A Parable: The Wicked Husbandmen
The lament of the Vigneron: “What more could I do for my vineyard, that I have not done already?”
Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-42; Luke 20:9-49
Sometimes we doubt God’s plans for us – severe trials may hit and life seems unjust. I wanted to get a glimpse of God’s relational experience with His creation. I wanted to glimpse His perspective and engage more deeply with the emotional attachment He feels for His creation.
We live in a society that preaches entitlement – every citizen is entitled to their rights – and when hardship comes our way, we instinctively want to react to the feelings of injustice and inequality we are experiencing and look for someone, or something to blame. Society has often laid blame at the feet of God for many of life’s injustices: perhaps we also have felt outraged towards God, for things we deemed ‘within His control’. But if we wish to be truly fair, then we will see that this perspective is somewhat narrow-minded and well short of a true appreciation of who God is and how he operates in our lives. A good way to clear our head of these thoughts is to search deeper in our discernment of who God is, and what His purpose is with those who love Him. It helps us all a great deal to look behind and ahead of the moment, to what God has done and plans to do in our lives!
The parable of The Wicked Husbandmen contains several metaphors. Jesus is using viticultural symbology to portray to his audience the nature of God’s undying love for His people and His persistent efforts to cultivate a people for His name.
The parable provides a list of the seven most critical things God has done for His people. The metaphoric details of this parable are specifically chosen as representative of the major elements of God’s plan of redemption for Israel.
How is God portrayed in this parable?
“There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country.”
The ‘Master of the House’ (God) has gone to a lot of preparation and effort for this vineyard and in this parable. As we go through this parable and observe the work of the Master of the House, we want to make a list of His acts and try to enter His mind, feel the things He felt and try to appreciate His work.
The Master…”planted a vineyard“. Who/what is the Vineyard’?
Christ is quoting from Isaiah’s parable in Isaiah 5:1-7. Verse 7 clarifies that the vineyard is the nation of Israel. Certain of the details in Isaiah’s vineyard parable are precisely the same. However, there are also some interesting differences, for example, the “song of my beloved’ in verse 1 becomes the tragedy of “my beloved son” in Luke’s account.
As we move through Christ’s parable, we can see that he is actually appropriating the song of Isaiah, like an artist or poet would, to see if his audience will make the link to this Old Testament prophecy, and connect it to the context of their day.
The Gospel accounts state that – “He hedged it about.”
The word for hedged in Matthew and Mark’s account simply means to ‘fence about’ or ‘create a barrier around’. There are different opinions amongst commentators as to what this fence might represent:
- God’s divine protection e.g. cloud by day, pillar of fire by night
- The Law of Moses (in that it protected Israel from the diseases, both physical and spiritual, that infected Gentile nations)
Both fit the metaphor and are applicable in my opinion.
Isaiah 5:2 adds a third thing that God also did – “He fenced it and gathered out the stones.”
This would seem to be referring to the land being purified and prepared for farming, symbolising the initial purging of the Canaanitish nations (“How thou didst drive out the heathen with thy hand, and plantedst them, how thou didst afflict the people and cast them out…” Psalm 44:1-3).
The gospel of Matthew says that the husbandmen “digged a winepress.” The Vulgate, (Greek and Hebrew translated into Latin) interprets the metaphor as symbolic of the “Altar.” The Targum (an ancient translation/paraphrase completed around AD 70 when the Hebrew language was dying out) also translates this as “Altar.”
Could the winepress be representative of the Altar of Burnt Offerings? What is the significance of the altar of burnt offerings?
The altar was God’s provision for atonement. The people brought their offering to the priest who burnt the entire animal on the altar. The altar was designed to channel the blood of the animal so that it ran out beneath the altar. The blood signified the life of the beast and was representative of the greater sacrifice of Christ who was to come and whose life-blood would atone for sin.
But how is the winepress analogous to the altar of burnt offerings in scripture?
The following is a description of a typical winepress in Israel:
An ancient winepress in Israel was typically a rock-hewn open-air system. Grapes were pressed by being trodden underfoot in a treading floor where the workers hung onto ropes attached to an overhead structure to avoid slipping.
“The juice, or ‘must’ (tirosh) would then flow down a gulley or channel from the main pressing area into a deeper hole, known as the ‘yekev’, (literally ‘winery’’). Twigs or thorns would be placed strategically to act as a rudimentary filter” – (Jerusalem Post, A. Montefiore, 2015).
We can see here how the metaphor of the winepress, like the altar, represents the atoning work of Christ who, with the support of his father, trod sin under foot. But the work was not complete without him first putting to death the flesh, symbolised here in the thorny filter placed before the channel to remove the flesh of the grape. And, like refined wine, his blood was poured out as a pure offering to provide redemption for all.
