Harold Copping (1863-1932), 'The Parable of the Fig Tree,' watercolor.
Harold Copping (1863-1932), 'The Parable of the Fig Tree,' watercolor.

Jesus tells a number of parables about the Jewish nation -- God's desires for it, its rejection of Jesus, and its exclusion from the Kingdom. In addition, he hints that the Gentiles will come to faith.

Some have built entire theologies about the place of the people of Israel during the End Time. I have no desire to do that here, only to recount what Jesus taught his own disciples through parables. However, I believe it is important not to identify the modern State of Israel with the Jewish nation in the New Testament. When the Kingdom of God ultimately comes with the Presence of Jesus, his Kingdom will far transcend any human government or territory.

Jesus gave a number of parables to help his disciples understand the perilous place of the Jewish nation in their day, as well as the blindness and deceit of its leaders. Alas, these parables tell a tragic tale.

2.1 Israel's Barrenness, Pride, and Disobedience

2.2 Rejection of the Messiah by Israel

2.3 Excluding Israel from Messiah's Kingdom

While most of these parables apply to the Jewish nation in Jesus' time, there is much we disciples can learn from them that is applicable in our lives today.

The "Jewish Nation" in the Time of Jesus

Regions of Palestine during Jesus' Ministry
Regions of Palestine during Jesus' Ministry. Larger map.

Before we begin, let's take a quick look at the governance of Palestine in Jesus' day. Of course, there wasn't really a "Jewish nation" by that time. The whole region was part of the Roman Province of Judea. After Pompey the Great brutally conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC, Rome ruled Palestine through puppet kings, eventually through Herod the Great from 37 to 4 BC. But soon after Herod's death, Rome ruled Judea and Samaria directly under a Roman Prefect -- during Jesus' ministry this was Pontius Pilate (ruled 26-36 AD). Other areas where Jesus ministered were ruled by Herod's sons, not as full official kings but "tetrarchs," puppet rulers under Rome. Herod Antipas (ruled 4 BC to 39 AD) governed Galilee and Perea as a client king of Rome.

Jewish Religious Leaders

In order to keep good order, the Romans and Herod allowed the Jewish religious leaders to administer many of the laws through the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and the local sanhedrins in the various towns. The High Priest (Caiaphas in Jesus' day), more a political appointee rather than a spiritual leader, was selected by Herod Antipas. The Great Sanhedrin or Council had 70 members, sometimes called "rulers" or "elders." Some of these were Gamaliel, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus. Members were usually from one of two groups: the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducee party that included the high priest and many other priests didn't believe in angels, spirits, or resurrection on the Last Day.

The Pharisee party, which did believe in these things, taught strict observance of both the Torah and the oral law, a series of man-made rules designed as a "hedge" around the Mosaic law, sometimes called "the tradition of the elders" (Matthew 15:2-6). Pharisees developed the practice of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays to intercede for the nation as a whole.1 Pharisees far exceeded the requirements of the law in this regard. They scrupulously tithed or gave one tenth of everything they acquired, even down to the herbs in their garden (Luke 11:42).

Indeed, the Pharisees put on a show of holiness. They flaunted their piety by praying loud, long, pious prayers in the synagogues and street corners (Matthew 6:5-8). They loved to be publicly honored (Matthew 23:5-12). They cultivated a reputation for righteousness, but inside they were anything but holy (see Lesson 3.1).

Jesus warns his disciples against the leaven or yeast of the Pharisees -- hypocrisy (Matthew 13:33, Lesson 7.1) -- pretending strict holiness, but at the same time filled with judgmentalism, pride, and plots to kill the Son of God.2

In the Gospels you also see local "rulers" who were in charge of local synagogues and synagogue courts. Some local synagogue leaders, such as Jairus, came to believe in Jesus; others, like the "rich young ruler," resisted his ministry.

Another group of leaders is variously called "lawyers," "teachers of the law," or "scribes." These were the trained Bible scholars who had studied under learned Rabbis, and typically had disciples studying under them (as Saul studied under Gamaliel). These were the nation's recognized Bible experts.

With few exceptions, the Jewish leadership of Jesus' day came to see Jesus as a threat, turned against the Messiah God had sent to save his people, and eventually had him killed.

Jesus didn't have much good to say about the religious leaders of his time. He refers to them metaphorically as "a brood of vipers" (Matthew 12:34, see Appendix 4.3), and their sale of sacrifices and money changing in the temple, "a den of robbers" (Matthew 21:13; John 2:16; see Appendix 4.3).

2.1 Israel's Barrenness, Pride, and Disobedience

Parable of the Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9; §162)

(Not to be confused with the Cursing of the Fig Tree or the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree, Lesson 5.1)
N.C. Wyeth, 'The Barren Fig Tree,' from an oil painting, one of a set of six Christmas cards on Jesus' parables published 1923.
N.C. Wyeth, 'The Barren Fig Tree,' from an oil painting, one of a set of six Christmas cards on Jesus' parables published 1923.

