NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 33a: “Listen to this story: There was a man who planted a vineyard.”
We are not told how large this vineyard was, but according to Jewish tradition: “When a man has planted a row of [at least] five vines, the School of Shammai say, This constitutes a vineyard.”1 I believe we can assume that the vineyard in Jesus’ parable was at least that large, if not larger. But it should not have come as a surprise that Jesus uses a vineyard in His story right after their discussion about John the Baptizer and the Jewish religious leaders’ failure to recognize him as being sent by Heaven. After all, do not the Scriptures say: “The vineyard that belongs to the LORD All-Powerful is the house of Israel?”2 These religious philosophers were accustomed to allegories and metaphors being used in debates about morality and righteousness.
In Chrysostom’s sermon on this parable, he speaks about the reason for this story about a vineyard and Jesus’ patience in taking care of it. He says: “This parable suggests many things: God’s providence had been at work toward the Jews from the outset; their disposition was murderous from the beginning; nothing had been neglected of whatever pertained to an attentive care for them. even when prophets had been slain, God had not turned away from this people but had sent them His very Son; it is now clear that the God of both the New and the Old Testaments is one and the same; we know that the Son’s death will effect great blessings; we learn here that they were to endure extreme punishment for the crucifixion; here we learn of the calling of the Gentiles and the turning aside of the unbelieving Jews. Jesus presents this parable after the previous one that He may show the charge to be even greater in this case and highly unpardonable. In what way? Although the Jews had received so much care from God, they were now found to be worse than harlots and publicans, and that by a wide margin.”3
Verse 33b: “He put a wall around the field.”
The area separating the vineyard proper from the land around it was called in Hebrew the “mehol.” It was along this space that the fence was erected. According to their verbal tradition, it had to meet specific dimensions: “[The space] between the vineyard [proper] and the fence. If it does not measure twelve cubits (6 yards) [the minimum according to the School of Hillel]; i.e., after allowing for four cubits (2 yards) of service-border and after deducting the four cubits close to the fence which are not sown (so that people walking there will force down the earth and harden the earth, supporting the fence).”4 As far as the wall was concerned, we are told: “The wall surrounding the vineyard was ten handbreadths (2½ feet) high.)”5 In His parable, most scholars believe that this hedge was a metaphor for either the written law or the verbal law, and perhaps including the traditions of the elders.
But in reading other Jewish writings we also find out that the wall was built for other purposes. First, it marked the territory of the owner. Second, it kept people from using it as a walkway or shortcut. And third, it kept out animals that might ruin the young vines.6 Also, an Eastern vineyard was usually surrounded by a ditch, and the earth from the digging of it is thrown along the inner side of the ditch, and upon this, a fence of posts, branches, and twigs is built with thorn-branches on top. Oftentimes a wall of either stones or sun-dried mud takes the place of the fence. This serves as protection from foxes, jackals, or other animals, as well as from thieves.7
Chrysostom gives us his impression of this wall or hedge built to preserve and protect the vineyard. He writes: “Observe the great care that the owner took with this place and the extraordinary unmanageableness of the people. He himself did the work the tenants should have done. It was he who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a winepress in it and built a tower. He left little for them to do. All they had to do was take care of what was there and to preserve what was given to them. Nothing was left undone but all accomplished. But they made little effort to be productive, even after they had enjoyed such great blessings from him. For when they had come out of Egypt, he gave a law, and set up a city, and built a temple and prepared an altar. Then he ‘went into a far country.’ He was patient with them. He did not always keep a close account of their sins. The meaning of ‘going into a far country’ is God’s great patience.”8 Many Bible scholars believe that the “going into a far country” was Jesus’ way of indicating what He would do once His work here on earth to establish a new vineyard was finished.
Verse 33c: “…and dug a trench for a winepress,9 then he built a watch-tower.”
