The Murderous Vineyard Workers Story.

Mark 12.1-11, Matthew 21.33-46, Luke 20.9-19.

Most Christians think of Pharisees as the bad guys in the gospels, ’cause of how often Pharisees objected to Jesus, Jesus objected to them right back, and how Pharisees conspired with others to get Jesus killed.

Thing is, that’s only some Pharisees. Just like how the gospel of John showed Jesus getting opposed by “the Judeans” (KJV “the Jews”) —it wasn’t all Judeans, but some Judeans. He got along just fine with Nicodemus, Lazarus and his sisters, the guy who lent him the room for Passover, and lots of other Judeans; and he got just as much pushback from his fellow Galileans! Likewise not all Pharisees objected to Jesus. Ever notice how Jesus frequently taught in synagogue? Synagogues were a Pharisee thing; nobody but Pharisees had synagogues. Those Pharisees accepted Jesus. Likewise all the Pharisees who followed him (though sometimes poorly) after he was raptured, and became the Christians of the early church.

And the Pharisees weren’t the only bad guys. There were the Sadducees, Judea’s ruling class. In the Galilee there were the Herodians, the people who were perfectly happy to keep the Herod family in power, usually because it benefited them personally. And of course there were the Romans, who eventually killed Jesus.

When Jesus tells this story, it’s not just to Pharisees. It’s to members of the Judean senate: “The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” Mk 11.27 who ran Jerusalem and Judea under the Romans’ occupation, whose job was to keep the peace lest the Romans kill them all. They considered Jesus a disruption, and Jesus considered them… well, what he calls them in this story.

He compares ’em to vineyard farmers who are utterly rebelling against their boss. Because the vineyard, they figured, was theirs. And the fruit was theirs. And the boss was never gonna return to deal with them, so they were free to run things however they liked, with no consequences. You know, pretty much like our elected officials run things now, despite the people who elect ’em.

Mark 12.1-11 KWL
1 Jesus began to tell the Pharisees parabolically,
“A person plants a vineyard, puts a wall round it,
digs out a winepress trough, builds a watchtower,
gives it to farmers, and goes abroad.
2 In time he sends a slave to the farmers,
so he might get fruit from the vineyard from the farmers.
3 Taking the slave, the farmers beat him,
and send him away with nothing.
4 Again, the master sends another slave to them;
they punch that slave in the head and insult him.
5 The master sends another; that one they kill.
He sends many others; some they beat, some they kill.
6 The master has one beloved son, and sends him to them last,
saying this: ‘The farmers will respect my son.’
7 These farmers tell themselves this: ‘This is the heir!
Come! If we kill him, we’ll be the heirs!’
8 Taking the son, they kill him
and throw him out of the vineyard.
9 So what will the master do with the vineyard?
He’ll come and wipe out the farmers, and give the vineyard to others.
10 Didn’t you read this writing?—
‘A stone which the housebuilders reject:
This is made into the cornerstone.
11 This is made by the Lord,
and to our eyes, this is amazing.’ ” Ps 118.22-23
12 The senators were looking to have Jesus stopped,
yet were afraid of the crowd.
For they knew the parable he told is about them.
Abandoning him, they left.

In all three synoptic gospels, the story comes right after the senators challenge Jesus in temple by asking him who sent him, and Jesus challenges ’em right back by asking them whether John the baptist came from God. Mk 11.27-33, Mk 21.23-27, Lk 20.1-8 They pretend to not know the answer; Jesus knows they totally do, ’cause they’re dirty hypocrites. They’re the same sort of hypocrites who killed the prophets, and in five days they were gonna sentence Jesus to death too, and have the Romans crucify him—thus fulfilling that part of the parable. The rest, where the boss wiped out the farmers, would be fulfilled in 37 years.

The Matthew and Luke versions.

The other two gospels tell the story again, with slight differences.

Matthew 21.33-46 KWL
33 “Listen to another parable.
“A person is a homeowner who plants a vineyard, puts a wall round it,
digs out a winepress trough in it, builds a watchtower,
gives it to farmers, and goes abroad.
34 When the time for fruit is near,
he sends his slaves to the farmers to take his fruit.
35 Taking his slaves, the farmers beat one, kill one, and stone one.
36 Again, the master sends other slaves, more than in the first group.
37 Later he sends them his son, saying, ‘The farmers will respect my son.’
38 The farmers, seeing the son, told themselves, ‘This is the heir!
Come! If we kill him, we’ll have his inheritance!’
39 Taking the son,
they throw him out of the vineyard and kill him.
40 So when the master comes to the vineyard, what’ll he do to these farmers?”
41 The senators told him, “Those evil evildoers. He’ll wipe them out.
He’ll give the vineyard to other farmers,
who’ll give him the fruit at the proper time.”
42 Jesus told them, Didn’t you read this in the Writings?—
‘A stone which the housebuilders reject:
This is made into the cornerstone.
This is made by the Lord,
and to our eyes, this is amazing.’ Ps 118.22-23
43 This is why I tell you this: God’s kingdom will be taken away from you
and will be given to gentiles who produce his fruits.
44 [One who falls on the this stone will be shattered.
And whoever it falls upon, it’ll grind them up.]
45 Hearing Jesus’s parable, the head priests and Pharisees know he speaks of them.
46 Though seeking to have him seized, the senators fear the crowd,
because the crowd holds Jesus to be a prophet.
 
