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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Gospel Analysis: Parable, The Wicked Servants

PENTECOST  20A      Matthew 21:33-46

Pastor Edward F. Markquart
Grace Lutheran Church
Des Moines, Washington 98198

The following Bible study is from a larger course entitled, THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations in 2006.

Basic text for the course: SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, P. 240. 



  • After the cleansing of the temple, there are several consecutive stories against the religious leadership. (SYNOPSIS OF THE GOSPELS, Aland, pp. 237-253))

      The religious leadership consisted of the Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, scribes and others in authority.

  • Jesus curses the fig tree.
  • The chief priests and scribes seek to destroy him.
  • The fig tree is withered (symbolic of the Pharisees)
  • Jesus teaches in the temple with authority and challenges the Pharisees.
  • Jesus tells the parable of the two sons (one son who does the work and the other who doesn’t) and that “tax collectors and harlots will go into the kingdom of God before you (Pharisees).”
  • Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants (Pharisees) who killed the servants (prophets) and also the Son (Jesus) of the owner. Jesus teaches that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you (Pharisees) and given to people who produce the fruit of it (the tax collectors and prostitutes).” When the Pharisees heard these two parables (the two sons and the wicked tenants), they tried to arrest Jesus.
  • Jesus tells the parable of the Marriage Feast where people offered flimsy excuses not to come.
  • The Pharisees seek to entangle him in a debate about not paying taxes.
  • The Sadducees try to entangle him in a debate about the resurrection. 
  • A lawyer of the Pharisees try to entangle him in a debate about the great commandment.
  • The Pharisees seek to entangle him in a debate about the Messiah and his origins.
  • Jesus teaches his disciples about the phoniness of the Pharisees (Matthew 23).
  • Jesus’ laments over Jerusalem. 
  • We remember that Sessions 18-20 in the course LIFE OF CHRIST were also teachings against the Pharisees who represented the leadership of the temple.
  • We remember that these religious leaders:

-Loved their religious traditions more than God and neighbor.

-Loved their interpretations of the Old Testament more than God and neighbor.

-Loved their money more than God and neighbor.

            -Loved their political power more than God and neighbor.

            -Loved their religious power more than God and neighbor.           

           - Talked a good line but did not live it.

            -Were the epitome of hypocrisy.

            -Were blind to God, God’s love, God’s Word, God’s truth, and God’s Son.

  • Each individual section needs to be read as part of the whole section. The teachings in this section are persistently against the religious leadership e.g.
    the Pharisees perceived that Jesus told this parable against them.

We recall the parable/teaching of The Fig Tree. For Jesus, the barren fig tree was leafy but had no fruit. The barren fig tree symbolized the Jewish religious leadership of Jesus’ day. These religious leaders talked a good religious talk and used all the right “buzz words” and clichés but did not put their words into actions in their daily lives. The fig tree symbolized the Pharisees who appeared healthy and leafy (like a fig tree) but produced no fruit of love.

Today, this fig tree symbolizes any Christian life which “talks the talk but does not walk the walk.” The apparently healthy fig tree without fruit symbolizes an apparently healthy Christian life that does not produce actions and behaviors that God wants from us. 

The tree looks healthy but it is not. A religious life looks healthy but it is not. A Christian can use all the right buzz words, read the Bible, attend church and do all the churchy things but lives a lie and does not demonstrate the love of Christ in daily actions.

#278. THE PARABLE OF THE WICKED HUSBANDMAN   Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-19

As was said last week for Pentecost 19A,the parable for today needs to be seen in its context with the deepening conflict with the Pharisees. Jesus had finally arrived in Jerusalem and had cleansed the temple. Feelings were running hot between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day and were getting hotter and hotter by the moment. The parable for today cannot be fully understood unless a person grasps the intensity of heated and growing conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.

In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus was teaching in the temple and there was growing tensions with the Pharisees and other religious leaders. (Matthew 21:23, Mark 11:27, Luke 20:1).

The meaning of today’s parable was clear in Jesus’ day: Religious leaders killed God’s prophets in the Old Testament and soon would kill God’s own Son. The kingdom will be taken from those who do not produce fruits (righteousness, goodness, mercy) and be given to those people who do. 

The meaning of this parable is also clear for our lives today. That is, people often silence the messengers of God, in order that we can live our lives the way we want to, in order to pretend that the vineyard is ours so that we can run our vineyard the way we want to. We human being often silence God’s messengers, including the voice of his Son, in order to live a lie that it is MY vineyard and that MY vineyard belongs to ME.