With that introduction to the Jewish nation and its leaders, let's begin with Jesus' Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, found only in Luke. It occurs in the context of Jesus talking about the importance of repentance -- not of sinners in particular, but of Israelites in general -- "Unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:5).

 "6 Then he told this parable: A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?'

8 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'" (Luke 13:6-9)

A landowner looks for fruit on his fig tree for three years straight and doesn't find any. The first year, he is hopeful. The second year he is disappointed. The third year, he is disgusted. "Cut it down," he tells his gardener. "It's just wasting space3 in my garden."

But the gardener isn't quite ready to give up on it. He prescribes cultivation and more fertilizer. Loosen the soil around the roots to let air in. Fertilize with "dung, manure"4 to provide organic material that might give it a growth spurt. One more year. And then if it doesn't do anything, then if it doesn't bear any fruit, then I'll cut it down.

The key to the meaning of the parable lies in the identity of the fig tree. Fig trees (Ficus carica) are common in Israel, and, along with vineyards, were seen as a sign of prosperity and peace: "Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree" (Micah 4:4; cf. 1 Kings 4:25; Zechariah 3:10). But this fig tree isn't prosperous. It is in trouble. It no longer bears fruit.

Israel is often typified as a vine or vineyard, but here the unproductive fig tree likely refers to the nation of Israel.5 God might be seen as the owner and perhaps Jesus is the Gardener, still trying to minister to Israel so that they turn again to God and produce spiritual fruit. (I don't allegorize the three days as referring to the Trinity, but rather as a common literary motif signifying a pattern of occurrences.6)

Placed in the context of repentance, Jesus is calling Israel to repent -- or else experience judgment like the catastrophes he has just commented on -- the slaughter of Galileans and the fall of the tower in Siloam (Luke 13:1-4). Judgment is imminent, but there is still time to repent while Jesus is still with them.

John the Baptist's message was similar. Unless people begin "to bear fruit in keeping with repentance," judgment will come.

"The ax is already at the root of the trees,
and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down
and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:9)

Jesus gives this as a parable of mercy, but also as a call to Israel to repent. How can we extend the lesson to ourselves? Though we are saved by grace, not by works, God is looking for productivity in our lives. Why?

"For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:10)

Fruitfulness, both in character and in good works and ministry, is important to God,7 and he will examine our works and reward them (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). Moreover, fruitfulness is a by-product of spiritual health. We'll study more about fruit and fruitfulness in Jesus' Parables of the Wicked Tenants (Lesson 2.3), the Tree and Fruit (Lesson 10.1), and the Vine and the Branches (Lesson 9.3).

Q5. (Luke 13:6-9) What caused Israel's barrenness in Jesus' time? What keeps the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) from growing and maturing in our lives? What can we disciples learn from the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree?

2.2 Rejection of the Messiah by Israel

Jesus told some parables about Israel rejecting God's call. These stories call forth in me a sorrow. It shouldn't have to be this way! If only the Jews would open their eyes and listen! If only people today would open their hearts to the Lord who is active in their midst!

Analogy of the Hen and Chickens (Matthew 23:37, §211; Luke 13:34, §167)

Altar Mosaic of Hen and Chickens, Church of Dominus Flevit, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem.
Altar Mosaic of Hen and Chickens, Church of Dominus Flevit, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem. Larger image.

In Jesus' Analogy of the Hen and Chickens, given during Holy Week, you can sense his affection for Israel.

"37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'" (Matthew 23:37-39)

The hen covering her chicks with her wings is a protective gesture. Jesus loves Israel deeply, but as he had experienced again and again over his three years of ministry, "you were not willing." "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him" (John 1:11). How very sad!

Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-10, §205, cf. §170)

(Sometimes known as the Parable of the Marriage Feast. Not to be confused with the Parable of the Places at the Table, Lesson 9.1)

Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24, §170, cf. Matthew 22:2-10, §205)

Now we'll examine a pair of parables with a number of similarities:

  1. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew), and
  2. The Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke).

Pieter Breugel the Younger, 'The Peasant Wedding Banquet' (1568), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. 
Pieter Breugel the Younger, 'The Peasant Wedding Banquet' (1568), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Larger image.

"The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son." (Matthew 22:2)

"A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests." (Luke 14:16)

We'll study them together. Jesus taught constantly over a period of three years, so it is likely that his stories varied from one telling to another, as he sought relevance to a particular crowd's needs and understanding. So it is with the Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke and the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew.8

This pair of parables has many similarities. But each also has its own tone, is told under different circumstances, and conveys its own unique point or purpose. I think Luke's Parable of the Great Banquet is about evangelism to the unworthy and sinners in the face of Jewish rejection. Matthew's Parable of the Wedding Banquet, on the other hand, is more about God's judgment of rejecting Israel. Some scholars might conflate these into a single parable, but I think they should be considered related but distinct parables.

Similarities and Differences

The parables have obvious similarities. In both parables a wealthy master holds a great feast, but his invited guests refuse to come when informed that the hour has come. To replace them, servants scour the entire area for other guests.

