We’re coming up on Jesus’ last Passover before He is crucified. He’s just ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey—a very strategic stunt on His part which was intended to spike false hopes that He was indeed going to be the kind of Messiah the Jews were longing for (see Know Your Bible Lesson 61: The Triumphal Entry). Now that His theatrical ruse has come off so well, Jewish commoners are worked up into quite the excited lather as they wait for Jesus to make some bold move to seize control over Jerusalem and launch an epic revolt against those nasty Roman pagans. Meanwhile, Jerusalem is super crowded with religious Jews who have traveled many miles to present sacrifices to Yahweh during this obligatory Old Covenant holiday.
Now the Jewish leaders have never liked Jesus, but after His stunt with the donkey, they’re feeling super irked. Someone needs to do something to knock this upstart from Galilee off of the pedestal that the Jewish commoners have put Him on. Okay, so He does miracles. Whoop-dee-do. He’s also a defiant Troublemaker who simply isn’t worth keeping around. For a long time now, the Sadducees and Pharisees have been looking for an opportunity to kill Jesus, but they need to get Him alone, not in front of a crowd that might go berserk and start a riot. Rome doesn’t react well to riots, and the Jewish leaders don’t want a bloodbath on their hands. So for the moment, they’re stuck fuming as they watch Jesus drawing another huge crowd of fans around Himself in the Temple. My, He’s irritating to be around. And He’s so obviously trying to provoke them with the things He is saying. Finally, they just can’t stand it any longer, so they march over to confront Him. Maybe if they can trick Him into making some blasphemous statement, they can turn His fans against Him—all of those fans that used to be theirs before this miracle working irritant showed up.
When Jesus returned to the Temple and began teaching, the leading priests and elders came up to Him. They demanded, “By what authority are You doing all these things? Who gave You the right?”
“I’ll tell you by what authority I do these things if you answer one question,” Jesus replied. “Did John’s authority to baptize come from Heaven, or was it merely human?” (Matt. 21:23-25)
Well, rats, here’s a loaded question. John was annoying, and no one’s sorry his head was lopped off, but the commoners revered him as a prophet, so the leaders need to tread carefully.
They talked it over among themselves. “If we say it was from Heaven, He will ask us why we didn’t believe John. But if we say it was merely human, we’ll be mobbed because the people believe John was a prophet.” So they finally replied, “We don’t know.”
And Jesus responded, “Then I won’t tell you by what authority I do these things.” (Matt. 21:25-27)
Well, that exchange certainly didn’t go well. Now Jesus is launching into one of His irritating parables. The Man can never just speak plainly and be straightforward. He always has to launch into some annoying story that ends up packing some nasty zinger.
THE PARABLE OF THE TWO SONS
“But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go. Which of the two sons obeyed his father?” (Matt. 21:28-30)
The Pharisees and Sadducees have to give an answer—everyone’s staring at them and they’re supposed to be the smart people.
They replied, “The first.”
Then Jesus explained His meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do! For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.” (Matt. 21:31-32)
In this parable, Jesus likens tax collectors and prostitutes to the son who initially refused to obey his father, then later changed his mind. In New Testament Israel, tax collectors and prostitutes were considered to be some of society’s worst sinners—real scumbags. Clearly the immoral shenanigans of such people proved how little regard they had for Yahweh. And yet Jesus knows that many of the folks who have rebellious lifestyles are being receptive to Him, repenting, and deciding to get serious about honoring Yahweh. Meanwhile, the Sadducees and Pharisees are strutting around arrogantly claiming to be perfect in Yahweh’s sight. They are like the second son who promised obedience with his lips, yet didn’t mean it in his heart. For all of their boasting of perfectly obeying Yahweh, Israel’s spiritual leaders are inwardly defying Him and staunchly refusing to repent out of their rebellion.
Well, good grief, can’t anyone make this Man be quiet?! He’s just openly mocked Israel’s spiritually elite! How dare He say they are less worthy than nasty tax collectors and icky prostitutes! Now the whole crowd of commoners is muttering and no doubt making cracks at the expense of their leaders. This is beyond embarrassing, but before anyone can think of a good comeback, Jesus launches into a second parable.
THE PARABLE OF THE EVIL TENANT FARMERS
“Now listen to another story. A certain landowner planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, dug a pit for pressing out the grape juice, and built a lookout tower. Then he leased the vineyard to tenant farmers and moved to another country. At the time of the grape harvest, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. But the farmers grabbed his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. So the landowner sent a larger group of his servants to collect for him, but the results were the same.” (Matt. 21:33-36)
Israel’s flush faced preachers will soon realize that the landowner in this parable represents Yahweh, and the servants who are sent to collect the payment represent the many human prophets which Yahweh has sent to Israel over the centuries—guys like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. Meanwhile, the vicious tenant farmers represent the spiritual leaders of Israel—the guys like these Pharisees and Sadducees who are always rushing to try and stomp out any voice of truth from the land.
“Finally, the owner sent his son, thinking, ‘Surely they will respect my son.’
But when the tenant farmers saw his son coming, they said to one another, ‘Here comes the heir to this estate. Come on, let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves!’ So they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard, and murdered him.” (Matt. 21:37-39)
The son in this story represent Jesus. Jesus knows that these wicked leaders He’s confronting are wanting to kill Him, and He’s already predicted His coming crucifixion several times. But now He turns the focus back onto the Yahweh character and asks:
“When the owner of the vineyard returns, what do you think he will do to those farmers?” (Matt. 21:40)
Too caught up in the shocking story to realize its metaphorical meaning, the religious leaders unintentionally predict their future fate in eternity:
“He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest!” (Matt. 21:41)
Jesus now quotes from Psalm 118—a psalm in which a Jewish man describes being greatly exalted by Yahweh in front of many enemies who tried hard to kill him.
Then Jesus asked them, “Didn’t you ever read this in the Scriptures?
‘The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.
This is Yahweh’s doing, and it is wonderful to see.’ [Ps. 118:22-23]
I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit. Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.”
When the leading priests and Pharisees heard this parable, they realized Jesus was telling the story against them—they were the wicked farmers. Then they wanted to arrest Him, but they were afraid of the crowds, who considered Jesus to be a prophet. (Matt. 21:42-46)
Cornerstones were commonly used as metaphors of importance. In Psalm 118, a Jewish man likens himself to a cornerstone as a way of expressing how important he feels after Yahweh has publicly exalted him in front of his enemies. Here in Matthew 21, Jesus also calls Himself a cornerstone, only He’s of a more deadly variety. He says that anyone who stumbles over Him–which is a metaphor for rejecting Him, as these leaders are doing–will be destroyed. Then He says that anyone the Stone crushes–meaning, anyone Jesus condemns–will also be destroyed. In other words: “Don’t mess with Me or I will take you out.”
From here Jesus launches into The Parable of the Wedding Feast. Soon He’ll be shouting out all kinds of condemning language at the preachers right there in the middle of the Temple with everyone watching (see Know Your Bible Lesson 62: Woe to the Pharisees). There’s just no shutting Jesus down once He gets going, and there’s no way to arrest Him in the middle of this mob scene. It’s a bad day for the Pharisees and Sadducees, but they’re too steeped in rebellion to repent, no matter how many chilling parables Jesus dishes out. He keeps warning them that Yahweh is going to punish them something fierce in eternity for their refusal to submit to Him on earth. But they’re willing to take their chances, while they focus on the far more important goal of killing Jesus. What fools.