Luke 20.9-19 KWL
9 Jesus began to tell the people this parable:
Some person plants a vineyard,
gives it to farmers, and goes abroad for a long time.
10 In time he sends a slave to the farmers,
so that they’ll give him the vineyard’s fruit.
The farmers send him away with nothing, beaten.
11 The master additionally sends another slave;
the farmers also send that one away with nothing, beaten and insulted.
12 The master additionally sends a third;
the farmers throw this one out seriously wounded.
13 The vineyard’s master says, ‘What can I do?
I’ll send my beloved son. Perhaps they’ll respect this one.’
14 Seeing the son, the farmers dialogued with themselves,
saying, ‘This is the heir!’
If we kill him, we can become the heirs!’
15 Throwing the son out of the vineyard, they kill him.
So what will the vineyard’s master do to them?
16 He’ll come and wipe out these farmers, and give the vineyard to others.”
Those listening said, ‘Never say that!’
17 Looking right at them, Jesus said,
“So who is this writing about?—
‘A stone which the housebuilders reject:
This is made into the cornerstone.’ Ps 118.22
18 Everyone falling upon this stone will be shattered.
And whoever it falls upon, it’ll grind them up.”
19 The scribes and head priests were looking
to have hands thrown on Jesus at that hour,
yet were afraid of the people.
For they knew this parable he told is about them.

The variants in the other gospels don’t change the story much. Luke drops Jesus’s description of the homeowner building the vineyard from scratch—which does help us appreciate the work the homeowner (i.e. God) put into building the vineyard (i.e. Israel), but isn’t wholly necessary to the story.

Unlike Mark, the other gospels have the senators verbally respond to the parable. In Matthew they answer Jesus’s question of what the boss would do to his homicidal employees: He’ll wipe them out and give the vineyard to others. Same conclusion Jesus made in the other gospels—it’s the only logical conclusion, right?—and the senators are no dopes.

But in Luke, the senators’ reaction is a surprising μὴ γένοιτο/mi ghénito, “it ought not be,” which I translate “Never say that!” It’s a saying used by Roman-style rhetoricians: You present an example of bad teaching, then inform your listeners to never say that. ’Cause it’s warped thinking and bad teaching. Usually followed by why it’s a bad teaching, as Paul demonstrated in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. But Luke doesn’t tell us the senators’ reason why they considered it a bad teaching… mostly because their argument wasn’t worth preserving. Besides we already know why they objected to it (and if we can’t figure it out, all the gospels inform us): They’re the evil farmers. They’re the ones murdering their LORD’s messengers, and eventually his Son.

The other thing in the Matthew and Luke versions which isn’t in Mark (and isn’t found in all the ancient copies of Matthew either) is Jesus’s line about how everyone who falls on the stone will be shattered, and everyone on whom the stone falls will be ground up. (“Ground to powder,” as the KJV puts it.) Mt 21.44, Lk 20.18 It’s meant to remind us of how the LORD told Isaiah he’s their safety, but to others who refuse to think like he does, he’s a stumbling block:

Isaiah 8.11-15 NLT
11 The LORD has given me a strong warning not to think like everyone else does. He said,
“Don’t call everything a conspiracy, like they do,
and don’t live in dread of what frightens them.
13 Make the LORD of Heaven’s Armies holy in your life.
He is the one you should fear.
He is the one who should make you tremble.
He will keep you safe.
But to Israel and Judah
he will be a stone that makes people stumble,
a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem
he will be a trap and a snare.
15 Many will stumble and fall,
never to rise again.
They will be snared and captured.”

As for being crushed, it’s to remind us how Daniel described the LORD judging the nations.

Daniel 2.34-35, 44-45 NLT
34 “As you watched, a rock was cut from a mountain, but not by human hands. It struck the feet of iron and clay, smashing them to bits. 35 The whole statue was crushed into small pieces of iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold. Then the wind blew them away without a trace, like chaff on a threshing floor. But the rock that knocked the statue down became a great mountain that covered the whole earth.”
 