But there are also differences, since Jesus applies this parable differently to different audiences.

Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-10) Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24)
Occasion: Chief priests and Pharisees discuss arresting Jesus in the temple, but are afraid of the people. Occasion: Supper discussion at Pharisee's house about the great eschatological banquet at the End and inviting guests to a dinner who can't pay you back.
"The kingdom of heaven is like...." A commentary on those who will feast in the kingdom of God.
A king. A certain man.
Banquet for son's wedding. Great banquet.
Invited guests pay no attention to servant. Invited guests make flimsy excuses.
Invitees mistreat and kill the servants. The king sends his army, kills them, and burns their city.  

Servants invite guests both good and bad. Servants invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame of the town, and countryside, and "compel them to come in."
Man not wearing a wedding garment is severely punished.  

These comparisons should give us some things to look out for as we study this pair of parables.

Come, Everything is Ready

In both parables the master prepares a "great banquet" with many guests invited. Neither is a small, intimate gathering.

"He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come." (Matthew 22:3)

"At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, 'Come, for everything is now ready.'" (Luke 14:17)

While it may seem strange in light of invitation practices in the twenty-first century, in the first century world, the invitation would be two-fold: (1) the initial invitation some days or weeks ahead of time, and (2) the actual summons to the meal when it is ready.9

Once the host finds out how many guests have accepted his initial invitation, he is able to determine how many animals are to be killed and cooked.10 Both a wedding feast for a king's son and a "great banquet" would involve a large number of guests.

Not to appear at a banquet to which one had previously agreed to attend was a grave breach of social etiquette, an insult to the host. In a society where one's social standing was determined by peer approval, this was an act of social insult as well. A whole series of guests to reject the final summons could be seen as a conspiracy to discredit the host entirely.

Excuses, Excuses (Luke 14:18-20)

In Matthew's parable, the invitees make no excuses, "but they paid no attention and went off..." (Matthew 22:5a). But in Luke's parable, the invitees make lame excuses.

"But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, 'I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.' Another said, 'I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I'm on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.'
Still another said, 'I just got married, so I can't come.'" (Luke 14:18-20)

The rejection is unanimous. The first claims to have just bought a field that he must inspect. What? He bought it sight unseen? The second has just purchased five pairs of oxen and must try them out. No one buys five pairs of oxen without testing them first! The first two invitees are men of wealth. Purchasing property is a wealthy man's luxury. Five yoke of oxen are for an estate; one or two pairs of oxen would be adequate for a small farm.11

The third excuse, that the guest has just been married, is also fake. When he accepted the invitation, he would have known of his wedding plans. That was the time to politely decline. But to back out at the last minute is an act of calculated rudeness.

Both parables indicate the master's anger. In Matthew's account, the king sends an army to destroy the city of those who ignored his invitation. (More about that in a moment.) In Luke's parable, the master's anger prompts the vow: "I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet" (Luke 14:24).

Luke: Compel Them to Come In (Luke 14:21-24)

Eugène Burnand, detail of 'Invitation to the Feast' (1899)
Eugene Burnand, detail of 'Invitation to the Feast' (1899), oil on canvas, 470x220 cm., Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland (full painting)

The last-minute rejection presents a serious problem to the host. How would it look for an important man to have an empty banquet? The host's hall must be full. He will not be made a fool of. He will have a full house!

So, in both parables, the rejection of the master's invitation prompts a command to broadly invite everyone who can be found in the entire area. This time the goal is not to select people of the appropriate social class or those who might deserve to be invited. Rather, the goal is to fill the banquet hall with warm bodies.

In Luke's parable, the servant is proactive and has already followed through on his master's desire to fill the banquet hall.

"21 The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, 'Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.'12
22 'Sir,' the servant said, 'what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.'" (Luke 14:21-22)

Now the master widens the scope of the search.

"23 Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. 24 I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet." (Luke 14:23-24)

The first sweep of the town included both the "broad, main streets or public squares" and the "narrow streets, lanes, alleys."13 The second sweep was outside the town in the rural areas, the "road, highway"14 and "fences, hedges."15 Inside the town would be the poor, the beggars, the indigent. But outside the town would be the vagabonds and sojourners, those who were shunned and unwelcome in the towns.

Note the phrase, "Compel them to come in!" It was a custom to politely refuse to come until pressed to -- like politely refusing to take a second helping at a meal until the host says, "Oh, but you must!" The Greek word used is anankazō, "compel, force," of inner and outer compulsion, and then weakened, "strongly urge/invite, urge upon, press."16 The rich man hasn't sent out soldiers to sweep the area, round up everyone, and march them to his house. But he has instructed his servants not to take "No" for an answer and to encourage and strongly urge everyone they meet to accept this invitation.

Matthew: Invite Anyone You Find -- both Good and Bad (Matthew 22:8-14)

While Luke's emphasis is on the diligence of the search, Matthew's emphasis seems to be on the quality of the guests.

