The Wicked Tenants

I was watching a show on Netflix a couple weeks ago. Perhaps you’ve noticed that Christians don’t always get the best representation in modern culture. A group of politicians were at a prayer breakfast. One man is portrayed as a Mormon, so we would know that he did not really understand Jesus or the gospel, but he was the “Christian” in the group. (I have no idea why anyone else showed up at a prayer breakfast.)

After an exchange about God, one lady in the group said this: “You can keep your vengeful, Old testament God of wrath. I just want the New Testament God of love and mercy.”

Why do people think this way? Why is Jesus nice and good, but the Father is mean?

Sometimes people who have only a casual knowledge of the Bible make a sharp distinction between Jesus in the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament. They see Jesus as a mild-mannered man of goodness and grace.

They see the Old Testament God who executed judgment and vengeance upon His enemies and even punished His own people for their sins.

It used to be that the most famous and often quoted verse in the world was John 3:16. It’s not anymore. Now it’s “Judge not, that you be not judged.” That one statement by Jesus is seen to summarize all of Jesus teaching. That view is both a misreading and an oversimplification of the New Testament.

In the parables we’ve seen so far, much of the emphasis is on grace. The parable of the prodigal son and the parable of the good Samaritan, among many more, are vivid pictures of the grace of God and love of neighbor.

But we don’t do justice to the parables of Jesus until we see that many of His stories get right to the heart of God’s judgment.

Here are some other parables of Jesus:

In Luke 12, Death comes to the rich man who had no thought of God as he built himself bigger barns for his harvest.

In Luke 16, A man is agonizing in hell after having ignored the beggar Lazarus on his doorstep.

In Matthew 22 is the parable of a wedding feast, which ends with a scene of shocking destruction.

The parable of the wicked tenants is one of the strongest and most pointed of Jesus’ parables. Although it may not be as famous as the parables of the prodigal son or the good Samaritan, it shows up in three of the four Gospels.

Together with the parable of the sower and the soils, this story becomes a good bookend to our study of the parables. The parable of the soils was told early in Jesus’ ministry, and the parable of the wicked tenants came during the week before His crucifixion and resurrection.

In this parable, Jesus emphasizes that living as a believer comes with responsibilities. When things are not as they should be, God is patient and he sends warnings and reminders. But, when the warnings are ignored, and when God’s son is rejected, judgement comes.

Principle One: The wicked tenants reject their responsibility as stewards. (Matthew 21:33-35)

As his ministry progresses, his parables became more and more direct. Here’s how the parable of the wicked tenants begins:

Matthew 21:33 “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.

Jesus has a very specific lesson in this parable, but it’s veiled to those who don’t understand God’s Word and his teaching.

Let’s make sure we understand by going to Isaiah 5.

Isaiah 5:7 Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!

Based on Isaiah 5, who is it that owns a vineyard? (God)

What does the vineyard represent? (God’s People)

Who are the tenants that are responsible for looking after God’s people? (Religious leaders)

This parable is rooted in an important theological setting. The scribes, the priests, the Chief Priest, and the pharisees - they were the tenants. They had a very precise job - They were to represent God to God’s People. They were to care for the vineyard, watch over it, help it to bear fruit.

For both Isaiah and Jesus, there is a failure. God intended for His people to bear fruit and to flourish in His land. The tenants have an agenda of their own. God sends those who Jesus refers to as his servants.

Who are the servants that God sent to his people? (Prophets)

So God sends these servants into the midst of their vineyard. Things are not going well. The messengers come and instead of repenting for their failures, they kill the messengers.

Jesus said:

Luke 13:34 "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!

We do need to think about how this story relates to us. As Christians, we are called to be fruit bearing on God’s vineyard. We need to have that kind of mindset. When the master decides that it’s time to give an account, we want to be ready for that day.

Also, we need to be careful with how we treat those whom God sends to warn us. We don’t have prophets, but God does send people to us. When we receive spiritual assistance, or spiritual warning, that’s something to take very seriously!