By now, I wonder if the listeners did not start thinking about what was written in the prophet Isaiah: “I want to sing a song for someone I love, a song about my loved one and his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug up its stones and cleared them away, planted it with the choicest vines, built a watchtower in the middle of it, and carved out in its rock a winepress.”10 According to some Rabbis, this tower referred to the Temple.11
We see this also mentioned in the Targum on this scripture: “Now I will sing unto Israel, who is like unto a vineyard, the seed of Abraham, my beloved, a song of my beloved, concerning his vineyard. My people, my beloved Israel, I gave to them an inheritance in a high mountain, in a fat land. I sanctified them, and I made them glorious, I propped them up as a precious vine; I built my sanctuary in the midst of them, and I gave also my altar to make an atonement for their sins.”12 But our Lord now adds His part in this story:
Verse 33d: “He leased the land to some tenant-farmers and then left on a trip.”
According to Jewish writings, these renters would have been one of the following three: “Farmhands, tenant-farmers, or labor contractors.”13 They say that farmhands were: “Gardeners or land cultivators who receive from the owner of the field or orchard a certain proportion of the produce for their labor.”14 Tenant farmers were those: “Who pay a fixed annual rent in money or in kind.” 15 And contractors of labor were those hired to fill in because the owner was busy with other business.16
Furthermore, based on the context and possible timeline involved, related to God planting Israel as His vineyard and when He ended up sending His Son, we might be able to see this as the 400 years between Malachi and the birth of the Messiah. It was during this time there were few if any prophets that spoke on God’s behalf to the exiled children of Judah and Israel. Therefore, the husbandmen being referred to here are seen as the priests, Levites, Rabbis and religious leaders that led the Jews during this period.
The most well-known group were the Maccabees. There are two books that were part of the OT Canon in the Christian Bible: I & II Maccabees, let it tell you their story. The important thing about these growers and gardeners is that they were under contract to the owner. Without him, they’d have no vineyard to tend and no income from their labors. All they had to do was share and give him his part of the harvest. Here we find a similar story line as that of Solomon: “Solomon had a vineyard at Baal Hamon. He put men in charge of the vineyard. Each man brought in grapes worth 1000 shekels of silver. Solomon, you can keep your 1000 shekels. Give 200 shekels to each man for the grapes he brought. But I will keep my own vineyard.”17
We find in Jewish writings that it was common for owners to rent out their fields in return for their portion of the crop. For vineyards, sometimes the owner would receive payment in the form of wine,18 or in grapes,19 and sometimes as a tithe, should the owner be a priest.20 There’s an interesting story in Jewish tradition about Rabbi Simeon bar Kahana who was assisting Rabbi Eleazar as they took a walk along a road that ran by a vineyard. According to the story, Rabbi Eleazar said to Rabbi Kahana, “Bring me a wood chip from the fence so I can pick my teeth. But he changed his mind and said to him, Don’t bring me anything, for if you bring it to me, people will regard it as permission to do the same and the man’s fence will be destroyed.”21 Jesus then continues with His parable.
1 Mishnah, op. cit. First Division: Zeraim, Tractate Kil’ayim, Ch. 4:5
2 Isaiah 5:7
3 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 68.1
4 Mishnah, op. cit. First Division: Zeraim, Tractate Kilayim, Ch. 4:2
5 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit. Sefer Zeraim, Tractate Kilaayim, Ch. 7, Halacha 14
6 See Song of Solomon 2:15
7 Edwin C. Bissell, Biblical Antiquities, p. 126
8 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 68.1
9 Mishnah, First Division: Zeraim, Tractate Kilayim, Ch. 5:3
10 Isaiah 5:1-2 – Complete Jewish Bible (cf. Jeremiah 2.21)
11 Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit. Second Division: Tractate Sukkah, Ch. 4:6, [I:3 E]
12 The Chaldean Paraphrase on the Prophet Isaiah by Jonathan ben Uzziel, trans. Rev. C. W. H. Pauli, London Society’s House, London: 1871, loc. cit. p. 15
13 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Mo’ed Katan, folio 11b
14 Ibid. Footnote (12)
15 Ibid. Footnote (13)
16 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Metzia, folio 103a
17 Song of Solomon 8:11-12
18 Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit. First Division: Demai, Ch. 6:1, [II:2 A]
19 Ibid. [II:3 A]
20 Ibid. Ch. 6:2, [I:7 A]
21 Ibid. Ch. 3:2, [II:1 E]