A dear friend and contributor to Psalm11918.org shared some insight into the parable of the vineyard and brought in various other Scriptures to elucidate the passage. In doing so it sparked a rather exciting discussion about vines, vineyards, vine dressers, and wine as metaphors used throughout the Apostolic Writings. This article highlights the points of that discussion along with other insights Brent provided. I would like to credit him for inspiring this article in the spirit of Proverbs 3:27. And as always, we give thanks to G-d Most High who "gave the heart understanding to distinguish between day and night".
Let us take a journey together through Scripture once again and see what it says about vines, vineyards, vine dressers, wine and more... a "walk in the Word". As we take this walk, may we say, believe, and do what is right, be merciful in our speech and actions, and walk humbly with the Lord (Micah 6:8).
Scriptural quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted. Bolded text or other emphases in the Scriptural references are the author's.
The Parable of the Vineyard
In Matthew 21 (and its parallel in Mark 12 and Luke 20), Yeshua gives a parable regarding a vineyard:
Matthew 21:33- 46
"Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who PLANTED A VINEYARD AND PUT A WALL AROUND IT AND DUG A WINE PRESS IN IT, AND BUILT A TOWER, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. The vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.' They took him, and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?"
They [the chief priests and elders of the people] said to Him, "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons."
Jesus said to them, "Did you never read in the Scriptures, 'THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone; THIS CAME ABOUT FROM THE LORD, AND IT IS MARVELOUS IN OUR EYES'? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of G-d will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust."
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. When they sought to seize Him, they feared the people, because they considered Him to be a prophet.
Let's unpack the parable and examine its elements more closely:
- The landowner
- The vineyard
- The wall
- The winepress
- The tower
- The vine growers
- The harvest time
- The produce
- The first group of slaves
- The second group of slaves
- The son
- The inheritence of the son
- The consequences
The first part of the parable speaks of a landowner planting a vineyard. This is a quote from Isaiah 5. This chapter in Isaiah is the key to unlocking the parable. Yeshua is taking a passage from Scripture that was well known in his day and bringing it bear again on his time in history. In this chapter we are given the interpretation of several pieces of Yeshua's parable. Isaiah speaks of G-d planting a vineyard... so we see that the landowner in the parable is G-d.
Isaiah 5:7 gives us the interpretation for the vineyard as well.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel and the men of Judah His delightful plant.
The vineyard is Isra'el... both the native-born Jew and Gentile who has been grafted in as well (see Psalms 80:8-9, Isaiah 5:1-7, Romans 3:29).
Vine and Branches
Although they are not specifically mentioned in this parable we can include "vine" and "branches" in our examination of the vineyard. In John 15 Yeshua uses these elements in a metaphor to describe the relationship between Himself, the Father, and the talmidim:
Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.
Yeshua tells us that He is the vine and his disciples are the branches. The job of the branches is to abide in Him and bear much fruit. We abide in Him if we keep his commandments and his commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). Yeshua's commandments are not his own but those of the Father (John 12:49).
The wall is the first element not clearly explained in Isaiah. In a practical sense a literal wall around a literal vineyard serves to separate and defend the things inside the wall from those outside the wall. It provides some measure of delineation and protection so the beasts of the field will not come in and devour the plants and the fruit of the vineyard. A vineyard wall would often include a hedge of thorns to keep animals out.
Dennis Bracher of CRI/Voice, Institute provides some background on ancient Near Eastern vineyards:
The images used in this allegory were all taken from common practices of raising grapes in the Ancient Middle East, many of which are still in use today (cf. Matt 21:33). Especially in the hill country of Israel, grapes were often grown on hillsides terraced by retaining walls and backfilled with fertile soil. On more level ground, the hard earth was plowed or dug and the numerous stones that are a common part of the Near Eastern landscape were removed and used in walls around the fields or to build a watchtower in the middle of the field. Since grapes were a staple food, used both for wine and preserved as raisins for use throughout the year, the grape harvest was extremely important and needed to be protected from animals, birds, and even theft. During the grape harvest, the vineyard owner or men hired for the job would man the watchtower to protect the vineyard. 1
Isaiah tells us that, in His anger, G-d will "remove its hedge" and "break down its wall" referring to the vineyard. This provides further insight into what the wall can and cannot be.
Walls are a defensive measure. Although it is a tradition that began in antiquity even today the sovereign of England is called "the defender of the faith". In this we can see a picture of the rulers of Isra'el... the king and his court officials. If a physical wall protects its physical contents then a wall in matters of faith would be responsible for defending that faith. The king is responsible for defending the nation. Thus the wall represents the royal rulers of Isra'el.
Wine presses have two parts: the upper part where grapes are crushed and "pressed"; and the lower part into which the juice of the grapes drains. In the rocky environment of the Near East wine presses were often hewn into the rock. This fits with Isaiah 5:2 in which G-d "hewed out a wine vat" in the vineyard. The winepress is the place where the harvest of grapes are crushed and tested to determine the quality of the fruit when they are made into wine. The winepress is the place where the fruit of Isra'el is pressed and tested (see "The Produce" below).
