NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 38b-39: ‘This vineyard will be his. If we kill him, it will be ours.’ So the tenant-farmers took the son, dragged him out of the vineyard and killed him.”
It was hard back then, when Jesus told this story, and it is just as hard today to find any reason or make any sense out of the horrible conduct of these tenant farmers in their murderous treatment of the owner’s son. We note that they dragged the son out of the vineyard before killing him. This may have been a clear indication that the vineyard, in this case, was Jerusalem, not Israel as a whole. Because when Jesus was crucified, it was outside the walls of Jerusalem, not outside the borders of Israel.
Chrysostom has this to say about the outcome of this story and how it applied to Christ: “And where do they wish to kill Him? ‘Outside the vineyard.’ Do you see how He prophesies even the place where He was to be slain? Well, they did throw Him out, and then killed Him. And Luke indeed says, ‘He declared what they must suffer.’ When they heard this, they said, ‘God forbid!’1 He then asks them to remember the testimony of Scripture: ‘He looked at them and said, “What then is this that is written: The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head cornerstone.” Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces.‘2 Matthew’s account does not contradict Luke’s. They passed the sentence against themselves, as Matthew says, and again, when they perceived what they had said, they added, ‘God forbid.’ Using the words of the prophet against them, Jesus sought to persuade them that this certainly would come to pass. He signified only in a hidden way that He would ‘give the vineyard to others,’ not mentioning the Gentiles and not affording His opponents a handle to use to attack Him. It was for this reason that He spoke in parables, that they themselves might pass the sentence.”3
Verse 40: “So what will the owner of the vineyard do to these farmers when he comes?”
One thing I learned in guidance and counseling studies was to guide the individual seeking advice into answering their own questions. This way, by asking open-ended questions they become convinced from within, not from without. Jesus practiced this many times during His ministry, and it certainly worked here. These religious leaders had several options to choose from, just like those any counselor today will give. But they did not have to think long and hard, they came up with an immediate answer. But little did they know that they had just indicted themselves. That realization would come shortly.
It is easy to see the symbolism here of the Master who planted the vineyard being indicative of God leading the Israelites out of Egypt and planting them in the Promised Land as His own vineyard.4 But the real tragedy is the refusal of those running the vineyard to give the Master what was rightfully His; not only to those servants He sent earlier but now to His own Son. This pernicious attitude led them to kill the Son. Consequently, forty years later they would lose the whole vineyard to a Roman general named Titus. It is no wonder that Christ would one day weep over this city for killing the prophets, knowing they were about to kill the Son also.
How clearly this points out to anyone that a constant refusal of the emissaries sent by God to man’s heart will one day result in a final refusal, which will then lead to their rejection and a final sentence to everlasting punishment. Jesus could not have told a more insightful story that illustrated the same conditions that the prophet Hosea faced: “People of Israel, listen to the LORD’s message. The LORD has something to say against those who live in this land: ‘The people in this land are not honest or loyal. They don’t really know God. They are always cursing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery. They murder one person after another.’”5
According to Jewish history, the commander of Nebuchadnezzar’s main guard was an officer named Nebuzaradan. He was the one who set fire to the city of Jerusalem and leveled its walls.6 Some Jewish scholars identify him in history with Arioch.7 When he saw the blood of the murdered Zechariah boiling,8 he put to death in revenge the scholars, young priests, and 14,000 of the people. Then, according to Jewish tradition, Nebuzaradan took 80,000 young priests and murdered them one by one over Zechariah’s blood until the stream of their blood reached Zechariah’s grave. For evidence, they then point God’s words in Hosea.9
Verse 41: The Jewish priests and leaders said, “He will surely kill those evil men. Then he will lease the land to other farmers, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Why could their own words not convict them? But no sooner had Christ pointed out the error of their unrepentant ways than these religious leaders did exactly what Jesus said they were already guilty of by implication. If it were not for the omniscient plan of God, they would have done to Jesus what was done to the son of the vineyard owner in the parable the Lord had just cited to them earlier. Think about this: when the prophet Nathan came to King David and told him the parable about the man with the one lone sheep being robbed by a man with herds of sheep, to use that one sheep for a banquet. What if, as soon as David realized that he was that robber who took Bathsheba away from Uriah; instead of repenting and calling on God for forgiveness David ordered Nathan taken away and stoned to death? Such action would have mirrored what the leading priests and elders were attempting to do right here to Jesus.
