Matthew 21:23-46, The King Confronts the Tenant Leaders

The Outline of Matthew and of This Section

[October 19, 2008] This Sunday we jump ahead to events during Holy Week, Matthew 21-25. Last Sunday we were in chapter 16. You might recall that we covered Jesus’ announcement of the cross and resurrection and the vision of Him on the Mount of Transfiguration (16:21–17:13) on Transfiguration Sunday. We also covered Jesus’ teaching on the church in the light of the kingdom (17:14–20:34) during seven Sundays in Easter. On Palm Sunday we covered 21:1-22, the main event with which the current section begins. Because of the constraints of the church calendar, I felt compelled to jump around. This leaves now the housekeeping task of tying things back together.

Matthew began with the birth of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of David. He was baptized by John and, after testing, presents Himself as the kingdom of the heavens “drawn near” to Israel (1:1–4:17). After this, Matthew has five sections, each consisting of a series of stories followed by a teaching related to the stories. In the first section, He calls disciples who enter the sphere of His own Person, and He teaches them what that is like (4:18–8:1). Then He engages in mission and sends out His disciples to do the same (8:2–11:1). After that, He deals with the people’s reaction, their non-repentance, and He gives parables describing the situation (11:2–13:52). In the fourth section, after Peter confesses Him, He reveals the church, the cross and resurrection, and the coming of the kingdom, and He teaches on being the church in the light of the kingdom (13:53–20:34). In the last section, before Jesus embraces the cross and rises from the dead, He enters the city of Jerusalem as the Son of David and pronounces God’s judgment on Jerusalem, on the church, and on the nations (21:1–25:46).

Introduction (Birth, Baptism, Temptation, Emergence)

The Five Teaching Sections:

  1. Discipleship: Entering the Sphere of the Kingdom
  2. Being Sent: Calling All People to Discipleship
  3. Israel’s Non-response to Jesus
  4. The Church among the Gentiles
  5. The Judgment of Jerusalem, the Church and the Nations

Conclusion (Offering Up, Death, Resurrection and Commission)

We find the same pattern in Acts and the Epistles. The Gospel according to Matthew was written in Antioch to the Jewish community, to those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and those who did not, to justify the spread of the church among the Gentiles. Matthew was the member of the Twelve who could write and who possessed a writing toolkit. He recorded what he saw and heard and the eyewitness accounts of others, especially the twelve. He also organized his notes into our present gospel.

This section (21:1–25:46) began on Palm Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem—the City of David—riding on a donkey and hailed by the crowd of pilgrims as the King, the Son of David. When Pilate got wind of this, he determined that Jesus would be made an example of and had Him crucified under a plaque that read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” The important point to realize is that Jesus entered the city as its King.

With this authority He cleansed the temple, provoking the reaction of the Sadducean chief priests who managed the affairs of the temple. The next morning He cursed a fig tree because it bore no fruit. This was an enacted parable, signifying the fate of the city and those responsible for the people.

After this, Jesus confronts those who were supposed to be the shepherds of Israel, the chief priests and elders, the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the scribes. In 23:34–24:2 Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple and the city, and in 24:3–25:46 He speaks again of the destruction of the city and of His coming in judgment on Israel, the church and the nations.

May our listening to this prepare us for the season of Advent.

The Incompetence of Those Left in Charge of the Vineyard

The parable that Jesus tells in 21:33-40 speaks of “vinedressers.” These are tenant farmers who occupy the land in the absence of the land owner. They agree to pay him a portion of the produce, usually about forty percent. They live on the land and retain a tremendous amount of control as long as they keep their side of the bargain. In the parable, the tenant farmers are the chief priests and elders, and the vineyard is the people of Israel.

When Jesus entered the city, being hailed as the Son of David, and the children in the temple shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” the chief priests were indignant. Naturally they were also concerned about how the Romans would react. Jesus also overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves, claiming that they were robbers, taking advantage of the worshipers. Who put Jesus in charge? The next day the chief priests and elders demanded to know, “By what authority do You do these things? And who gave You this authority?”

Jesus says that He will answer them only if they can answer His question first. By so doing, He becomes their judge, exposing their incompetence as spiritual leaders. John the Baptist announced the entrance of Jesus. John’s commission was from heaven. But these leaders do not even ask themselves what the truth is. They are only concerned about the consequences of their answer. How will it affect their standing, their power? By being this way they already abdicated their responsibility for the people; they only took care of themselves. Jesus came to the city of David as the heir of David’s throne, and these were the people placed in charge, to hold the city and the Temple until He came. They prove themselves unable to give Him an accounting. Since Jesus does not recognize their authority, He does not answer them.

