Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 21.33-46
Proper 22 - Year A

Other texts:

Isaiah 5-1-7

Psalm 80-7-14

Philippians 3-4b-14


This parable begins much like Isaiah 5:1-2 -- (the "thematic" 1st Lesson for this day). It is the third parable in Matthew with a vineyard setting (20:1-16 -- the workers in the vineyard; 21:28-32 -- the two sons).

What does the vineyard represent? In Isaiah it represents Israel and many have assumed that that is its meaning in the parable, e.g., the vineyard = Israel; the tenants = religious leaders; landowner's slaves = prophets whom they rejected. With this interpretation, we note that the vineyard is not destroyed, but turned over to new tenants. To use another biblical metaphor, the unfaithful, greedy shepherds are removed (Mt 9:36; Ezekiel 34) and new shepherds are installed to care for the sheep. Could this interpretation be applied to pastors and congregations? What might it mean for us who have been put in charge of a community of God's people to produce fruit for God?

However, in v. 43, Jesus indicates that the vineyard is the "kingdom of God". In that context, who do the tenants and landowner's slaves represent? Who are we in this parable?

If we, that is, all believers, are the tenants, I think that the "vineyard" represents all places where we have been called by God to produce the fruits of the kingdom. Those places could easily include our households, our place of business, our school, our neighborhood, our clubs, and our congregations, etc.

Is our parable given by Jesus, in part, to continue to deal with the question of the chief priests and the elders in the temple: "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" (21:23)


Four times karpos ("fruit") is used in the parable in Matthew, although not always translated that way [v. 34 lit. "time of the fruits" = NRSV's "harvest time;" 34 & 41 lit. "fruits" = NRSV's "produce;" 43]. It occurs once in Mark's version (12:2). "Fruit-bearing" is an emphasis in Matthew (see also: 3:8, 10; 7:16-20; 12:33; 13:8, 23).

There are some significant differences between Mk 12:2 and Mt 21:34.

In Mark the slave is sent "at the proper time" (kairos) = the fruit was ripe

In Matthew: "When the proper time (kairos) of the fruits had come near" = the fruit was almost ripe, but not quite. "Had come near" is an eschatological term used of the kingdom (3:2; 4:17; 10:7) and of Jesus' hour (26:45).

In Mark the landowner seeks to receive a share of the fruit of the vineyard. Presumably the workers get to keep their share.

In Matthew the landowner seeks to receive his fruit. (Would that imply "all," since he owned the entire vineyard?). See also v. 41 where the new tenants will "give to him the fruits at their proper time." Would that be all or just some of the fruit?


Bernard Brandon Scott (Hear Then the Parable) takes from Derett (Law in the New Testament) that "the time between planting the vineyard and the first payment was probably about five years." [p. 249]

If these tenant farmers had been working the land for five years and suddenly a slave comes and wants to take all the fruit just as the harvest time is near, it's perhaps a little more understandable why they wouldn't want to give up the work of their labors. I had an assistant to a bishop complain about the many folks who believe that it is their congregation, rather than God's congregation, where they are working and hold membership. Is that much different from what these tenants are doing?

As many of our congregations are approaching stewardship time, we need to be reminded that it is not 10% that belongs to God but 100% and we are but "managers/stewards" of all that God has given us.

Daniel Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew's Faith) suggests oppositions between the wicked tenants and ideal tenants. The wicked tenants are those who (1) do not want to give fruit to the owner (unwilling to produce the proper fruit?); (2) reject the owner's authority; and (3) work for themselves. [pp. 298-9]

Some of these same characteristics are repeated in the opposition between what the Father says about his son (they will respect him) and what the tenants say (let's kill him). By killing the son they reject the father's authority. By seeking to inherit the vineyard they show their desire to work for themselves.

A question I've heard asked, but not answered fully is: "How could the tenants think that they would inherit the vineyard?" It would seem quite presumptuous to think that by killing the owner's son that the owner would give them the vineyard. Perhaps they assumed that the owner was dead and this son was now the owner. Why else would he be coming? It's not that long ago that "God is dead" was a popular slogan. Whether these tenants thought that or not, they acted as if God/landowner were dead. What differences should it make in our lives if we believe God is alive vs. believing God is dead? I've heard the critique that most Christians are functional atheists. They believe in God, but they function -- live and act -- as if there were no God.

My last congregation took the Natural Church Development [NCD] survey. We, like most other congregations in the ELCA, came up weakest in the area NCD calls "Passionate Spirituality." They define this as "faith that is lived out with commitment, fire and enthusiasm." They also state: "A church that lives its faith with passionate fervor will experience success with many methods." This is quite different from those who are functional atheists.


