February 21, 2012 David Balzer

Matthew 21:12-46: The Tenants from Hell

There’s GOOD tenants and there’s BAD tenants.

I know some GREAT tenants. They pay their rent on time, they look after the place. They even pay for repairs and improvements themselves. It IS R & J, living in the church house.

So we know them pretty well. And we’ve got complete confidence that we can go away, and they’ll look after it as if it was their own.

That’s ONE experience of tenants. K & G had a DIFFERENT experience. They moved to Melbourne for three years, and rented out their home. But when they got back, they found the tenants had DESTROYED it. Every flyscreen ripped, light fittings and fans not working, windows broken. They’d flooded the house and the whole carpet was ruined. They’d lit a bonfire on the front porch, and the garden was a jungle.

Poor K & G had to repaint the whole house, replace the kitchen. Replace the bathroom. Replace the laundry. Replace all the carpet. Fix things in every room.

All the hard work they’d done to make the house their own. Decorating it. Painting it. Getting the garden right. All DESTROYED. I reckon it would have been DEVASTATING.

The tenants from HELL. And, in the parable we’re looking at today, Jesus says that’s what the leaders of Israel have been. They’ve behaved JUST AS BADLY.

The Context

Before we get to the parable itself, it’s important to look at the context. Because it sets the scene for why Jesus tells the story.

If you jump back to the start of the chapter, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. And all the crowd spread palm branches down, and yell out (v9), “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

They’d been WAITING for God’s promised king. The Son of David who’d set them free. And HERE HE IS. No wonder they were CELEBRATING!

And Jesus heads straight for the TEMPLE. The centre of the life of the city. Of the NATION. Where the people met with God.

And he sees what a MESS they’ve made out of it. Like the WORST sorts of tenants. It’s full of people out to make a buck, rather than people meeting with GOD. And so Jesus EVICTS them. V12.

12 Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.'”

And he sets about fixing up his Father’s house. Making some REPAIRS. He HEALS the lame and the blind. Which is GREAT NEWS. But it just starts the kids off. Making a racket, shouting more of the chants they heard outside, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

And that attracts the attention of the religious leaders. They’re the ones RESPONSIBLE for the temple. And v15 says they’re INDIGNANT. This is THEIR temple. Who does Jesus think he is? Coming in and cleaning things up? Welcoming blind and lame people? And healing them?

Who does he think he IS? The MESSIAH, or something?! And so they ask Jesus, “Do you hear what the children are singing?! How dare they!”

But what cheek! The landlord’s come down to do a rental inspection. To see how the tenants are looking after the place. And here are the TENANTS asking him what he thinks he’s doing renovating. And that he doesn’t have the authority.

It’s like K’s tenants turning up on the doorstep while she’s halfway through repairing all their damage. And asking what RIGHT she’s got to undo all their nice modifications.

Next day, Jesus is on his way back into the city. Back to the temple to keep going with the renovations, setting things right. When he comes across a fig tree with NO FRUIT. SHOULD have fruit, but the branches are BARE. And he curses it, “May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately it withers and dies.


And Jesus’ point is this. God expected HIS PEOPLE THE JEWS to bear FRUIT. Just like the fig tree. To follow him, to keep the temple a place where people could MEET with God. To live out justice and mercy.

But instead there’s only LEAVES. Empty words. Bare rituals.

And because there’s no FRUIT God will JUDGE them. Bring PUNISHMENT.

The disciples are amazed at how quickly the tree withers. But Jesus says that judgment on ISRAEL is going to come quicker than everyone THINKS.

I think Jesus’ answer is more than just about the power of prayer. He says that if they believe, and say to “THIS MOUNTAIN” to be thrown into the sea, it will be done. He doesn’t say ANY mountain. He says THIS mountain. I think he means the TEMPLE MOUNT. Mt Zion. He’s looking across the valley toward it. And before they know, it’s going to be destroyed.  Which is WAS about 40 years later.

And the doomed temple is where Jesus is headed. V23, he makes it back there. And the leaders pick it up where they left off the day before. “By what AUTHORITY are you doing these things?” WE’RE number one here. What gives YOU the right to think you can trump US? Where’s your WARRANT?


What a hide! God’s appointed and anointed ruler comes to his house. And the tenants refuse to unlock the door.


But Jesus won’t play their games. He asks them a question in return. If they answer HIS. He’ll answer THEIRS. What do they reckon about John’s baptism? Was it God’s, or man’s?


He’s trapped them. If they say YES, then they’ll have to accept his MESSAGE. INCLUDING what he taught about Jesus.


And if they say NO, then the crowds will be after them. Because John was a crowd favourite. So, they say nothing.


But more than that. Jesus is actually giving them the answer they want. Because it was John who baptised JESUS. And when he DID, you’ll remember what happened. The Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove. And God said, “This is my son, whom I love. With him I’m well-pleased!”


And the people LISTENING would remember it TOO. And so Jesus really IS answering their question. “Where’s my authority from? From God himself. I’m his beloved son.”