The Disobedience of Those Left in Charge of the Vineyard

However, He tells them a parable, the parable of two sons. The chief priests and elders are the first son, since they claim to represent the will of God. They take care of worship in the Temple and represent the Law of Moses. Actually they are just full of themselves. When John the Baptist called on people to repent in view of the drawing near of the kingdom of the heavens, they saw themselves as above all that. Tax collectors and harlots responded to John. They were not going to put themselves in the same company. But the call of John the Baptist to repent was actually the voice of God calling on the sons to “go today and work in the vineyard.” The tax collectors and prostitutes were notorious sinners, but they responded to this call. Those who saw themselves as “righteous” remained aloof.

If we are leaders, we need to respond to God’s call as if we were notorious sinners. If we are the most notorious sinners, we need to realize that God calls us too. It is difficult to get “sinners” to repent because they think God is angry with them and are blinded to His mercy. They consequently rebel against God. We need to show them God’s mercy, because this is what they cannot see. But it is far more difficult for the “righteous” to repent. They think they have earned God’s favor by their righteous appearance or their good effort. In reality, that appearance and that self-justifying effort is really a wall that separates them from God, a wall that is far more difficult to knock down than the guilt that “sinners” feel.

Today, we often refuse to acknowledge that God even has a standard. We take it for granted that we are all good people without even making an effort. Our justification with God is a “given.” God is not a Judge, nor does anyone else have the right to judge me. This is a self-granted righteousness. God forgives me without ever having condemned me. With this attitude we are like a son who does not recognize the father at all.

The Rebellion of Those Left in Charge of the Vineyard

Jesus then gives another parable. Sometimes the vineyard is interpreted as the kingdom of God and the tenant farmers are the Jews. This is a wrong interpretation. The vineyard is the people of Israel. They are expected to bear fruit (see Isaiah 5). The tenant farmers are their leaders and teachers. They are responsible for the people. They are the shepherds of the flock. When Jesus says that the kingdom of God will be taken from them, this refers to their position over the vineyard, not to the vineyard itself. The owner does not purchase another vineyard; he gets rid of the tenant farmers. This, in fact, is what happened when the Romans destroyed the Temple and city of Jerusalem in 70 AD and scattered the nation in 135.

The slaves who are sent to the vineyard are the prophets, which the Jews divide between the early and later prophets (pre-exilic and exilic/post-exilic). The son is the owner’s only son (Mark 12:6 and implied). The tenants figure that since they live on the land and the owner is not present, if they get rid of the only heir, they can claim the vineyard for themselves. Of course, the son is Jesus and the chief priests work with Pilate to engineer His death. But even though He dies, He is not overcome.

Jesus quotes from Psalm 118:22, which the rabbis understood to be referring to David. No one expected that the young son out tending the sheep would be the king that God had chosen. Those who heard Jesus, remembering how He had been acclaimed the Son of David the day before, would have understood that Jesus was referring to Himself as the “Stone.” Even though they would kill Him, He would become the head of the corner.

Jesus then uses a rabbinic illustration of a stone and an earthen pot. If the pot falls on the stone, the pot will be broken. If the stone falls on the pot, the pot will be crushed. Either way, if will be bad for the pot. In this case, the pot are the leaders of Israel who plot His death.

Even though Jesus addressed these parables to the chief priests and elders, the Pharisees who opposed Jesus also heard this spoken against them. Because they were teachers, they were also tenant farmers responsible for God’s vineyard. (These were the “zealous” Pharisees.)

When national denominational leaders act as if they have no use for Jesus, or prop up a Jesus of their own who simply represents their causes, they may be compared to these tenant farmers. We need to be careful that we do not have an idealized Jesus based on cultural values or a distorted view of the Scriptures. Every believer needs to recognize false teaching.

The Application for Us

Those who are leaders have a great deal of responsibility. Whether they are leaders of the nation, leaders of the economy, or leaders of the denomination. When Jesus went to the city of Jerusalem, He was confronting the center of power among the people of Israel. We should remember that Jesus is not only a Savior but He is also the judge of the world, the judge of His believers, and the judge of the synagogue.

We must not be like the chief priests who do not care for truth but just want to know how Jesus is going to affect them in their own scheme of things. Jesus wants to call into question our schemes and agendas. It is wrong for us to measure Jesus by how He fits into them. He is our Lord, our King and our Judge.

We must not be like the son who tells his father he will obey but does not. It is not the impression we make with people that matters, but the reality of our obedience, which only God really sees.

We must also not be like those tenants who thought they could substitute themselves in the place of the owner’s son. People who create Jesus after their own image to prop up their own causes are like this. This is why we all must study our Bibles and not just let other people lead us.

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