"8 Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests." (Matthew 22:8-10)

Notice the phrase describing these invitees, "both good and bad." Jesus is setting us up for the punch line of this version of the parable. Now the king enters the banquet hall and surveys the motley group of guests present for his son's wedding.

"11 But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 'Friend,' he asked, 'how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless.

13 "Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

14 "For many are invited, but few are chosen." (Matthew 22:11-14)

You wouldn't expect last-minute guests to a wedding to have "wedding clothes," that is, their very best expensive garments, designed both to honor the king and to show off their high status. After all, many of these new guests were poor people; some were vagabonds.

Some have speculated that people were given wedding clothes upon entry, but some neglected to put them on. It sounds "fair," but there is no indication from any ancient literature that this was the practice. Rather, I think the text means that some dressed in their best, even though it was humble, and fixed themselves as best they could. But one man didn't bother to dress up at all. Rather, he came dirty and disheveled -- an insult to both the king and his son.

The king demands an explanation. The man has no excuse. He is speechless. So the king orders him to be thrown out of the well-lit banqueting hall into the darkness of night outside.

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth (Matthew 22:13)

Two of Jesus' other parables talk about gathering all together both good and bad, with the angels sorting out the good from the bad at the End Time -- The Parable of the Net (Lesson 4.2) and the Parable of the Weeds or Tares (Lesson 4.2). The final judgment looks at the deeds and the hearts as only God can.

Jesus intends this darkness to be interpreted as hell, for he adds that "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth," an indication of deep anguish upon the realization that it is too late to do the right thing (Psalms 112:10). Judgment has already been given. The phrase "weeping and gnashing of teeth" is also present in Jesus' teaching that at God's great banquet in the kingdom of heaven the evildoers and unbelievers will be excluded17 (See Appendix 5. The Great Messianic Banquet).

To those who live in democracies this may seem harsh, but in Jesus' day there were no democracies. The king's word was law; you didn't insult the king. Jesus' hearers understood well enough; they didn't quibble about the king's constitutional authority to punish evildoers.

Many Are Called, but Few Are Chosen (Matthew 22:14)

These parables use the verb "call" (kaleō) a number of times in the sense of "invite" -- five times in Matthew and twelve times in Luke. Matthew concludes the parable with an epigram:

"For many are called, but few are chosen."18 (Matthew 22:14, ESV)19

This sums up the message of this parable, but also the two that precede it in Matthew -- the Parables of the Two Sons (Lesson 3.3) and the Wicked Tenants (Lesson 2.3, which we'll consider in a minute). The "many" and the "few" speak of a weeding process, whereby many invited to the feast will not actually attend. We see this many/few theme in several other parables: The Parables of the Narrow Door (Lesson 8.2), the Narrow and Wide Gates (Lesson 3.2), the Net (Lesson 4.2), and the Weeds or Tares (Lesson 4.2).

So that you don't get confused, note that Paul uses the term "called" differently than Jesus. Jesus uses it as "invited" as in our parable. Paul uses the term as meaning "chosen."20 The Greek word can bear both meanings.21 Paul doesn't disagree with Jesus at all; he just uses different words to explain it.

An Allegory

In interpreting parables we need to be careful not to over-allegorize, that is, to find a corresponding meaning for each and every detail of the story. But these parables are clearly allegories. This pair of parables has three points of correspondence.

1. The host is God the Father, inviting his people Israel to the great messianic banquet (Luke 14:15).22 (See Appendix 5. The Great Messianic Banquet.)

2. The rich and socially elite who reject at the last minute the host's invitation are the Pharisees and Jewish religious establishment who reject John the Baptist and Jesus, who begin to plot against Jesus and eventually render the ultimate insult of having Jesus executed as a common criminal.

3. The poor and downtrodden are the common people who "heard him gladly" (Mark 12:37, KJV).23 Perhaps those inside the town are the Jews, while those in the outlying areas are the Gentiles. Beyond this level of allegory, I don't believe we should go.

In addition, as we'll see in a moment, Matthew' king sending an army to kill the "murderers" and burn their city (Matthew 22:7) is a prophetic allegory of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Common Themes

As I meditate on both parables, I am impressed with a number of themes:

1. Lame Excuses. I am sorry to say that in the lame excuses of the original guests I hear some of my own shallow excuses for not doing God's will. We may be able to convince ourselves that what we are doing is noble, but way too often our excuses are an insult to God. It is his mercy that we are not consumed!

2. Rejection and Insult. We feel badly when we are rejected, but what about the Father? Think of his grieving and broken heart, his anger and mercy. I recall the verses at the beginning of John's Gospel that express this:

"He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God -- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God." (John 1:11-13)

This parable is a bittersweet reminder of rejection, but also of mercy.

3. Mercy and grace. There's a clear theme of grace and mercy, especially in Luke's parable. Those who are not worthy to come to the host's table -- the poor, lame, crippled, blind -- are now invited. They represent you and me. We are unworthy to eat at our Host's table, but we have been invited and cleansed. How true it is: "Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God" (Luke 14:15b). This is God's mercy, pure and simple.