Principle Two: The wicked tenants reject God’s warnings and God’s Son. (Matthew 21:36-41)

Remember - parable of the wicked tenants is one of judgment. But the judgment is a long time coming! As the story continues, we watch the vineyard owner exercise an astounding level of patience and restraint. He sends messenger after messenger to claim what is rightfully his.

Matthew 21:36 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?” (Those listening to Jesus said) 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.”

The prophets came to God’s people with God’s message. They said things like: “Thus says the Lord!” or “This is the Lord’s declaration!” They spoke on behalf of God in order to teach and remind God’s people of call. They continually challenged the people toward faithfulness. The prophets held the people accountable for their sin, pointed them toward God, and urged them to repent.

God’s patience with his people is fairly startling. How many warnings would you give before taking action? Instead, God continues to issue warning after warning and give opportunity after opportunity.

Do you have a recurring sin in your life? How many times has God sent a warning to you? (Person, conscience, circumstances)

This doesn’t seem logical, does it? How many times does the vineyard owner need to send servants—who get mistreated and beaten and killed—before realizing that perhaps something more drastic should take place? How many times does God need to send prophets to warn His people before He takes more decisive action?

Logic and reason aren’t the focus here but the grace and patience of God. It’s not logic that drives God but love.

Finally the son shows up. Jesus presents the son as distinct from the servants. He comes last in a long line of servants, but the son’s arrival marks a turning point in the story. Jesus saw Himself as coming in a long line of prophets, but He saw His own relationship with the Father as distinct from everyone who had come before Him.

This parable shows the seriousness of rejecting the Son of God. When asked what the owner should do, the listeners respond with a harsh reaction.

Jesus saw his own death as the climax of the people’s rejection of God’s invitation to them. The invitation was brought first by the prophets and then by Jesus.

But the rejection of the ‘son’ is not just one more act of selfish disobedience. Rejecting the son is an unparalleled and unprecedented act of rebellion against the father. Jesus saw himself as God’s last and decisive messenger to the people. He was not just a servant like the great prophets of God. He was the beloved Son and heir of the owner of the vineyard.

Principle Three: The wicked tenants are rejected by God for their wicked schemes. (Matthew 21:42-46)

Jesus ends the parable by quoting from a Psalm. The parable’s analogy blurs becomes clear: It becomes clear Jesus is issuing a strong judgment against His people’s failure to bear fruit and That the religious leaders recognize how this parable was uttered against them.

Matthew 21:42 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.

Let’s summarize the three main truths we’ve learned from this parable.

God is patient and longsuffering. He waits for his people to bear the fruit which he requires of them. Even when they are repeatedly hostile in their rebellion against him.

A day will come when God’s patience is exhausted. Those who have rejected him will be destroyed.

God’s purposes will not be thwarted. God will see to it that the is fruit in His kingdom. He will raise up new leaders who will produce the fruit the original ones failed to provide.

As we apply this parable to our situation today, we should be aware of just how religious the rejection of Jesus and the prophets was. Sometimes we tend to think of people in categories of religious or irreligious, as if the former is good and the latter is bad. But in this case, the people who received the strongest condemnation from God were precisely the religious leaders and the people who bore no fruit. They were religious, but they weren’t fruitful.

We fail to apply this parable well if we do not consider our own lives. We cannot rely on our religiosity or our sincerity to escape the wrath of God. We must rely only on Jesus, the cornerstone of our faith, who incorporates us into His people. Belonging to God’s people is both a privilege and a responsibility, just as it was in Jesus’ day.

Along with the religious leaders, our voices cried out at the cross: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” It was not just the sin of Israel that put Jesus on the cross. It was the sin of the whole world. It was displayed in the historical collaboration of Roman Gentiles and Israeli Jews.


The portrait of a mild Jesus who spoke only of grace and never of judgment is a figment of the imagination. We serve a Savior whose scandalous grace was matched with the ferocious roar of judgment. In this parable, we see a glimpse of God’s patience but also His swift retribution. Let this story from Jesus shock your senses and lead you to see yourself as a steward of His blessings.


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