Matthew adds an allegorical twist in v. 39, compared to Mk 12:8. In Mk the tenants kill the son and then cast him out of the vineyard. In Mt the order is reversed: the tenants cast him out of the vineyard first and then kill him -- closer symbolism to Jesus' actual crucifixion. (In this verse the vineyard would symbolize Jerusalem. Jesus was taken outside of the city and crucified.)

Matthew has the religious leaders answer Jesus' question: "What will the lord of the vineyard do to those tenants?" (Similar to Nathan's parable in 2 Sam 12:1-6 where David unknowingly passes judgment on himself.) In Mark, Jesus asks and then answers the question.


As part of the judgment, Matthew makes it clear that the new tenants have the same responsibility as the old -- "to give back to the owner the fruits at their proper time" v. 41. New tenants who think that they are working for themselves could face the same fate as the old ones. [This truth can help us keep this text from becoming a proof-text for anti-semitism, e.g., "Jesus-killers", for which it has been used.] Even we Gentile Christians could suffer the same punishment if we reject the Owner's authority over us -- if we fail to give back the fruit at the proper time.

There may be an intentional verbal connection in v. 41 between "to lease" (ekdidomi = "to give out") and "to give" (apodidomi = "to give back"). The second word was used 7 times in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:25, 26, 28, 29, 30, 34); and in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (20:8); and in the upcoming text about "paying" what belongs to the emperor to the emperor and what belongs to God to God (22:21).

It is clear that we owe something back to God. While salvation might be only by God's grace, in Matthew there is something expected of those who have been graced into the kingdom -- the arena where God rules. We are expected to live under the authority of the Owner; to produce and give back the proper fruit. The question we can ask is: "Now that you are saved, what are you going to do?" God has some expectations of us. In Matthew's terms, we are to bear fruit.


Perhaps the major issue for Matthew's community was, "Why didn't more Jews believe in Jesus as their Messiah?" We can ask a similar question today, "Why do some people refuse to believe in Jesus?"

One of Matthew's answers is that it fulfills scriptures. He quotes Psalm 118:22-23, as do the parallels in Mk 12:10; Lk 20:17; and also 1 Pet 2:7. On one hand the rejection of Jesus was by the Jewish leadership, which resulted in the crucifixion. Jesus had foretold this (Mk 8:31; Lk 9:22; 17:25). 1 Pet 2:4 broadens the rejection to all who have rejected Jesus (or not come to the living stone to be built into a spiritual house...).

One might expand on the idea of Jesus being the cornerstone -- the key element -- in one's life. The thing around which all other things are connected or held together or lined up by. In contrast to this are the tenants whose lives revolved around self and what they can get for themselves.

John Ronsvalle and Sylvia Ronsvalle in Behind the Stained Glass Windows report this observation: "Stephen Carter suggests in The Culture of Disbelief that the legal system has effectively defined religion as a hobby rather than a central operating standard from which the rest of a person's life flows. It is unlikely such a development could occur without some level of cooperation from the church itself, most likely through passivity." [p. 24]

One could explore the difference between Christianity as a hobby and as a cornerstone of one's life.

Another of Matthew's answers, which we have already seen, is the unwillingness to accept God's authority over us and our desire to "work for ourselves". The question that started Jesus' series of parables was: "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" [21:23]. The slaves and son come with the authority of the landowner. The tenants will not accept them as such. They see them as threats to their own lives -- perhaps even more specifically, threats to their economic life. The slaves and son seek to take away what the tenants had assumed was their own profits -- the work of their hands.

It may be good to remind our listeners that sin is not primarily doing bad things, but an attitude of selfishness that has no need for God. In fact, God becomes a nuisance who gets in the way of selfish desires, e.g., demanding that we give to God some of our produce (that we may have worked so hard to get) -- so we kill God and God's messengers.

In v. 43, who are the "you" that the kingdom is taken away from? They are those who do not produce the fruits of the kingdom. In Matthew good fruit is produced naturally from a good tree (7:15-20; 12:33). The good fruit from a good tree happens so naturally, that, by implication, the righteous (the good people) aren't even aware that they have produced good deeds (25:37-40)! The key to producing good fruit is to stay connected to and rooted in God.

However, Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Church) gives some other suggestions for the "fruit" -- with one that he emphasizes. (I present these quotes, not necessarily because I agree with him, but because he offers another interpretation of fruitfulness -- one that we might not normally think about):

What is fruitfulness? The word fruit, or a variation of it, is used fifty-five times in the New Testament and refers to a variety of results. Each one of the following is considered by God to be fruit: repentance (Matt. 3:8; Luke 13:5-9), practicing the truth (Matt. 7:16-21; Col. 1:10), answered prayer (John 15:7-8), an offering of money given by believers (Rom. 15:28), Christlike character, and winning unbelievers to Christ (Rom. 1:13). Paul said that he wanted to preach in Rome "in order that I might obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles" (Rom. 1:13 NASB). The fruit of a believer is another believer.

Considering the Great Commission that Jesus gave to the church, I believe that the definition of fruitfulness for a local church must include growth by the conversion of unbelievers. Paul referred to the first converts in Achaia as the 'first fruit of Achaia" (1 Cor. 16:15 NASB).

The Bible clearly identifies numerical growth of the church as fruit. Many of the kingdom parables of Jesus emphasize the unavoidable truth that God expects his church to grow. In addition, Paul connected fruit bearing with church growth. Colossians 1:6 says, "All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it ..." Is your church bearing fruit and growing? Are you seeing the fruit of new converts being added to your congregation? [p. 63]

Shouldn't we also consider a corporate sense of "producing fruit," i.e., what the church is doing; besides the individual sense, i.e., what I am doing? In recent weeks (as was true three years ago,) the corporate sense of "bearing fruit" has been discussed concerning the hurricane and flooding in the Gulf States. What responsibilities do the city, state, and federal government have to protect citizens from natural disasters? To relocate and support the evacuees? To do what is necessary to rebuild the city? Besides these secular bodies, what about churches and denominations? Is not the way we deal with those needy people an indication of the fruit we are producing?

Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries) writes: "'The kingdom of God' is used here in an unusual way. It refers not to the age to come but to a special relationship to God's sovereignty, that is, divine election, including the privileges and responsibilities of being God's elect people" [p. 249].

If "kingdom" is used as God's rule over us rather than a place, then taking away the kingdom means that God is no longer going to rule over us -- we are left on our own. It's like a parent telling the selfish, stubborn child, "You don't want my help. Good, you're on your own."

I don't think that we often talk about the responsibilities of being God's elect people. It is clear that in the early church "remembering the poor" was a requirement (Gal 2:10). The only cure I know of for selfish greed is to be giving stewards. When trees bear fruit, it is not for the sake of the tree but for others who receive nourishment from the fruit. Animals, from small worms to large beast may eat the fruit. Humans may harvest them to use for themselves or sell as food to others. Christian fruit-bearing are acts done for the good of others. This leads to another answer of why people reject Jesus: they don't want to assume the responsibilities of being a Christian -- of living for the sake of others.

In contrast to Jesus' earlier parables in ch. 13, which "outsiders" were not able to understand, the chief priests and Pharisees know that he has spoken against them (v. 45), but even though they understand it, they continue to reject the cornerstone. They seek to arrest him.

At the same time, they indicate who has authority over them. It is not God. It is not the Torah. It is the crowd. They fear the crowds, but not God. They allow their fear of the crowds to determine their actions. How often are we like that? How often does fear of the congregation become the authority that determines the actions of the pastor? Or of the council or other church leaders?

I think that every pastor and council needs to ask: "What keeps us from making the decisions and acting in ways that will help this congregation bear more fruit in God's kingdom?" Frequently the answer is found in the title of Edwin Friedman's book: A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. We fear the reactions of the congregation.

Patte (cited earlier) concludes with these comments:

The problem with the wicked tenants, and with the chief priests and the Pharisees [and often with us, I would add], is that they [and we] are unable to perceive what is simultaneously truly good for them (a useful stone) and worthy of honor -- as the keystone is. Actually, they can recognize that the son, Jesus, is indeed the son of the owner, the Son of God, who therefore manifests the authority of God even more directly than the servants. Similarly, they can recognize that the servants, John, the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented, are walking "in the way of righteousness" and that they manifest the authority of God. But these manifestations of the authority of God do not have, for them, any value whatsoever and are therefore not worthy of honor. Ultimately, they fail to acknowledge God's authority. [p. 300]

The tenants, seeking to do what they think will be good for themselves: keeping the fruit, killing the slaves and son, seeking to inherit the property, rejecting the owner's authority; bring destruction upon themselves. Selfishness can be deadly -- for both individuals or groups. It's been said that suicide is one of the most selfish acts a person can do. Could that also be true of congregations who would rather die than reach out and seek to grow, i.e., bear fruit?

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364