NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 34: “When the time came for the grapes to be harvested, the man sent his servants to the farmers to get his share of the grapes.”
We are not told how long the owner was gone, but taking a cue from Scripture we may get a better idea. It says: “When you enter the land and plant various kinds of fruit trees, you are to regard its fruit as forbidden — for three years it will be forbidden to you and not eaten. In the fourth year, all its fruit will be holy, for praising Adonai. But in the fifth year you may eat its fruit so that it will produce even more for you; I am Adonai your God.”1
Then we are given the harvesting instructions relating to a vineyard: “Our Sages ordained that grapes from a vineyard in its fourth year from a radius of a one-day journey from Jerusalem should be brought there to embellish the marketplaces of Jerusalem with fruit.”2 So we can reckon the owner sent his envoys to collect his portion some four years after leasing the property.
Verses 35-36: “But the tenant-farmers grabbed the servants and beat one. They killed another one and then stoned to death a third servant. So the man sent some other servants to the farmers. He sent more servants than he sent the first time. But the farmers did the same thing to them that they did the first time.”
Such conduct was not totally unheard of in Jewish history. After all, look what happened to Jeremiah,3 and what the prophet Zedekiah did to the prophet Micaiah,4 the prophet Zechariah,5 and other prophets,6 including John the Baptizer. So it shouldn’t have taken long for these religious leaders to figure out that Jesus was talking about Israel being God’s vineyard and these servants as being the prophets sent by God. But I’m sure that Jesus wanted them to also notice the grace and patience of the vineyard owner.
Chrysostom gives us his spiritual interpretation of what this parable was intended to teach: “God sent His servants, that is, the prophets, ‘to receive the fruit.’ By fruit, Jesus referred to their obedience, demonstrated through their works. But even here they exhibited their wickedness. They not only failed to give the fruit, after having enjoyed so much care, thus displaying their laziness, but also were angry with the servants who came. For those who did not repay what they owed should hardly have been indignant or angry. Rather, they should have asked for the vineyard owner’s forgiveness. But they not only were indignant; they even bloodied their hands. While deserving punishment, they themselves inflicted punishment. Therefore He sent a second and a third company of servants both to show their wickedness and the love toward humanity of the One who sent them. Why didn’t He immediately send His Son? In order that they might repent and condemn themselves for the things they had done to the others. He hoped they would set aside their anger and reverence Him when He came.”7 So in other words, after all these years of God being patient with their hardheartedness, instead producing gratefulness and a willingness to give Him what He deserved, they refused to surrender their obedience to Him. I’m sorry to say, but this indictment applies to many living today.
Verse 37: “So the man finally decided to send his son to the farmers. He said, ‘The farmers will respect my son.’”
I can imagine that those listening to Jesus tell this parable were by now shaking their heads in disbelief at the conduct of these tenants of the owner’s vineyard. How irresponsible and ill-mannered they were in showing total disrespect for the generosity of the owner that allowed them to make a living off of his land. So it seemed logical then that if they would not honor his emissaries because they saw them as hired-hands, then certainly they would be respectful to his son who came with the full authority of his father.
Chrysostom continues sharing his thoughts: “What does it mean that ‘it may be that they will have reverence for my son?’ This is not the language of an ignorant man. Away with the thought! Rather, it is the language of one desiring to show the sin to be great and inexcusable. For though God Himself knew that they would slay His Son, yet He sent Him. When He says ‘they will respect,’ He states what ought to have been done, that it was their duty to have reverenced Him. Elsewhere He says similarly: ‘whether they hear or refuse to hear.’8 He is not ignorant of their motives. But lest any of the obstinate should say that His prediction was the thing that necessitated their disobedience, therefore He frames His expressions in a particular way, using indeterminate terms like ‘whether they will’ and ‘it may be.’ For though they had been obstinate towards His servants, yet they ought to have reverenced the dignity of the Son.”9 Yes, while they may be excused for not honoring the prophets as they should, there was no excuse for not honoring God’s only Son.
Verse 38a: “But when the farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the owner’s son.’”