And BECAUSE Jesus has God’s authority, he’s going to keep up his condemnation of the temple leaders. He tells them the first of two parables. V28. About two sons on a farm. Their dad tells them BOTH to go and work in the vineyard. One says NO, but then he changes his mind and DOES it. The second son says YES SIR, but then heads straight back to the couch.


And Jesus asks the question of the leaders, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” And the answer’s OBVIOUS. The first. Better to change your mind and DO what your father wants. Than to SAY you’ll do it, but never DELIVER.


But here’s the STING in the tail v31.

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, THE TAX COLLECTORS AND THE PROSTITUTES ARE ENTERING THE KINGDOM OF GOD AHEAD OF YOU. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.


The so-called sinners were the ones who wanted nothing to do with God. But they heard the warnings of John the Baptist, and they REPENTED. That’s BEARING THE FRUIT God wants to see.


Whereas the Pharisees and teachers of the law SAID they were following God, but wanted nothing to do with actually DOING it. Even after they saw people repenting, and returning to God.


And so they’ll end up missing out on being in God’s kingdom.


That’s Jesus’ first punch. A neat little left jab. But now he backs it up with a big right hand. His SECOND parable. About the tenants from hell.


The tenants from hell

V33. There’s a landowner who sets up a vineyard. Everything ready to start growing grapes. It’s a picture of God and his people ISRAEL. In Isaiah ch 5 we read about how God is the one who establishes a vineyard, puts up fences, plants vines, builds a watchtower and cuts out a winepress. But when he looked for a CROP of GOOD GRAPES, all he got where BAD FRUIT.


And Isaiah explains it. Ch 5 v7.

7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty IS THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.


That was how things were BACK THEN. And things haven’t changed much in 800 years. Because Jesus arrives on the scene, and there’s STILL no good fruit. There’s STILL greed and injustice and bloodshed and distress.


And Jesus retells Isaiah’s story, but tweaks it. Same beginning. A landowner. A vineyard. With walls, and vines, a watchtower and a winepress. But here’s where it CHANGES. Gets PERSONAL. Second half of v33.

Then he rented the vineyard to SOME FARMERS and went away on a journey.


The farmers stand for the LEADERS of Israel. The very people Jesus is having the arguments with. God’s given them the responsibility to tend his vineyard. To look after his people. And to produce good fruit.


And, as Jesus tells the story, when the time for harvest comes, the owner sends his servants to collect the rent. A percentage of the crop. Because when you’re a tenant, you’re NOT free to do what you want, you’re ACCOUNTABLE for your ACTIONS. There are RULES about what you can and can’t do. About what your rights and responsibilities are.


But the tenants don’t WANT to be accountable. They either beat or kill or stone the servants.


So the owner sends still MORE servants. Who are treated exactly the same way. Because this is HIS VINEYARD. And He won’t just ABANDON it. He WON’T let the tenants do what they want.


Jewish law said the workers of a vineyard could claim ownership of it if they could prove three years of undisputed possession. So, by not paying their rent, and beating up the servants, they were stopping the owner from asserting his rights over it. And they were building the case that THEY owned the vineyard.


It’s describing most of the Old Testament storyline. God sets up his people in the Promised Land. Gives them everything they need to live as his people. But they wander away. Do their own thing.


So God sends a prophet to warn them they need to return to him. That there’s consequences. That they’re ACCOUNTABLE for their actions. But they ignore them, beat them and kill them. So God sends MORE prophets. And the same thing happens.



Which brings us to the end of the Old Testament. To the time of Jesus. Where Jesus picks up the story. About the owner and his vineyard. There in v37. In fact, he BECOMES PART of the story.

37 Last of all, he sent HIS SON to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. 38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.


It’s INCREDIBLE behaviour. They don’t just want to be TENANTS of the vineyard. They want to OWN it. To be their OWN bosses. Answerable to NO ONE.


By killing the SON, they remove the LAST POSSIBLE obstacle to owning the vineyard. It was as good as theirs.


V39. “So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him”. I wonder how Jesus said these words. Because, while they’re part of the story. They’re also PROPHECY. They haven’t HAPPENED yet.


They’re SELF-prophecy. An acknowledgement by Jesus that THIS will be HIS fate. REJECTED. His Father’s shocking plan is that he’ll DIE at the hands of these evil and rebellious tenants. The very leaders he’s speaking to.



And even THE LEADERS seem horrified at what the tenants have done. When Jesus asks them, “What do you think the owner will do to those tenants?” Here’s what they say. Vindication. V41.

41 “He will bring those WRETCHES to A WRETCHED END,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to OTHER TENANTS, who WILL give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”


They’ve spoken JUDGMENT on their own heads. It’s JUST to expect rent on the field you own. It’s JUST to punish those who reject your rightful claim. It’s JUST to punish those who murder your messengers.


And it’s JUST for God to deal with his rebellious tenants by taking the Kingdom of God away from them, and give it to others. To find NEW tenants. Tenants who’ll produce FRUIT.


And God’s going to do it by means of HIS SON. The same Son who’ll DIE at the hands of wicked men. Will be RAISED to be JUDGE. VINDICATED.


It’s a stunning turn around. The ultimate rags to riches story. From poorhouse to penthouse. And Jesus quotes from the Old Testament. V42. He’s the stone the builders rejected. Thrown on the scrap heap. They didn’t want him as part of their house.