The tower is only briefly mentioned in Isaiah but it is noted that the tower was built "in the middle of" the vineyard. The Temple was at the center of religious life in the days of Yeshua. It was the place where the "vine growers" could watch over the vineyard and protect it. It also served as visible marker for the surrounding area as to the location of the vineyard. The tower of the parable is the Temple.
The Vine Growers
Matthew chapter 21 provides us with the identity of the vine growers:
When the chief priests and the chief Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them.
The vine growers were hired to do the work of tending the vineyard. They were not the owners of the vineyard. The leadership of Isra'el were "hired" to tend and care for the people of Isra'el (the vineyard). When they failed to serve as they had been hired to do they were replaced and the landowner "will rent out the vineyard [Isra'el] to other vine-growers [authorities]." The vine-growers of the parable are the chief priests and Pharisees: the leadership of the day.
Examination of this element of the parable should dispel any notion of replacement theology in which Christians replace Jews as G-d's people. The replacement is of the vine-growers... not the vineyard.
The Harvest Time
The harvest time mentioned in the parable provides numerous points of interest:
- The harvest time implies the harvest itself:
- It is something produced by the vineyard
- It is expected from the vine growers
- It belongs to the land owner
- The time of the harvest is at a specific time and occurs at regular intervals. In a literal vineyard there is an annual harvest. In the Land of Isra'el grapes are harvested in the late spring and during the summer months between June and September. (See the timeline of harvests and holy days in Isra'el at right. Click to enlarge the image.) This fits with the Scriptural holy day of Yom Kippur (the Day of judgment) where there is an annual accounting for the activities of the previous year.
Vineyards produce grapes, raisins, grape juine, and wine. Since the people of Isra'el are the vineyard of the parable, what is it that G-d would expect to be their fruit? I believe it is the living example (the teaching) of a G-dly people. It is in the winepress where the fruit is pressed and tested: is the fruit sweet and good or is the fruit bitter and useless?
1 Corinthians 3:12-15 tells us that our work (our deeds) will be tested although it uses a different metaphor of "trial by fire". I believe that our deeds (our fruit) will be tested in G-d's winepress to determine whether they are good or bad... sweet and pleasing to the Lord or bitter and worthless to Him.
The First Group of Slaves
G-d is the land owner. Isra'el is the vineyard. The religious leadership (chief priests) are the vine-growers. So who are the first group of slaves that the landowner sends to the vine-growers? The first group of slaves are the prophets that G-d sent prior to the Assyrian diaspora. The prophets were servants of the Most High sent with a message of the expectation of the fruit (good deeds) being delivered. The prophets came with the message, "Repent! Stop sinning and transgressing the Torah of G-d and instead turn back to G-d and live within the covenant relationship He has required."
The Second Group of Slaves
The second group of slaves is similar to the first. They are the prophets sent by G-d prior to the Babylonian exile with the same clarion call as the first: "Repent!". As an interesting note... the slaves were sent to the vine-growers (the priests) not to the vineyard (the people of Isra'el).
For believers in Messiah this element is the easiest to identify. The son of the landowner in the parable is Yeshua... the Son of G-d:
- He was sent by the land owner (G-d).
- The vine-growers wanted his inheritence (ownership of the vineyard).
- The vine-growers threw him out of the vineyard (separated Him from the rest of the people of Isra'el... and gave Him over to the Gentiles).
- The vine-growers killed him to get his inheritence.
What is the only thing mentioned in the parable that the son of the landowner would inherit? The inheritence of the parable is ownership of and authority over the vineyard:
When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
The false priesthood that had been installed by Rome realized that it did not truly have authority from the One and Only Source that could provide it: G-d. They sought to destroy Him to whom had been "given all authority" (Matt 28:18) so they could seize that authority for themselves.
Rather than spell out the consequences Himself, Yeshua asks the question, "When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?" The answer is that he will bring those "wretches" to a "wretched" end and then "rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons."
Modern English defines wretched as "characterized by or attended with misery or woe".2 The Greek word that is translated "wretches" is the noun kakos. A literal translation of this word might be "worthless" or "depraved". The Greek word translated as "wretched" is an adverbial form of kakos which has a strong sense of bad, evil, or sickly. These "wretches" murdered the son and the Scriptural penalty for murder is death: Exodus 21:12.
As the chief priests and Pharisees answer Yeshua's question we might imagine them thinking of themselves as the land owner and giving the answer with an air of almost self-righteous indignation: "how dare they kill my son! I will kill those vine-growers and replace them with someone who will give to me what is rightfully mine." It is tempting to cast them in that light, however, to do so we must contend with Scripture that tells us we should not do so:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves;
For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as G-d has allotted to each a measure of faith.
This concludes the list of the elements. Taking this understanding of the parable and its elements and applying them to other passages referring to vineyards, vines, and wine provides some interesting insight. Part 2 of this article will summarize the elements of the parable and examine other passages from Scripture using this parable as a key.
Footnotes1. Copyright © 2007, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved (as of 12/28/2007) at http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cproper15ot.html [back]
2. 'Wretched' - Excerpted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation; further reproduction and distribution in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved. [back]