Jesus enters Jerusalem and immediately begins a long week of confronting a corrupt religious leadership. Jesus clears the temple, chasing out the money changers and those selling on the Temple Mount. (It would probably be worth it to go back and review the conversation surrounding the Sadducees and the corrupt priesthood.) The next morning, as Jesus reentered the city, he curses a fig tree and illustratively portrays the condemnation of religious leadership (despite what you may have been told, a fig tree never symbolizes the people of Israel; it is always used to speak specifically of leadership).
This gets Jesus in quite a bit of trouble, as he is publicly confronting and condemning a corrupt system of religious power that has its own mafia to carry out executions of its opponents. This is what will eventually get Jesus crucified; while the priesthood has to do a political dance because of the favor that Jesus carries with the people, it will eventually result in his politically forced execution.
This priesthood immediately confronts Jesus publicly about his authority, calling into question his training, rabbinical rights, and ultimately the source of his s’micha. Not that this priesthood cares about rabbinical authority, but they may be trying to sway public opinion about his credibility, as well as find out who else is behind this young upstart’s ministry.
After confounding them with his response, which shows them to be trapped in a political corner, Jesus goes on the offensive (a seemingly rare move) and begins serenading the priests with parables. Jesus starts with a parable about two sons — the point of which will be to address their claim to have rights as sons of Zadok, confronting their disobedience. They are like the son who says, “I will,” but then does nothing.
But then Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard and the owner’s tenants:
“Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country.”
Undoubtedly, the priests hear this parable completely differently than most of our New Testament readers do. The image, of course, is pulled right out of Isaiah 5 and the vineyard is representative of God’s people. When the priests hear this version of the story, they immediately assume that the “tenants” spoken of would be the Romans. In other words, God planted His vineyard and leased it to the Romans while He is away.
“When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”
Again, the setting of this parable fits perfectly with the Romans. God is coming back to receive His fruit and the Romans have mistreated His people. When the rightful “heir” — who would be, in their mind, the priesthood — arrives, they threw them out and killed them.
“When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
The priests are tracking with Jesus’s teaching completely. But then Jesus springs the surprise on them; he’s not talking about the Romans:
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“ ‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
Jesus essentially says, “Forget about the Romans; you are the tenants! You’re hoarding the fruit for yourselves and not giving God what is rightfully His!”
And while all of this is a brilliant teaching on a p’shat level, I think Jesus could also be planting a remez that leads us back to Isaiah 61. This would be the second time in two chapters Jesus would reference this teaching in light of the vineyard of God being tended by strangers and foreigners. The drash would be a distinct forecast of the fall of the Sadducees and the priesthood.
Jesus tells them this parable and it says they got upset and began conspiring against Jesus. But Jesus is still talking. He isn’t done yet…