But God’s plan is to turn him into THE CAPSTONE. The top of the heap. The most important block in the whole building. From victim to judge. From executed to executioner. From rejected  to ruler.


And Jesus pronounces his judgment. V43.

43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from YOU and given to a people who WILL produce its FRUIT. 44 He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”


Jesus, the stone they’ll soon reject and smash. Will be turned around. And it will be HE who smashes to pieces all those who reject him.


Daniel Ch 2 – we looked at it a couple of months ago – described a dream about a giant statue with gold head, silver chest, bronze thighs, iron legs and clay feet. It stands for the nations of the world.


And, in the dream, God raised up a rock that smashes the statue to pieces. It’s a kingdom that will never be destroyed. And it destroys all the kingdoms of the world.


And Israel was expecting the MESSIAH to do that smashing.


But here Jesus is saying that the Messiah’s going to be smashing, instead, the workers of the vineyard. The leaders of ISRAEL. Because of THEIR rebellion against the owner.


And at this final pronouncement, the penny finally drops. And the leaders realise the parables have all been ABOUT THEM.

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they KNEW he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.


They KNOW IT ALL, but it doesn’t mean they’re any closer to SUBMITTING to Jesus, and recognising his right to rule. “Yeah, that’s me. But I can’t see why I need to DO anything about it.”


It’s a parable that’s locked firmly into history. About Jews in the first century. And their rejection of Jesus. And about how the message of sin and salvation and judgment. About a crucified and resurrected and exalted Messiah. Gets REJECTED by Jews.


But then how it goes to a people who WILL produce fruit. A fig tree with FIGS, not just LEAVES.


How that message goes out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and even to THE ENDS OF THE EARTH. From Jews to Samaritans to Gentiles. All across the world. And down through history. And ultimately to US.


God’s turned the vineyard over TO US. Given us a chance to work God’s vineyard. With the expectation we’ll produce the fruit God wants.


How are you DOING at that?


Perhaps you’re like the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. You’ve had every opportunity to recognise Jesus’ authority. Brought up in a Christian home. Christian school. Been to every class. Know all the stories. Know all the right answers. Heard it all before.


But still, there’s a refusal to pay God his dues. To pay the rent. To recognise Jesus’ right to rule. And to bow your knee before him.


“Yeah. That’s me. But SO WHAT?!”


That was the LEADERS. They recognised themselves in the story as people who deserved punishment. But didn’t see the RELEVANCE. Still plotting to overthrow the rightful heir.


Perhaps that’s YOU. You need to hear Jesus’ words of warning very clearly. And recognise he’s speaking TO YOU.


Or maybe, this is the first you’ve HEARD about it. The first you’ve heard that the little corner of the world you’re working in ISN’T yours. That it belongs to someone else. And that one day he’s going to call you to account. To demand a settling of accounts.


That’s the way most people go about life. Most people out there around Blacktown. Completely oblivious the vineyard belongs to someone else. That they’re living in GOD’s WORLD. They’re planning and plotting. Building their little kingdom in GOD’S vineyard as if it’s THEIR vineyard. Moulding their life into the shape THEY want. Building assets, or shoring up your future. Making friends, or chasing happiness.


They might be good moral people. They might be rotten. They might be rich or poor, educated or not. But whatever it is. If they’re not paying God his due, living with a daily recognition that he’s their landlord, to whom they must, one day, settle accounts.


Then they’re living in REBELLION. Putting to death the owner’s son. And they’re headed for a CRUSHING.


Don’t let that be YOU!


Most of us, though, ARE Christians. We’ve recognised Jesus’ right to rule. We’ve paid him the share of the crop. Laying our lives at his feet. To follow him. To be used where he wants us.


At least that’s what we SAY.


Are we like the son who SAYS yes to Dad. But who’s sitting on the lounge. And never gets around to DOING what he’s asked. Taking Dad’s grace for granted.


How THOROUGHLY are we committed to the Master’s business? Are we busily working in HIS VINEYARD. Cultivating fruit for HIM? Or have we got a few side-projects on the go?


Are the cares of this world growing up and choking the growth of our faith and maturity?


Are we focussed and striving on the Master’s business? Committed to it? Or are we slackers? Clock-watching? Distracted? Is growing fruit for the harvest OUR NUMBER ONE PRIORITY? Or does it come in at number three or four? Or even lower?


And how are those priorities reflected in what we’re READING? Listening to? Watching? Spending our free time doing? Spending our money on?


Where does spending time encouraging other Christians come in? Or building friendships with non-Christians so you can share the gospel with them?


Are we working knowing that the owner of the vineyard sees everything we do? Or do we pretend he’s not interested?


The end of the harvest season is coming SOON. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ve got ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD. Don’t make the mistake of thinking there’ll be ANOTHER vineyard, or ANOTHER harvest.


Are you running the risk of harvest time sneaking up on you? And there being NOTHING in your BARN to share?


Heed well Jesus’ warning. If you don’t bear fruit “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who WILL produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and he on whom it falls will be crushed.”


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