4. Evangelism and the Lost. A fourth, and closely related theme, is evangelism. The poor, lame, crippled, and blind are now sought out. They are not just invited, but they are sought out and urged, compelled, to accept the invitation. These would include the poor and oppressed among the Jewish people, but also the Gentiles. You and I are the servants who bring a marvelous invitation of acceptance and forgiveness.

5. Delaying the meal until the house is full. The Host has prepared food for a large number of guests, and he won't be satisfied until his house is completely full. This reminds of two other verses:

"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9)

"And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come." (Matthew 24:14)

6. Judgment. Those who reject the invitation -- for whatever reason -- will not taste of the Master's banquet. We bear good news, but do so with humility and sadness, realizing that contained within the very message are the seeds of judgment if they reject. We are not damning people by telling them the Good News. Actually, the Good News is their only hope -- they are already under God's judgment for their sins. It is only that deliberately rejecting the invitation invites greater judgment, and that saddens us.

7. Judgment on the Jewish Nation Those who reject the invitation are replaced with those who will come to his feast. As mentioned, those who reject the invitation are the Pharisees and Jewish rulers who, by and large, rejected Jesus and his message and were responsible for his death. In Luke we read:

"I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.'" (Luke 14:24)

In Matthew the rejection of the servant's invitation is much stronger.

"5 They paid no attention and went off.... 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them." (Matthew 22:5-6)

Jesus allegorizes the mistreatment and killing of the prophets God sent to Israel as he does in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Lesson 2.3), which we'll consider in a moment. There the punishment is explicit:

"He will bring those wretches to a wretched end." (Matthew 21:41a)

In Matthew's Parable of the Wedding Banquet, the punishment is also explicit:

"The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city." (Matthew 22:7)

As mentioned above, I believe this is an allegory of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jesus prophesies this at the Triumphal Entry and later reiterates it to his disciples in the temple (Luke 21:5-6)

"43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you." (Luke 19:43-44)

More on the fall of Jerusalem in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Lesson 2.3) below.

8. Feasting in the Kingdom of God. Finally, both versions of the parable are clearly alluding to the Great Messianic Banquet that we outline in Appendix 6. The Jews in Jesus' day looked forward to sitting down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of God, what Christians refer to as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7).

Q6. (Matthew 22:1-10; Luke 14:15-24) Who do the excuse-makers represent? What are the potential results of excusing ourselves from carrying out God's will as we know it?

Q7. (Matthew 22:1-10; Luke 14:15-24) In Jesus' Parables of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew) and the Great Banquet (Luke), who are the people represented by those recruited from the streets and lanes of the city? From the highways and hedges? Who do the servant-recruiters represent? How diligent are you and your church in recruiting those who are of a lower class than others in your congregation? What keeps you from this Kingdom task? How might your church fulfill it?

2.3 Excluding Israel from Messiah's Kingdom

We'll examine one final parable among those that deal with Israel's apostasy and rejection of Jesus -- the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19, §204)

(Also known as the Parable of the Wicked Husbandman or Bad Tenants)

If Matthew's Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Lesson 2.2) portends terrible judgment of an army destroying the king's enemies and their city, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants goes even farther. This parable occurs in all three Synoptic Gospels, but we'll be following Matthew's version here.

Planting a Vineyard (Matthew 21:33)

Jesus begins his story with a familiar hallmark of Israelite agriculture, a vineyard. While a number of parables include allegorical elements, this parable seems more allegorical than most, with each element representing something else.

"Listen to another parable: There was a landowner24 who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented25 the vineyard to some farmers26 and went away on a journey." (Matthew 21:33)

'The Killed Vintners,' Codex Aureus of Echternach (1030-1040 AD), illuminated gospel book, Germanic National Museum, Munich.
'The Killed Vintners,' Codex Aureus of Echternach (1030-1040 AD), illuminated gospel book, Germanic National Museum, Munich. Larger image.

The vineyard and fig tree are almost proverbial for abundant blessing. The phrase, "each man under his own vine and fig tree" is repeated over and over in the Old Testament.27 The vineyard sometimes refers metaphorically to Israel:

"The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel..." (Isaiah 5:1-7).28

Jesus seems to intend the vineyard in this parable to represent Israel. Matthew and Mark note that the landowner dug a wine press so the harvest could be processed on-site, and built a tower or elevated shaded platform where a worker could be stationed day and night during the growing season to watch for animals that might ruin the crop.29

Seeking Fruit from the Tenants (Matthew 21:34-36)

Once planted, a new vineyard might take three or four years to establish a good harvest, but then it would keep producing for many years, a quarter of a century or longer, before it began to decline. For the absentee landlord, this vineyard is an investment that would pay dividends each year for the rest of his life. Like today, tenant farmers were usually paid by allowing them to keep a portion of the harvest, with a fixed percentage going to the owner. But these tenants didn't want to share.

