtured it and fertilized it, but declared that if it didn’t bear fruit in the next year, it would be cut down. Back To Article
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