44 “During the reigns of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed or conquered. It will crush all these kingdoms into nothingness, and it will stand forever. 45 That is the meaning of the rock cut from the mountain, though not by human hands, that crushed to pieces the statue of iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold. The great God was showing the king what will happen in the future. The dream is true, and its meaning is certain.”

And since Jesus is the LORD, the metaphors which apply to the LORD apply to him too. He’s both the “stone which the housebuilders reject,” and the stone which trips people up, never to rise again; and the stone which crushes earthly kingdoms into nothingness. Including and especially the little fiefdoms we set up for ourselves. They’re not gonna last, so it’s best we never create them.

The farmers’ behavior.

This parable tends to get translated as if the owner is a landlord who’s rented the vineyard out to tenants, and when he asks for fruit he’s asking for his percentage of the harvest as rent. Now, that may be how medieval and modern tenant farming works, but nowhere does Jesus say that’s what’s going on. The farmers aren’t tenants; they’re employees. Likely slaves whom the master has specifically purchased to work his land, and if that’s the case it explains their behavior much better: They’re not nuts; they’re uprising. Heck, if the master isn’t meant to be God, they might even get our sympathy.

Hence all the fruit belongs to the master; it doesn’t rightly belong to the farmers in any way. Yet whenever he sent other slaves to collect it, the farmers beat and killed them. And when he sent his son—who’s not a fellow slave, but a fellow master, and therefore should be respected—they murdered him. Either they killed him in the vineyard and threw his body out, Mk 12.8 or threw him out of the vineyard then killed him. Mt 21.39, Lk 20.15 I’m guessing Matthew and Luke have him thrown out then killed ’cause it better resembles what happened in Jesus’s death, where the Romans took him outside Jerusalem to execute him. But I suspect the Mark version is closer to what Jesus originally said—and that Jesus really doesn’t care which came first. Point is, they killed the son. They’re not just disrespecting fellow slaves; they’re blatantly rebelling against their master.

So Jesus, and the senators, recognized the only subsequent course of action was for the master to come destroy those farmers. If this doesn’t sound like our gracious God to you, I can’t help you there; you’re expecting him to be gracious to unrepentant murderers who have every intention of continuing to murder. It’s not safe to any of their neighbors to let them live. You might recall ancient Israel was commanded to let the poor glean the corners of their vineyards; to not harvest damaged grapes but leave them behind for the needy. Lv 19.10 You think such farmers as these were gonna let any poor people who wandered onto the vineyard escape with their lives? “He might be a spy for the master!” and they’re getting beaten to death. For everyone’s sake, for everyone’s safety, the master had to deal with them.

The rejected stone.

Jesus had entered Jerusalem the day before, and the locals had greeted him with quotes from Psalm 118:

Mark 11.9-10 NLT
9 Jesus was in the center of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting,
“Praise God!
Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the LORD!
10 Blessings on the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David!
Praise God in highest heaven!”

“Praise God” is how the NLT incorrectly translates הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה נָּ֑א/hošyáh na, Greek ὡσαννά/osanná, “Save us,” or “Hosanna.” It comes from Psalm 118.25, “Save please” or “Save now,” which the NLT renders “Please save us.” The “Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the LORD” comes from the next verse. Ps 118.26 The senators and Pharisees even objected to Jesus that people were saying this kind of stuff, Mt 21.15-16, Lk 19.39 but y’know.

So yes, they were quite aware of that scripture about the stone which the housebuilders reject; Psalms was their hymnal, and they knew all its songs. They knew Psalm 118 is about a messiah returning to Israel in victory, after defeating his enemies; they knew the stone is a metaphor for someone who wasn’t expected to be anyone important, but now here he is.

Psalm 118.19-24 NLT
19 Open for me the gates where the righteous enter,
and I will go in and thank the LORD.
20 These gates lead to the presence of the LORD,
and the godly enter there.
21 I thank you for answering my prayer
and giving me victory!
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has now become the cornerstone.
23 This is the LORD’s doing,
and it is wonderful to see.
24 This is the day the LORD has made.
We will rejoice and be glad in it.

So in including a son in his story, and in quoting Psalm 118 for them, Jesus made it crystal clear he was aware they were plotting against him. And that in killing him, they’d simply be fulfilling this story… and God’s judgment against them would come next.

But exactly like subjects rebelling against their master, they didn’t wanna hear it, and wanted someone to grab Jesus and shut him up. The only reason they didn’t was because they knew the crowds would immediately attack them as heretics. So they waited for a more opportune time. Say, in the middle of the night on Friday.