"34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. 35 The tenants seized his servants; they beat30 one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way." (Matthew 21:34-36)

It's pretty clear to the disciples whom he is referring to. In their presence Jesus had rebuked the scribes and Pharisees:

"You approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.'" (Luke 11:48b-49)

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you." (Luke 13:34a)

The ruling class in Jerusalem is doing the same as their ancestors -- killing the prophets who were sent to Israel to correct them and to turn their hearts and praises to God as his fruit from his vineyard. So, in Jesus' parable, the tenants represent the unbelieving rulers, while the vineyard is the nation of Israel itself, God himself the owner.

Sending His Son to the Tenants (Matthew 21:37-39)

But in Jesus' parable this rebelliousness does not stop with killing only the prophets.

"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." (Matthew 21:37-39)

The owner's son deserves respect.31 Instead, he is thrown out of the vineyard and slain. Of course, in this thinly-veiled allegory, the son is the Son of God whose death takes place outside the city walls on Golgotha.32

The Tenants' Punishment (Matthew 21:40-41)

Here, Jesus asks a rhetorical question, to which his hearers reply.

40 "'Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?' 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.'" (Matthew 21:40-41)

While "kill" in verses 38 and 39 means "to deprive of life, kill," the verb in verse 41 "put to a wretched end" (NIV), "put to a miserable death" (ESV, NRSV), "miserably destroy" (KJV) is a stronger, more final verb meaning "to perish, destroy, put an end to, abolish," then "to kill, put to death."33

Prophetic Allegory of the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD

I think of the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, the end of the Jewish nation -- even as a self-governing kingdom under the Romans. At the fall of Jerusalem, the temple was destroyed, the city was burned, the walls were pulled down, and perhaps a million or more people were killed during the siege of the city, with another 97,000 people enslaved, many of them dying in the arena as gladiators to entertain the Romans.34 This crushing destruction was terrible evidence of the wrath of God upon his rebellious people.

The listeners must understand something of what Jesus means in this parable. The key idea of a vineyard probably tipped them off that Israel was the subject. Perhaps the plots swirling around Jesus and the people's belief that he was the Messiah contributed to their understanding. Even Jesus' enemies "knew he was talking about them" (Matthew 21:45).

The Cornerstone (Matthew 21:42; Psalm 118:22-23)

Now Jesus teaches how the Old Testament prophets had predicted this, using a series of references to the "stone." "Stone" and "Rock" are often used as titles of God in the Old Testament.35 First, Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23:

"The stone the builders36 rejected
has become the capstone;37
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes?" (Matthew 21:42)

This passage was not interpreted messianically in Jesus' time,38 but here Jesus declares it as definitely messianic in intent. The builders, of course, are the leaders of the Jewish nation. "Rejected" is apodokimazō, "to reject (after scrutiny), declare useless."39 The rulers didn't just make a quick judgment error on the spur of the moment. This word indicates that they had a chance to examine the "stone" carefully and then reject it after due reflection.

Now Jesus pronounces terrible judgment on Israel.

"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." (Matthew 21:43)

We'll come back to this judgment in a moment. But first, let's see Jesus' other references to the Stone -- a title of Yahweh in the Old Testament and of Jesus' in the New Testament.

The Stumbling and Crushing Stone (Matthew 21:44 = Luke 20:18)

Having established Psalm 118:22 as messianic, Jesus connects it with two other messianic verses about the stone.

"He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed."40 (Matthew 21:4441 = Luke 20:18)

The Stone that people stumble or fall on in verse 44a is a reference to Isaiah's prophecy about the Lord Almighty (Yahweh of the hosts or armies):

"He will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be
a stone that causes men to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare." (Isaiah 8:14)

The stone that crushes in verse 44b is seen in a passage from the Prophet Daniel that was understood as messianic by the Jews of Jesus' day.

"While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them.... In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever." (Daniel 2:34, 44-45)

Judgment upon Israel

Now let's examine Jesus' sad and decisive judgment on Israel.

"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." (Matthew 21:43)

The fruit the son in the parable was sent to collect represents the faith and righteousness due to the God of Israel. But though Jesus has called them to repentance, the Jewish leaders reject the Son of God and kill him. Then God rejects them and transfers the Kingdom of God to others -- namely, the Gentiles, as we see in the Book of Acts. I can't over emphasize how important this verse is to understanding the relationship of the Kingdom of God to the Gentiles. Here is the progression.

  1. Abraham. God reveals himself and makes a covenant with Abraham and his descendants forever.
  2. Moses. God sets up his laws for Israel and establishes his throne room in their midst -- first in the ark in the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle and later in the Jerusalem temple.
  3. Jesus. God sends his Messiah "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." He restricts his disciples from going to other peoples during his three years of ministry.
  4. The Cross. This represents both the final rejection of Israel of their Messiah as well as the atonement of the sins of the whole world.
  5. Resurrection and Ascension. In the Great Commission, the disciples are now instructed to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19), to "go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation" (Mark 16:15).
  6. Holy Spirit. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit falls on people from all nations. Jesus commands his disciples: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

Is There Any Future for Israel?

