In Jesus’ parable, the “produce” was fine, but the delivery system was malfunctioning. The problem was not with the vineyard’s production but with the tenants themselves. These were extremely violent tenant farmers, harming and slaughtering the various groups of slaves sent by the landowner. The rationale for their brutality and murderous ways was stated explicitly when the son visited: “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance” (21:38). On the surface, the landowner’s decision to send his son in light of the tragedy of his servants seemed unwise (cf. 21:37). But, Jesus’ parable did not highlight this act as foolish, rather, in an honour and shame culture, the landowner’s decision to send his son as chief ambassador was appropriate since he could expect proper respect for his appointed heir.
In addition to Jesus’ connection to Isaiah’s vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7), Jesus provided a citation from Psalm 118. His scriptural citation shifted the focus of the parable altogether, from a critique of the tenants/leadership (in the parable) to a statement about the son/stone (in the scripture citation). The story was no longer about the vineyard, the produce, or the tenant farmers. Now, Jesus turned attention toward the abused son: “they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him” (21:39).
For Matthew, the parable shifts to Christ, the holy One, in which God’s abused Son became “the stone that the builders rejected” (21:42), which, in turn, determined who was in or out (cf. 21:44). The son who was sent (21:37) must be the symbol for God’s son, Jesus (cf. 3:17; 17:5). The tenant farmers, who represented the temple leadership, would be replaced by other tenants (21:41). And, what looked like a landowner’s unwise actions was really God’s plan: “this was the Lord’s doing” (21:42). Proper care and oversight of those people and things entrusted to us should receive fair hearing from this parable. We, too, are like those who wish to receive more credit for our labour, as if we “own” the “land.” In Jesus’ teaching, there was a fundamental reminder that only the Creator owns everything and we, too, are simply tenants leasing out the talents God has granted to be used for the greater good in the kingdom.