And this parable sheds much of that light. The vineyard is the Church of God among the Jews. The hedge and the winepress and the tower all represent the pains which God in mercy took for the welfare of that vineyard. And, after all had been done, surely the King of Zion had a right to expect abundant fruit. Where could ripe, luxuriant clusters ever hang, if not in a vineyard so tended and so thoroughly furnished?
Yet what happened? How did the men to whom that vineyard was let out repay the great care of the proprietor? When he sent his servants for his share of the fruits, the husbandmen beat, stoned or murdered them, and these crimes were repeated a second time. Those men were robbers and murderers both in one, so that blood touched blood. They refused to acknowledge the right of the proprietor, and would rather perpetrate repeated murders than grant him any share of the fruit.
At length he sent his son. It was hoped that they would reverence him and that those unprincipled men would at last do what was right. But here also they rushed into crime. As soon as they saw the son, they resolved to slay him, and they did it in the hope that they would themselves become heir to the vineyard which they had fraudulently seized. Thus did they hurry from guilt to guilt, filling to the brim the cup of their iniquity.
Now what does Jesus teach by this parable? It was an attempt to show the Jews what their own conduct had been or was about to be. Their nation was the vineyard. It is spoken of under that name by David, Isaiah and others. To cultivate it – that is, to teach men heavenly wisdom and warn them to bear fruit unto holiness – prophet after prophet had been sent; wonder after wonder had been wrought. But still the Jews managed that vineyard for themselves and not for God. Elijah, for example, was driven into hiding because he rebuked the king and the people for their idolatry. Some say that Isaiah was sawn asunder. Jeremiah was cast into a dungeon during the evil times in which he lived. In short all was wild confusion. “They took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another,” are words which exactly describe the treatment of the prophets (see Heb 11:36-38).
Then the Son of God, the great Proprietor, came. He told of the love and the mercy of the Father and entreated the nation to return to its God. He wept over it; He toiled and watched for it; His days and His nights were given to its cause. And need we tell the result? With wicked hands He was crucified and slain. Again and again He was stoned, and never was the nation satisfied till they had treated the Son even worse than the prophets. “Come, let us kill Him”, was their resolute determination; and they did it in a way that has shocked millions since then.
But when Jesus was speaking this parable to those who were afterwards to fulfil His words, He asked, “What will the lord of the vineyard do to those husbandmen?” His hearers replied, “He will miserably destroy those wicked men”. The words were prophetic; they exactly describe what happened. Jerusalem was soon overthrown; its temple was burned; the people were slaughtered in thousands. Some even believe that considerably more than a million of the Jews perished when the city was destroyed. Many of them slew each other. Multitudes were carried captive. At various places their Roman captors made them fight with wild beasts for sport to the conquerors. These “husbandmen” thus learned at last, amid woes which agitate men even yet, what it is to depart from God, the great Proprietor, to rob Him of His glory and hate those whom He sent to warn or to save. But are we beyond all danger? How can we escape if we neglect the great salvation?
When men travel in the East, they often see something to explain and illustrate the Bible. And a traveller has come back from Persia to tell that he has often been reminded of this parable there. The same mode of letting vineyards is common; the same fraud or violence on the part of the husbandmen, the same vain endeavours on the part of the proprietor to obtain a share of the produce, and sometimes the same bloody scenes as the Saviour employed to fasten conviction on the consciences of men. But in every age and land man is eager to live without God in the world; and blessed are they who rejoice to be subject to God our Saviour, and whose souls He adorns with the graces of the Spirit, the peaceable fruits of righteousness.
1. Taken, slightly edited, from Tweedie’s book, Parables of Our Lord, published in 1865. This article is based on Matthew 21:33-41.