When you read Romans 9, 10 and 11 (and I encourage you to do that today), you catch Paul's struggle with the question of Israel's rejection of the Messiah and God's rejection of them as his Chosen People.

"I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart." (Romans 9:2)

"My heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved." (Romans 10:2)

Paul employs the agricultural figure of grafting -- the olive tree, of course, represents Israel.

"If you [Gentiles] were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!" (Romans 11:24)

Jesus' Parables for Disciples, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats

There is hope for Israel!

"25 I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And so all Israel will be saved." (Romans 11:25-26a)

How will God do this in the End Time? Some say the Jews will be saved during the Tribulation, but that is mere speculation. We don't know the details. But we do know that ultimately, God will keep his promise to Israel and restore them to being his people -- along with the Gentiles. Come soon, Lord Jesus!

Q8. (Matthew 21:33-46) Who do the servants sent to collect the landowner's share of the crop represent? What happened to Israel who rejected God's servants and Son who were sent to them? This is a parable about resisting those whom God sends to us to help us. Have you ever seen a church reject a pastor or leader that God sends to help them? Why is supporting our pastors and leaders important to God's plan for the church? (Hebrews 13:7, 17). In the Beatitudes, how does Jesus encourage those who are rejected and persecuted? (Matthew 5:10-12)?

We've studied Jesus' parables about the nation of Israel, who as a whole refused to repent and believe the Gospel. In the next lesson, we'll examine a series of Jesus' parables about repentance and the need for it.


Lord, when we see the judgment brought about by the rebellious leaders of Israel, we think of the rebellion we sometimes find in our own hearts. Lord, forgive us and our grandiose plans for greatness. Help us to recognize You when You come in our midst. And help the Jewish people who, by and large, are still blind. Have mercy! In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


References and Abbreviations

[1] Marshall, Luke, p. 221; J. Behm, TDNT 4:924-935.

[2] Matthew 6:1-8; Mark 7:6; 12:13-17; Luke 6:41-42; 13:10-17. Many of the "woes" against the scribes and Pharisees are prefaced in Matthew 23 with the phrase, "you hypocrites."

[3] "Use up" (NIV, ESV), "waste" (NRSV), "cumbereth" (KJV) is the verb katargeō, "to cause something to be unproductive, use up, exhaust, waste" (BDAG 525, 1).

[4] "Fertilize" (NIV), "put on manure" (ESV, NRSV), "dung" (KJV) is two words, the verb ballō, "put, place, apply" (BDAG 163, 3a), and the noun kopion, "dung, manure" (BDAG 559, 1).

[5] In these verses Israel is represented by fig trees or figs: Hosea 9:10; Jeremiah 8:13; 24:1-8; Micah 7:1

[6] "Three is the minimum number necessary to establish a pattern of occurrences. A single event can be pure chance; a pair can be mere coincidence; but three consecutive occurrences of an event serve as a rhetorical signal indicating special significance" (Leland Ryken, et al. (eds.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 866). Examples include: Elijah stretching himself over the widow's child (1 Kings 17:21); the temptations of Jesus (Matthew 4:3-8); Jesus' prayers in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39, 42, 44); Peter's vision (Acts 10:9-16); Peter's denial (Matthew 26:34); Jesus' restoration of Peter (John 21:15-17).

[7] Matthew 7:19-20; 12:33; 21:43; Luke 8:15; 20:10; John 15:2, 16.

[8] This parable is also preserved in Gospel of Thomas, 64, in form somewhat similar to Luke's account.

[9] Such a practice is attested both in Jewish and Roman settings. Esther 6:14; La. R 4:2; Strack and Billerbeck I, 880f; Philo, Opif 78; Terence, Heaut. 169f; Apuleius Met. 3:12, cited by Marshall, Luke, pp. 587-588.

[10] A chicken or two would suffice for 2 to 4 guests, a duck for 5 to 8, a kid for 10 to 15, a sheep for 15 to 35 people, or a calf for 35 to 75 people (Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (Eerdmans, 1980), p. 94, cited by Green, Luke, p. 558, fn. 151).

[11] Jeremias, Parables.

[12] The list of guests to be invited is identical to the list Jesus had suggested to his Pharisee host in Luke 14:13 -- those who could not repay him by inviting him in return -- the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.

[13] Rhumē, Marshall, Luke, p. 590.

[14] Hodos, BDAG 690-692.

[15] Phragmos, BDAG 1064.

[16] Anankazō, BDAG 60.

[17] Luke 13:28; Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 24:51; 25:30; Revelation 22:15.

[18] "Chosen" is eklektos, "'pertaining to being selected, chosen,' generally of those whom God has chosen from the generality of mankind and drawn to himself" (BDAG 306).

