NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 43: “So I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken away from you. It will be given to people who do what God wants to be done in His kingdom.”
I’m sure, these are not the words these Jewish skeptics of Jesus’ claim to the Messiahship wanted to hear. When reading this statement, let us envision what Jesus was talking about. Those who stumble over the cornerstone by not recognizing its rightful place in God’s kingdom will end up being broken, they will come to a fruitless end because the cornerstone was never placed in the spiritual house they were building. And those who would try to remove the cornerstone from its honored place in the belief, doctrine and practice of God’s house, will bring down the whole building on themselves and end up being crushed by the very thing they are trying to get rid of. Only those who embrace this Cornerstone and acknowledge His rightful place in their lives, city, nation, and world, will be able to stand when the winds and storms come.
An examination of these parables of the two sons and the tenant farmers will reveal some striking similarities. First, in both stories, there were sons involved. Secondly, both times the Father owned the vineyard. In the first case, the sons were asked to go work the vineyard themselves, while in the second the son was sent to collect, for the Father, fruit from the vineyard he owned. In the first parable, the two brothers were at odds with their father, while in the second parable, the tenants were against both the father and his son. In the first case one son repented and became obedient, while in the second the tenants never repented of their disobedience.
When putting these two parables side by side we can also see a possible correlation between the two sons in the first parable as representing all of Israel where some rejected Jesus at first but then came to believe in Him, while those who welcomed Him at first then turned against Him and called for His crucifixion. In the second parable, the vineyard stands for all of Israel but the tenants represent the religious leaders. The servants who were sent first represent the prophets who came but were rejected, some even beaten and killed, whereas the son represents Jesus whom they also rejected and then plotted to kill so they could have full control over the vineyard.
Here we sense an echo of a sentiment expressed in Scripture once before: “Listen and pay attention; don’t be proud! For Adonai has spoken. Give glory to Adonai your God before the darkness falls, before your feet stumble on the mountains in the twilight, and, while you are seeking light, he turns it into deathlike shadows and makes it completely dark. But if you will not hear this warning, I will weep secretly because of your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly, streaming with tears, because ADONAI’S flock is carried away captive.”1 One Jewish commentator went so far as to say, that this means the pride of the kingdom of Heaven will be exchanged for idolatry.2 Another scholarly Rabbi says, it is a warning: “O my children, did I not say to you, ‘Give glory to Adonai your God before the darkness falls, before your feet stumble,’3 – before words of Torah grow dark for you, before words of prophecy grow dark, and you are brought to the fate that has now befallen you.”4 It’s a shame that these opponents of Jesus could not sense this warning was for them, to open their eyes before they end up stumbling in the darkness of their ignorance that God was holding out His hand to guide them to the light.
While Jesus did not tell these parables to be taken as actual historical events, He did intend that they teach a moral truth. So let us not be like these leading priests and elders, who missed the spiritual point by looking for historical correlation. Jesus is trying to explain that even if He is not accepted at first but then acknowledged later, is better than accepting Him, to begin with, but then never following Him in obedience. The song we find in Isaiah expresses what Jesus was saying about the future, “Open the gates for the good people to enter. They are God’s faithful followers.”5 Jesus goes on to say, that for some this cornerstone will become a stumbling block, but for others, it will be a stepping stone.
Verse 44: “Whoever falls on this stone will be broken. And it will crush anyone it falls on.”
We are told by scholars that some Greek manuscripts do not have this verse. However, it is included in the Aramaic Version, the oldest Hebrew version of Matthew, and the translators of the NIV include it as well. This echoes what Isaiah says: “If you people would respect Him, He would be a safe place for you. But you don’t respect Him, so He is like a stone that you stumble over. He is a rock that makes both families of Israel fall. He has become a trap that all the people of Jerusalem will fall into. (Many people will trip over this Rock. They will fall and be broken. They will be caught in the trap.)”6
Of course, the idea of taking Jerusalem away from the Jews and giving it to the Gentiles was fighting words. And the Jewish leaders reacted by trying to arrest Jesus. But they knew any overt action on their part would stir up the crowd, and then the Romans would step in and they could be charged with inciting a riot, and that was something the Romans crucified people for. They didn’t want to take that risk. They knew there would be another day, and when that time came, they planned to make it work.
The early church scholar we’ve quoted before has this to say about the historical implications of this parable and its outcome: “The priests of the old covenant who had already ceased to have any hope in God because they were filled with every evil raised their hands against God Himself, inasmuch as they knew Christ to be the Son of God, because they had given up on abstaining from evil. Does this astonish you? Truly every evil man, insofar as his will is concerned, raises his hand against God and kills Him, for whoever does not hesitate to provoke God’s wrath, or despises His commandments, or treats His name with contempt, or utters blasphemies against Him, or murmurs against Him, or looks toward heaven with an angry countenance or raises his arrogant hand against God in anger, would certainly also kill Him if it were possible, just in order to be able to sin with impunity.”7
Verses 45-46: When the leading priests and the Pharisees heard these stories, they knew that Jesus was talking about them. So they sought ways to arrest Jesus. But they were afraid to do anything because the people believed that Jesus was a prophet.
Finally, it dawned on them! The Messiah, the Son of God, was pointing out to them the folly of their thinking. By denying Him and not returning to God what was already His they were in effect trying to seize the vineyard for themselves. Jerome gives us his impression on this revelation: “Although [the chief priests and the Pharisees] were hard of heart and on account of their unbelief and wickedness were blunted in their understanding against the Son of God, nevertheless, they were unable to deny Jesus’ straightforward statements and understood that all the judgments of the Lord were directed against themselves. So they determined indeed to kill Him but feared ‘the crowd, for they considered Jesus to be a prophet.’ A crowd is always easily moved when not persisting with their will in their resolution. Additionally, they are like waves and opposite winds blown to and fro. The one they now honor and revere as a prophet they later shouted against: ‘Crucify, crucify’ such a man.”8
Whether or not it is historically documented that these same people were the ones who later would join the chorus in demanding Jesus’ execution, there is every reason to believe that some of these very same leading priests and elders did participate. I wonder if, during the crucifixion of Christ on the cross, some of them may have thought back to this encounter and realized that Jesus had correctly identified them, and that would make them eligible for the retribution that God intended to exact as punishment on all those who refused to accept His Son. They may or may not have felt that conviction. But if they had, like the thief on the cross Jesus would have welcomed them to join Him in paradise one day.
The same holds true today. That’s the good news we can share with all those who currently deny Him for who He is, what He is, and all that He has done for them, and even those who once believed but have been lead astray by misinformation or selfish greed. The one big difference is that the Jews were in line to accept Him before He was crucified, but only after being crucified was the rest of the world given the opportunity to accept Him as the Son of God their Lord and Savior. So any fault that He is still not recognized and accepted by the Jews as their Messiah belongs to them, not to Him. So it will be for any sinner who hears the Gospel and is left behind when Jesus comes.
1 Jeremiah 13:15-17
2 Rashi’s Commentary on the Complete Jewish Bible, loc. cit.
3 Jeremiah 13:16 – Complete Jewish Bible
4 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana op. cit. Piska 13:9, p. 346
5 Isaiah 25:2
6 Ibid. 8:14-15
7 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 40
8 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Vol. 3, 21.46