In Jewish literature, there is an interesting mention of Jesus that seems very close to what happened here in this parable. It reads: “On the eve of the Passover, Yeshua10 was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went out and proclaimed: ‘He is going to be stoned because He has practiced sorcery11 and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in His favor, let him come forward and plead on His behalf.’ But nothing was brought forward in His favor, so He was hanged12 on the eve of the Passover! — ‘Rabbi Ulla retorted: Do you suppose that He was a person for whom a defense could be made? Was He not an enticer, concerning whom Scripture says, Neither will you spare, neither will you conceal Him?13 With Yeshua, however, it was different, for He was connected with royalty.”14 In other words, Yeshua of Nazareth was touted and claimed to be the Son of God, the King of the Jews. The Jewish leaders felt they had full control over the Jewish people and the Promised Land, and they resented this outsider coming in, claiming to be the Son of the Owner, and came to collect His Father’s share of the harvest.
Chrysostom gives us his interpretation of what Jesus was trying to say to the Jews in His day and their possible reaction to Him as God’s Son. He writes: “What then do they do? While they had time to ask for pardon for their offenses and whereas they ought to have run to Him to do so, they persist even more strongly in their former sins. They proceed to add even more to their previous impurity. They always surpass their former offenses by their later ones. This is what He Himself declared when He said, ‘Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.’15 For from the first the prophets used to charge them with these things, saying, ‘Your hands are full of blood,’16 and ‘They mingle blood with blood,’17 and ‘They build up Zion with blood.’18”19 But now, God would have the right to charge them with having the blood of His only Son on their hands. Yet, it did not seem to frighten them.
The question we might ask at this point is this: Could not those listening to Jesus have begun to get the picture He was painting for them? Was it not possible for them to grasp that He was talking about the vineyard owner as God, and He Himself as the Son, and they as the irresponsible and ungrateful tenants of the promise of Abraham, the covenant given to them through Moses, and the attempts by all the past prophets to get them to surrender to God the gratitude and faithfulness they owed Him?
Chrysostom continues: “But they failed to learn self-control. They had already received the commandment: ‘You shall not murder.’ They had already had been commanded to abstain from countless other offenses. They had already been urged by many and various means to keep these commandments. Yet, for all that, they did not put aside their evil ways. What did they say when they saw Him? ‘Come, let us kill Him.’ With what motive and for what reason? What possible charge could they lay against Him, either small or great? Is it that He honored you, and being God became a human being for your sake and worked His countless miracles? Or that He pardoned your sins? Or that He called you into a kingdom? But observe that their disregard for bad was accompanied by great folly, and the cause of His murder was filled with madness. ‘For let us kill Him,’ it says, ‘and His inheritance will be ours.’”20
The question now for us today is: Are we doing the same? It has not yet dawned on so many millions of people that everything we have here on earth belongs to God. He created the heavens and the earth; He created mankind, and provided them with everything they would need to survive, including the only life-sustaining atmosphere on any planet in the universe, all the fauna and flora needed to feed and clothe themselves, and all the minerals to use in developing and inventing tools and instruments to render and supply themselves with healthy and comfortable living. And all that He has asked is that His creation honor Him by showing Him reverence and respect in return. But what do they do daily, they crucify Him with their profanity, their immorality, and their stubborn disregard for His existence.
And look at what they have done to those servants He sent into His vineyard to inform them of His wishes. They too have been ridiculed, beaten and in many cases, martyred for being His ambassadors. Yet His love and grace continue to abound so that they may somehow, someway, someday see the light of His mercy. But woe to all those who insist on treating the Father and His Son this way, because He is coming back to reap the harvest that belongs to Him, and they will be the ones thrown out of the vineyard like discarded vines and branches that bore no fruit, to be burned in the fire. God help all of us who read these words not to be that number.
1 Leviticus 19:23-25
2 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit. Sefer Zeraim, Tractate Maaser Sheini, Ch. 8, Halacha 5; (See also, Jewish Mishnah, First Division: Ma’aser Sheni, Ch. 5:2)
3 Jeremiah 20:1-2
4 2 Chronicles 18:23
5 Ibid. 24:21
6 I Kings 19:14
7 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 68.1
8 Ezekiel 2:5
9 Chrysostom: ibid, Homily 68
10 Another manuscript adds the Nazarene
11 This is a reference to the miraculous wonders done by Yeshua
12 On a cross
13 Deuteronomy 13:9
14 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 43a
15 See Matthew 23:32
16 Isaiah 1:15
17 Hosea 4:2
18 Mark 3:10
19 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 68.1