Also, this parable functions more like an allegory than a parable. There are many symbolic parts of this parable. The tenants represent the people of God and their religious leaders. The slaves/servants represent the prophets of the Old Testament who were killed for being prophets. The Son represents the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who will be killed by the religious. The owner represents God who comes in and destroys the tenant and gives the vineyard to others who will produce fruits/actions of righteousness. In other words, with all the symbolism in this story, it functions more like an allegory than a simple parable with one primary point.

-Then he began to speak to them in parables. We know that Jesus loved simple stories from everyday life that had heavenly meanings. Jesus’ parables are fascinating, insightful and brilliant. His parables normally have one primary point. The stories are riddles that are not explained but the meaning of those riddles is clear to everyone.

-‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. Everyone in Jesus’ day knew about vineyards, fences, pits, wine presses, watchtowers, owners and renters. This is the second “vineyard” parable in a row. Vineyards were a common scene in Jesus’ day and formed the backdrop for several of his parables.

-When the season (for fruit, RSV) came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce (fruit, RSV) of the vineyard. 3But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. Circle the word, “produce,” and write in the word, “fruit.” The word, “fruit,” is used four times in the text and the word, “fruit,” is uniquely Matthean in this story. That is, Matthew has inserted the word, “fruit,” in this text four times.

In the New Revised Standard Version of the text, we lose the emphasis on the word, “fruit.” But, if you read this passage in the Revised Standard Version of this text, you see the word, “fruit.” 

We recall other places where the Gospel of Matthew has emphasized the word, “fruit.” For example:

Matthew 7:15-16   (from Q) “15 "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” The Pharisees were the false prophets; they were the false religious leaders.  A person recognizes them because of their lack of wholesome and healthy fruit. 

Matthew 7:17-20 is uniquely Matthean and is not found in the Lucan parallel in Q. “17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.”

The fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control. These are the fruit of righteousness and living a righteous live under God.

Matthew 12:33-37. “33 "Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."

In other words, the concept of  “fruit” is interwoven into Matthew’s gospel.

-And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Another prophet was sent and the leaders/Pharisees insulted and beat the prophet.

-Then he sent another, and that one they killed. A third prophet and his fate was the same. “They” beat him up and killed him, and the “they” is the religious leaders, especially the high priests, Scribes and Pharisees.

We recall Matthew’s comments in chapter 23:31 when he says directly to the Pharisees, “You are the sons of those who have murdered the prophets.”

In Matthew 23:37 and the Lucan parallel in Luke 13:34, Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you.” The servant/slave in this passage was one of the Old Testament prophets. The tenants (the leaders, Pharisees) killed the prophets.

Today, a primary, unconscious goal for many people is to silence the messengers of God in our lives, so that we can live with the way we want to live, pretending that “our” vineyard is indeed ours and does not belong to God. We pretend we are the owners of our vineyard and we don’t want to hear from God’s messengers otherwise.

-And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. The people of God and their religious leaders beat or killed and therefore silenced the messengers that God sent to them.

-He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” This is the crux of the parable. The “he” in the allegory is God. God finally sent his own Son, thinking that they would respect his very own Son.

-But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” 8So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. The tenants wanted to get rid of the heir so the vineyard would be theirs. The Pharisees wanted to get rid of Jesus so that the temple (and its income) would be theirs.

I believe that there were several reasons why the Pharisees wanted Jesus dead. They wanted to be “the religious elite” in their society and Jesus was being given the adoration and respect that they wanted. In other words, they were jealous of Jesus and his authentic religious appeal to the masses. I believe they wanted him dead because he told the truth about their hypocrisy. He called a phony a phony and the Pharisees were a bunch of religious phonies. The Pharisees didn’t like Jesus’ honesty about them. I believe they wanted him dead because they wanted to keep their religious business profitable by the sales in the temple. I believe they wanted him dead because they felt that Jesus was a deluded nut who actually thought that he was the Son of God.

Jesus knew that these Jewish leaders were going to kill him. Once again, as Jesus told this parable, he was fully aware that he was going to be killed by the religious authorities who opposed him. 

From Matthew 23:29-31, we recall Jesus’ teaching about the Pharisees and how they killed the prophets. “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you adorn the tombs of the prophets and say that if we had lived in those days, we would not have shed their blood. Your fathers killed the prophets and you have built their tombs.”