The next question then is where is the metaphor of the winepress linked to the atonement and the work of Christ?
Isaiah 63:1-6: The prophet, in vision, beholds the Messiah returning in triumph from the conquest of his enemies, of whom Edom is a type. He is travelling, not as one wearied by combat, but in the greatness of his strength, prepared to overcome every opposing power. The Messiah declares in verse 3, that he alone “had trodden the winepress of the wrath of God” (past tense), and that “he will tread down the people in his anger” (future tense).
In these verses, we can see that the winepress is a metaphor of Christ’s work, both in the past and in the future. Isaiah is speaking of Christ’s accomplished sacrifice and his future judgement of the nations, where he will tread down his oppressors in the great winepress of the wrath of God (Revelation 14:19; 19:11-15). But for the purposes of this blog, it is the first application that we are most interested in because it demonstrates how the winepress, like the altar, signifies the atonement God provides in His son.
He “built a tower.” The image of a tower in a vineyard seems a little unusual. However Isaiah 1:8 demonstrates that it was common for a cottage to be built in a vineyard for the husbandmen to rest under. The word ‘cottage’ just happens to be the same word as ‘booth‘ or ‘tabernacle’, and I think this is our first clue as to what the tower may be representative of. The tabernacle is full of many symbols, all of which illustrate that in God’s sanctuary there is respite and freedom from sin.
However, the word in Isaiah and the gospel records, according to Thayer’s Bible Dictionary, simply means a “fortified structure to watch in every direction.” This is a more solid structure than a tabernacle and doesn’t appear to fit the interpretation. However, we may argue that it was still designed for the same purpose. Barnes Bible Commentary states that vineyard towers can be found in Bethlehem and Hebron and range from 15 to 50 feet high. These are for keeping watch over the vineyard from thieves and vermin, and to provide sanctuary for the keepers of the vineyard. It may be reasonable to suggest also that in Christ’s day, the Tabernacle had been replaced by the superior and more permanent structure of the Temple, so perhaps he chose the word ‘tower’ as a more apt word to fit the analogy. So I would suggest then, that the tower seems to fit quite well with the concept of the temple, and it is worth noting that the Vulgate, Targum and Clarke’s Bible Commentary all concur on this idea.
God gave Israel a perfect environment (choice vineyard dug over/rich land free from enemies) in which they received His divine protection and were to instructed by His principles (hedged about/given the Law) which pointed to His redemptive work (winepress/Altar and Christ), which offered them respite from sin, and sanctuary with God Himself (Tower/Tabernacle and Temple).
It is worth reminding ourselves at this point that this parable is primarily about the privileges and blessings God had bestowed upon His people. In light of this, I don’t think there could be anything more important than these things which Christ appears to be alluding to. They were the means of God demonstrating His love and His plan of redemption and salvation to His people. What could be more important than the land, the law, the Altar and the Temple in Christ’s mind?
The record of Matthew states that, “When the time of the fruit drew near. He sent His servants to the husbandmen.”
God speaks all over the Bible of His servants, the prophets, whom He sent to His people to see how they were faring and to warn them, if necessary. Jeremiah was one of these prophets and in his book he gives us insight into God’s purpose with His prophets. Jeremiah records this phrase on 11 different occasions….
”Since the day that your fathers came forth out of the land of Egypt unto this day I have sent unto you my servants the prophets, rising up early and sending them…”
The picture of God, painted here by Jeremiah the prophet, is again that of a passionate, hard working, conscientious worker, who has His team on the job at the crack of dawn, not willing to lose a minute of time to fulfill His duty. But Israel’s answer was always the same – they turned their back on God’s goodness and despised His blessings. And it was the same for all the prophets. This picture of God faithfully rising early to work on the nation’s behalf is echoed by other prophets and a contrast is drawn between God’s enthusiasm and Israel’s despondence.
The prophet Zephaniah records the following in chapter 3:
“Israel obeyed not the voice, she listens to no voice, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the LORD; she does not draw near to her God. The Lord within her is righteous; He does no injustice; every morning he shows forth His justice: each dawn He does not fail; but the unjust knows no shame…I have cut off nations: their battlements are in rains; have laid waste their streets so that no one walks in them; their cities have been made desolate, without a man, without an inhabitant. I said, ‘Surely you will fear me; you will accept correction. Then your dwelling would not be cut off according to all the I have appointed against you. But you rose early, and corrupted all your doings.” – Zephaniah 3:2-7
“O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? For your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away.” – Hosea 6:4
So despite the immense work God was putting into the nation to make them fruitful, despite all His goodness; their goodness, in contrast, was like a morning cloud that looks promising but like dew, it never hangs around. It evaporated in the air and, as a result, there was no growth. Each morning God rose early to bless the nation, while they rose early to corrupt His ways.