[19] This saying is inappropriately added to many Greek texts of Matthew 20:16 (C D W Θ f1, 13 Byz). Metzger (Textual Commentary, p. 41) observes, "Although it is possible that the words ... had been accidentally omitted from an ancestor of א B L Z 085 owing to homoeoteleuton, the Committee regarded it as much more likely that they were added here by copyists who recollected the close of another parable (22:14, where there is no significant variation of reading)." The Committee gave the text without the addition an {A} confidence rating, "virtually certain."

[20] Morris, Matthew, p. 553.

[21] "Called" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "invited" (NIV) is klētos, "pertaining to being invited, called, invited to a meal" (BDAG 549). Depending on the context it can mean "call, invite," "summoned to court," "invoked," or even, "called out, chosen" (Liddell-Scott 960, meanings 2, 4).

[22] Isaiah 25:6; Matthew 8:11-12; Luke 13:28-30; 22:30; Revelation 19:9.

[23] Matthew 21:46; Luke 19:48.

[24] "Landowner" (NIV, NRSV), "master of a house" (ESV), "householder" (KJV) is oikodespotēs, "master of the house, householder" (BDAG 695).

[25] "Rented" (NIV), "let out" (ESV), "let forth" (KJV), "lease" (NRSV) is Greek ekdidōmi, "let out for hire, lease."

[26] "Tenants" (ESV, NRSV), "farmers" (NIV), "husbandmen" (KJV) is the plural of geōrgos, which can refer either to the owner of a farm, or, in this case, to one who does agricultural work on a contractual basis, "vine-dresser, tenant farmer" (BDAG 196).

[27] 1 Kings 4:25; 2 Kings 18:31; Isaiah 34:4; 36:16; Joel 1:12; 2:22; Micah 4:4; Haggai 2:19; Zechariah 3:10.

[28] See also Isaiah 27:2; Jeremiah 12:10; and Micah 7:1.

[29] Isaiah 5:2; 27:2-3.

[30] "Beat" (derō) means to literally "to skin, flay," colloquially, "to beat, whip," "cudgel, thrash" (BDAG 218-219; Liddell-Scott, p. 380). "Treat shamefully" (Luke and Mark: NIV, ESV, cf. KJV), "insult" means "to dishonor, shame," perhaps subject to public ridicule (Atimazō, BDAG 148-149). It is an especially grievous offense in the honor-shame oriented Semitic society. "Wound" (Mark and Luke) is Greek traumatizō, from which we get our word "traumatize" (BDAG 1014).

[31] "Respect" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "reverence" (KJV) is entrepō, "have regard for, respect," show deference to a person in recognition of special status (BDAG 341, 2).

[32] "Kill" is Greek apokteinō, literally, "to deprive of life, kill" (BDAG 114, 1a).

[33] "Kill" is apokteinō (BDAG 114, 1a). Apollumi, BDAG 114-115, 1aα; Thayer 64, 1aα.

[34] Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6.9.3 [420].

[35] Genesis 49:24; Deuteronomy 32:4-5; Psalm 18:2; 31:2-3; 61:2-3; 71:3; 89:26; 92:15; 144:1; Isaiah 8:14; 26:4; 44:8; 51:1.

[36] "Builders" is a participle of the Greek verb oikodomeō, "build," construct a building. It is also used in a transcendent sense for building up the Christian church (Matthew 16:18; Romans 15:20; 1 Peter 2:5) (BDAG 696, 1bβ).

[37] The exact role of the stone in this passage has been disputed. "Cornerstone" (ESV, NRSV), "head of the corner" (KJV) points to the first stone placed in a building, from which all the others are aligned. Others consider it to be the "capstone" (NIV) above the door or the porch. Whichever the word refers to, the point is that while it was rejected by the builders, it ultimately was placed by God in the key position of the entire building. Jeremias (Parables, p. 274) asserts that according to the agreed testimony of the Syriac translation of Psalm 118.22, Symmachus, Testimony of Solomon, Tertullian, Aphraates, Prudentius, and Synagogue poetry, the reference is "the stone which crowns the building, or, more precisely, the key stone of the structure probably set above the porch" (BDAG 542).

[38] I am relying heavily for the history of Messianic interpretation on the scholarship of Joachim Jeremias, lithos, TDNT 4:272-273.He observes that a Messianic understanding of this passage is first found in the writings of Rashi who died in 1105 AD (TDNT 4:273, note 4).

[39] Apodokimazō, BDAG 110, a.

[40] "Falls" is the common Greek verb piptō. "Broken to pieces" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "broken" (KJV) is Greek synthlaō, "crush (together), dash to pieces," to crush in such a way that an object is put in pieces (BDAG 972). "Crushed" (ESV, NRSV, NIV), "grind to powder" (KJV) is likmaō, "crush" (BDAG 596), sometimes used in the sense of "winnow."

[41] A few early Greek manuscripts omit verse 44 (D it sya). Most include it. However, the text is found undisputed in Luke 20:18. Metzger (Textual Commentary, p. 47) observes that most modern scholars regard Matthew 21:44 as an interpolation from Luke 20:18. However, the Committee included it in their text with a {C} "considerable degree of doubt" confidence level.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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