The Pharisees were blind about themselves, erroneously thinking that they would have been righteous like the prophets of old and erroneously thinking that they would have supported God’s prophets in the centuries past. The Pharisees thought to themselves, “If we had lived in the good old days of the prophets, we would not have killed them.” In other words, the Pharisees were blind about who they were and what they would have done. In fact, the Pharisees rejoiced when John the Baptist was killed and wanted the prophetic voice of Jesus to be killed as well.

Both the Baptist and Jesus were contemporary prophets of God, and the Pharisees wanted both of them dead.

This whole section in Matthew 23:29-37 is a good commentary on this parable. These verses are not in the Sunday morning common lectionary. These verses clearly supplement the text and need to be included as an additional Sunday morning textual reading.

Matthew 23:29-37: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, "If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.”

It was not only the prophets in previous centuries who were killed by blind self righteous leaders; it was this current generation of Pharisaical Jews who would also kill prophets, the Son and the apostles. Jesus’ words proved to be true. That is, within days, the Pharisees would kill the Son. Within a few years, the Pharisees would kill the numerous martyrs of the church, those people who were killed and crucified because of their faith in Christ. The prophets were the leaders of the church of the Old Testament; the apostles were the leaders of the church of the New Testament. The religious leaders of the day, including the Pharisees, killed both prophets and apostles.

People today sometimes want to silence the messengers from God so we human beings can pretend that this world is ours and belongs to us rather than God. We modern people often live as if God does not exist, as if our world belongs to us.  We too want to silence the voices of God’s messengers to us.

 -What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others (who will give him the fruits in their seasons." RSV). God will stop claiming the Jews as his chosen people. Instead, God will give the vineyard (the Gospel, the kingdom) to the Gentiles.

The owner will come in and destroy the renters. Focus on the phrase, “destroy the tenants.” Such attitudes are consistent with the other verses in the Gospel of Matthew where there is eternal punishment in hell for those who are unrighteous and do not love God nor their fellow human beings.

For example, in the next parable in Matthew, in chapter 22:1-14, there is a parable about the Great Marriage feast. This same parable is also told in Luke 14:15-24. When there are parallel words and ideas in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark, we assume that both Matthew and Luke are drawing from an earlier source called Q. This parable of the Great Marriage feast is drawn from Q.

Matthew’s version of the story the next parable of the Great Marriage feast makes many modern readers feel uncomfortable with its violent, punitive language. Listen to Matthew 22:7-14. “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, "The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, "Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, "Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'  For many are called, but few are chosen."

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both use Q, but each author uses Q in a very different way. Either they had different versions of Q (which could be possible) or their use of Q reveals each of their theological tendencies. In the Gospel of Matthew, I believe that there is a tendency to violent punishment (“destroy those murders and burn their city,” “bind him and throw him into outer darkness where will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”) Six of the seven references to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in the New Testament are in the Gospel of Matthew. One is in Luke. The phrase, “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is an Aramaic reference to hell.

Eight of the parables about the last judgment are found only in Matthew’s gospel e.g.

*the parables of the weeds and the wheat,

*the good and bad fish,

*the unforgiving servant,

*the gracious employer,

*the marriage feast,

*the ten virgins,

*the talents,

*the sheep and goats.

The Gospel of Matthew has more of a “hell and damnation” streak in his theology than the other gospel writers of Mark, Luke and John, and this “hell and damnation” streak is found in many of the stories about Jesus that he tells.

-Have you not read this Scripture: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”? 

-“Therefore, I tell you the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruit of it. This is the issue. Highlight this phrase. Underline it. Circle it. The reign of God will be taken away from the religious leadership and given to a people who will produce the righteous fruit of discipleship.

When wee live a lie and pretend that we are owners of our vineyard, when we do not produce lives that produce the fruit of righteousness like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness and self control, then God will find other people who will live life in God pleasing ways. These other people will know that this vineyard (life) belongs to God and that we are to live productive lives, lives that reflect God’s love, joy, and peace.

-When they realized that he had told this parable against them, Circle the words, “they” and “them” and write in the phrase, “the chief priests and scribes.” It was clear that this parable was told against the Jewish religious leadership of the temple. Underline the parallels in both Matthew and Luke.

Circle the word, “against.” This whole section in Matthew has been a recording of the deepening conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.

- They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.  The Pharisees left Jesus and would seek to find a more opportune time to arrest him…and kill him.

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