From the moment Israel left Egypt, they completely misunderstood God’s intention. But, as the parable illustrates, God’s will was to bless them that, in return, they would produce fruits and witness His goodness to the surrounding nations.
Why were the servant (the prophets) sent?
“That they might receive the fruits of it.” God’s purpose with Israel was that they might use the national and spiritual blessings He’d poured on them to produce fruit to His name; that the surrounding nations might see also and believe. In one sense, the blessings weren’t about them at all. They were to be a fruitful vineyard, blossoming under the care of the husbandmen, showing show forth as a witness to the world God’s abundant goodness and desire to redeem all mankind!
“Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that t am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.” – Isaiah 43:10-4
They were a witness to God’s existence as the only true and living God.
“For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto Himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set His love upon you nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you, and because He would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-8
Israel were not chosen because they were unique. God chose to love them! And He has a purpose with them, and that purpose was set out clearly from the very beginnings of the nation in an oath He made with Abraham, the forefather of the Jews.
We read about this oath in Genesis 12:1-3: “Now the LORD had said unto Abram. Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy fathers house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great and thou shaft be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall elf families of the earth be blessed.“
This was God’s purpose: in choosing Israel and promising them great blessings, He hoped that they might witness to His existence and to His plan; that He is a God of love whose desire is to bless all families of the earth! So when we think about the fruit that He was seeking when he sent His servants, it was simply that he wanted to see a people growing under His care and glowing in His love, like new grapes on the vine!
But time and time again this was not the case, and instead of receiving fruit, as Isaiah says – there were only “wild grapes,” (‘stinking poisonous berries’ – Strongs Concordance).
Not only did Israel ignore God’s love, but they abused and killed His servants, the prophets: “Some they beat, some they stoned and some they killed,” (all three gospel records agree on these things).
Matthew 23:37 comments on this fact where it says, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent onto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!“
These were Christ’s own words just a chapter or so on from this parable. He knew the history of that city and so did the people deep down. How could it be ignored? The scriptures are riddled with the torture, mockery, abuse and slaughter of hundreds of God’s faithful prophets who shared the same passion and love for His/their people, and who rose with God early to reap the harvest.
When initially considering this parable, my initial thought was that the tragedy of it all was that the caretakers killed the innocent heir. And while this is at the pit of the tragedy, it is not the complete picture. This parable is a snapshot of the the intense satisfaction God finds in producing a people that will exhibit His saving grace; it’s a snapshot of the intense labor of love that He has immersed and pledged His entire existence too. God will never stop loving His people Israel, though from the beginning until now they have rejected Him, time and again! You can hear the utter exasperation in the voice of God in Isaiah 5, where the prophet cries, ”WHAT MORE COULD I DO FOR MY VINEYARD THAT I HAVE NOT DONE ALREADY?!”
And yet the parable is not over…God did do more!
Long after the point where you or I would have torn into that vineyard, ripped into those husbandman and disgraced them for their shameful behaviour, God’s response – the final metaphoric detail within the parable’s message – was this…
“What shall I do?” (gospel of Luke). “I have one last servant, my only son, my wellbeloved” (gospel of Mark). “It may be they will reverence him when they see him!” (gospel of Luke).
We cannot fathom the depth of God’s love. Who among us could give up their only son to a murderous mob? And God knew they would despise him more than the rest, and plot his death. But He still hoped. Against all odds, He gave them everything, until there was nothing left. This last servant was the express image of the Husbandman himself! “Surely, (says Luke) if they can see me – see what I’m truly like in nature, and witness ‘in person’ my intense love for them – they will understand my intentions to save!“
Unfortunately, the parable does not end well and later in the gospel accounts we read of the actual events that this parable foretold, where at the hands of his own people, Jesus, the innocent heir, was murdered.
So what can we extract from this parable that is applicable to life now; life in an age far removed from the time and place these events occurred?
What We Learn:
- Everyday is an opportunity to reflect on God’s goodness. In an age of entitlement, it is easy to become ungrateful for what we have.
- In many senses, life is not about us. Christians are not chosen because of some innate quality, but simply because God chooses individuals, and through those individuals He endeavors to continue to express His love and desire to save others. The question for Christians is this: Am I glowing with God’s love and producing fruit that is desirable? The responsibility to bear God’s purpose faithfully is a shared one and not something to be abused.
- Those who choose a life with Jesus are promised an eternal home; the whole earth is theirs to inherit! No matter what may happen in this life, they can be assured that all is for a reason: their eternal good. Those who choose Jesus have an altar: Jesus has removed the barrier of sin and has promised eternal life. Those who choose a life with Jesus have sanctuary with God: present peace and a community to share it with.
What more could God do, that He has not already done?!