Why is it that some people cannot see their wrong even when it is shown to them so clearly? We notice that the servants first carried the son out of the vineyard before they killed him. It is quite clear that Christ was the personification of that son in this parable. His reference to being thrown out depends on how large or small we interpret the vineyard to be. If Jesus was alluding to the city of Jerusalem, then it was fulfilled. Likewise, if He meant the vineyard as the Jewish nation, we can say that the religious hierarchy was trying to make this same thing happen as well. Since the son in this parable was identified as the heir to the vineyard, it would appear that Christ was indicating that He came not only to the people of Jerusalem but to all of Israel, God’s chosen children.
Thus, we see the rejection of Jesus portrayed in the parable served not only to mean Jerusalem but the nation of Israel as a whole. As John said it in his gospel, “He came unto His own and His own refused to accept Him.” Without knowing it, the Jews were passing sentence on their own behavior. It would only be about 40 years after this day that the Romans would encircle Jerusalem and then the terrible end would come. Up until 1948, this city and the surrounding land was in fact leased out to the Egyptians and Palestinians.
Verse 42: Jesus said to them, “Surely you have read this in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders refused to accept became the cornerstone. The Lord made this happen, and it is wonderful to us.’”
Then Jesus once again points back to the Scriptures to challenge their thinking. He quotes from Psalms about the cornerstone,10 but did they catch the inference He was making to Himself? Did they see that this cornerstone was now standing right in front of them? Jesus did not use this Psalm out of context, it was already understood by many Rabbis and Jewish teachers as referring to the Messiah. There is an interesting Targum of this Psalm that renders these verses this way: “The child the builders abandoned was among the sons of Jesse; he was worthy to be appointed king and ruler. This has come from the presence of the Lord, said the builders; “it is wonderful before us, said the sons of Jesse.”11
This is an obvious paraphrase, but it shows that few say this reference is anything other than Messianic. Although in this psalm, the builders are, no doubt, thought to be those working on the Temple. However, the term “builders” was also applied to others. We read further: “Who are ‘builders’? These are scholars who are engaged in the building of the world, which is the Torah, all their lives, for it states, ‘If not for my covenant both day and night would not continue.’ 12 Who are ‘builders’? These are scholars who are engaged in the building of the world all their lives.”13 So in this case, Jesus was pointing to the leading priests and elders as builders of the Temple designed to worship God in spirit and in truth.
One early church writer puts this into his perspective of Christ as the great cornerstone. He writes: “Christ is called a stone for two reasons. First, because His foundation is solid and no one who stands upon Him will fall victim to deceitful charms or be moved by the storms of persecution. Second, Christ is called a stone because in Him is the ultimate destruction of the wicked, for just as everything which collides with a stone is shattered while the stone itself remains intact, so also everyone who opposes the Christian faith will himself be ruined, but Christianity will remain untouched. This is the sense in which Christ is the great stone. ‘Whoever falls on it will be broken to pieces, but it will crush those upon whom it falls.’14 It is one thing to be broken but something else again to be crushed, for sizable pieces of whatever is broken remain, but whatever gets crushed is reduced to dust and utterly eliminated. The stone does not break those who fall because of it, but they break themselves who fall on the stone. Their destruction, therefore, is not attributable to the stone’s strength but to the violence with which they fall upon it.”15
When seen in this light, then Jesus was talking more about the Jewish leaders self-destructing rather than God destroying them. Furthermore, if it is by God’s Word that they destroy themselves, then the result will be everlasting. That’s why we say today, that God will send no sinner to hell, they will send themselves. If the Stone charges into you, it will change you, but if you charge into the Stone, it will crush you.
1 Luke 20:16
2 Ibid, 20:17-18
3 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 68.2
4 See Psalm 80:8
5 Hosea 4:1-2
6 II Kings 25:9ff
7 Daniel 2:14
8 Cf. II Chronicles 24:22
9 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana op. cit. Piska 15:8, p. 377
10 Psalm 118:22-23
11 Paul de Legarde (1827-1922), Hagiographa Chaldaice, trans. By Edward M. Cook, 1872
12 Jeremiah 33:25
13 Yohassin, Book of Lineage, The Order of Amora Sages, Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedath, p. 299
14 Luke 20:18; cf. Psalm 118:22-23; Isaiah 8:14-15
15 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 40