Why’s there a stone in “the parable of the wicked tenants”?

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to hear Jesus’ parable which the ESV[1] titles “The parable of the tenants.” It’s in Matthew 21:33-46.

I’ve read the passage often. I’ve heard many sermons about it. But until this week, I didn’t really ask “Why’s there a stone in it?”

It’s one week before Jesus is crucified. He’s in Jerusalem. In the Temple. Teaching “the people.” He’s bothered. By the chief priests and the elders.[2]

They question his authority. Last week, in Did Jesus offer an unfair trade to the Jewish leaders, I discussed the parable he told in response.

Not content with that response, Jesus expanded on it. He told another parable, another story with different shades of meaning.

A landowner puts up walls, buildings, and other essential things in a vineyard. He contracts it out to tenants. He goes away. At the right time – in Greek, at the kairos time – he sends his servants to collect his share of the produce.

The tenants beat and kill the servants. Then he sends his son, his only son, to collect. The tenants kill him too.

Jesus asks what should be done to the tenants. The people say the irresponsible bad guys should be killed and replaced with good guys.

Jesus “explains.” He alludes to several passages in the Bible. He says the good life will be taken away from the bad guys and given to the good guys. He says “the stone the builders rejected” will decide everything, will dominate. He says the stone will break and crush people.

The people are happy. That’s justice! But the leaders are furious.

Why did Jesus put a stone in his explanation of the parable? Why didn’t Jesus come right out and say what he meant?

We think of politics and religion as separate things. Jesus’ listeners didn’t. For them, being faithful meant promoting good politics and opposing bad politics. Besides, they were suffering, suffering intensely, because of the exploitative politics of the Romans and of the Jewish elites.

People knew talking politics was dangerous. So, they used code words.

“Vineyard” was code for the land and people of Israel. In their synagogues, they often spoke of God as the landowner and of people as tenants, people who’ve contracted, signed agreements, to be responsible.

They knew God expected them to use the land responsibly, and to honour Him with their praise, their gifts, their care for their neighbours.

They knew God sent his servants, the prophets, to warn their ancestors when they didn’t act responsibly. They knew their ancestors didn’t treat the prophets well, even stoned them.[3]

In the parable of the tenants and in his explanation, Jesus evoked, made them recall, what Isaiah wrote in chapter five of his book (Isaiah 5). The owner of a vineyard destroyed it because it produced stink fruit[4] instead of grapes. In Jesus’ version, the owner destroys the tenants.

Why? Because the tenants acted unjustly. In verse 7b, Isaiah puts it strikingly. It’s remembered easily in Hebrew because the words rhyme:

“He looked for justice (mishpat),
but behold, bloodshed (mispach);
for righteousness (tsedeqah),
but behold, an outcry (tseaqah)!”

But why did Jesus mention a stone?

Code words are so important in the Bible there’s even a Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Here’s an extract from the entry for “stone”:

God’s future purpose, revealed to Isaiah, was to lay in *Zion[5] “a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation” (Isaiah 28:16 NRSV) and to use *builders of justice and righteousness. The *cornerstone here is part of the foundation, whereas in other contexts it could be the key top stone (Zechariah 4:7,9). The New Testament makes use of both senses.

The top stone of an arch or pediment proved that the architect’s instruction had been carried out and so exactly illustrated the work of Christ, the “living stone” (1 Peter 2:4). Peter also quotes Psalm 118:22 “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner” (1 Peter 2:7 NRSV) together with Isaiah 8:14.[6]

These references were linked by the first Christians because they point to Jesus as the Messiah foretold in the Scriptures (cf. Acts 4:11): though their Messiah had caused division and was rejected by many, this had been predicted.

Jesus himself was the source of this application of Psalm 118:22, to which he added a reference to the stone of Daniel 2:35: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone on whom it falls” (Luke 20:17-18).

The son, the only son, evoked those thoughts, thoughts of builders of justice and righteousness, one week before the kairos time of his death.

His death – and resurrection – would be the final signal that a new era had dawned when he was born: the A.D. era, the anno domini era, the era of the dominion of the only son. The son predicted his “sending” death. He would “send” builders of justice and righteousness across the world (Matthew 28:19-20).[7]

In Hebrew, ben is the word for “son.” It sounds similar to even, the word for “stone”. This has led one scholar to suggest that the parable should be called “The parable of the Only Son,” and that “Perhaps it is the most messianic text in the Gospels.”[8]

Why’s there a stone in “the parable of the wicked tenants”? Should it rather be called the Parable of the Only Son (who obeyed unto death)? How well are we following the architect’s instructions? What should the architect do to those who don’t follow his instructions? Who will tell them?

[1] English Standard Version translation of the Bible.

[2] Verse 23.

[3] 2 Chronicles 24:21 reports that Zechariah was stoned to death. According to extra-biblical tradition, Jeremiah was stoned to death.

[4] The word for “wild grapes” is related to a verb that refers to smells like sweat, body odor, and dead frogs (Scripture Union USA).

[5] The asterisk (*) signals that the dictionary includes entries for the following words or phrases. (Leland Ryken, 1998)

[6] We also note that chapter 21 of Matthew, in which our text is found, begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem to the people’s chants of “Hosanna,” found also in Psalm 118.

[7] Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

[8] Brad H Young, in Jesus the Jewish Theologian.

1 thought on “Why’s there a stone in “the parable of the wicked tenants”?”

  1. Pingback: Five shocking words, “I’d be bored as hell.” – Bangsar Lutheran Church

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