Matthew 21:33-46 narrates the closing portion of Jesus’ dispute in the temple with the chief priests and Pharisees that began in Matthew 21:23. Although this wasn’t the first clash between Jesus and the religious leaders after his arrival in Jerusalem. The altercation began when the priests and elders approached Jesus and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In response, Jesus agreed to answer their query provided they answer his: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Despite Jesus’ willingness to engage in what might be characterized as amiable, the religious leaders refused to take part. Recognizing that adverse consequences followed either choice, they claimed, “We do not know,” to which Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Matthew 21:23-27).
Undeterred by their evasiveness, Jesus then told a parable about a father and two sons as a way to contrast the religious leaders with the tax collectors and the prostitutes. In Jesus’ estimation, these sinners were entering the kingdom of God before the chief priests and elders because they believed John and were willing to change their minds (Matthew 21:28-32). Using the imagery of the parable, the tax collectors and prostitutes were like the first son because they complied with the father’s request.
Yet before his listeners could walk away, Jesus also bid them, “Listen to another parable” (v. 33). This time, Jesus tapped into a familiar text from Isaiah—the Lord’s uncultivated and unrighteous vineyard. In Isaiah 5:1-7, a landowner planted and tenderly cared for his vineyard. But the vineyard produced only wild grapes, not cultivated ones. Consequently, the landowner despoiled his own property and turned his unruly vineyard into a feral wasteland.
Even though Jesus drew on Isaiah’s vineyard allegory, there are a number of important differences. For one, in Isaiah there are only two principal protagonists: the landowner who represents God, and the vineyard that symbolizes Israel. In contrast, besides Isaiah’s two protagonists, Jesus inserts two minor characters — the landowner’s slaves and the landowner’s son. Even with this modification, the identities of the parable’s allegorical allusions are unmistakable: God is the landowner, the tenants are the religious leaders, the landowner’s servants are the prophets, and Jesus is the landowner’s son. Another striking difference is that while the whole nation of Israel is culpable in Isaiah’s vineyard fable, in Jesus’ adaptation of the parable, the vineyard still denotes Israel, but it is Israel’s current religious leaders who are held responsible for the nation’s failings.
With Jesus’ retelling of Isaiah’s story in the temple, the vineyard — that is, God’s kingdom people — is not destroyed. Instead of the entire nation being turned into a wasteland, God will come and condemn only the tenants for two reasons. First, they “seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” Second, rather than respecting God’s son when they saw him, “they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance'” — a plot that would soon become reality (Matthew 21:35, 38; cf. Matthew 26:4).