We are picking up in the middle of a discussion that Jesus is having with the religious leaders in the temple at Jerusalem. Jesus has been challenged about his authority to cleanse the temple and teach the way he is. But the religious leaders have been dishonest, unwilling to answer Jesus’ question about John to prove his own authority. In Matthew 21:28 you will notice that there is not a break in the scene. Jesus is still in the temple complex talking to these same religious leaders (cf. Matthew 21:23). For the rest of this discussion with these leaders in the temple, Jesus is now going to tell three parables. We are going to look at the first two of these parables in today’s lesson. Lord willing, we will look at the third parable found in chapter 22 next week. These two parables are going to reveal the heart that God is looking for in his people. So our lesson today is called The Heart God Receives. Jesus is going to show the problem with the hearts of the people in Jerusalem and then reveals the right heart that God wants.
The Parable of Hypocrisy (21:28-32)
Jesus begins by telling a story about a man who has two sons that he tells to go work in the vineyard. The first son refuses to go work in the vineyard but later changes his mind and goes. The other son says he will go work in the vineyard but then does not go. Now listen to the question Jesus poses. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” The answer is obvious and the chief priests and elders in the temple answer correctly. The first son did the will of the father even though he at first refused to obey. The second son did not do the will of the father even though he said he would. Now Jesus makes the application in verses 31-32. The renown sinners of the day are repenting, believing, and entering the kingdom of God ahead of these religious leaders. They are like the first son who at first refused to obey, changed his mind, and did the will of the father. The religious leaders are like the second son. They said that they were doing the will of the father but actually were not. John came and showed them the way of righteousness, that is, the will of God the Father. But they did not listen to John while others did. This is exactly what we see recorded in Matthew 3. We are told that Jerusalem, Judea, and the surrounding region were going to John and were being baptized (Matthew 3:5-6). But when John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming, he condemned them as hypocrites because they were not bearing fruit worthy of repentance (3:7-8). They looked religious but they were faithless. They were not doing the will of the Father. To put this another way, God wants a repenter and not a pretender. Now hold this message in your mind because Jesus is not done with his teaching. He now wants to tell them another parable, which we read in verse 33.
The Parable of Rebellion (21:33-46)
Yet again Jesus speaks about a vineyard. You will remember in our last lesson that we made the point that vines and fig trees were used repeatedly as symbolic of the nation of Israel. In verse 33 this is especially true as it appears to retell Israel’s story against as it was told by Isaiah the prophet in Isaiah 5. The important point is that as Jesus is telling this parable and the prior parable, the audience would understand the vineyard to symbolically represent the kingdom, the nation of Israel. You can see this in verse 45 where the religious leaders understand that Jesus was talking about them. Verse 33 sets the scene of the landowner perfectly preparing his vineyard and leasing it out to tenant farmers. This was a common practice to let people live on the land as they farmed the land.
The time for the harvest came and the landowner sent his servants to gather his fruit. Again, this is all very normal and expected behavior for the story that is being told. Before we go forward, I want you to observe that Jesus first showed this earlier in this chapter in verses 18-22. Jesus came to the fig tree looking for fruit and the fig tree is cursed for not bearing fruit. In this parable we have the landowner looking for fruit from his vineyard. But what is not normal and expected is the behavior of these tenant farmers. The tenants beat, killed, and stoned the servants that were sent. The landowner even sent more servants for his fruit but they were also shamefully mistreated in the same way as those sent before. So the landowner sends his son expecting that the son’s authority will be enough to have these tenants show respect and give the fruit of the harvest. But notice that their attitude is expressed in verse 38. They are going to kill the son so that they can seize this vineyard for themselves. So they took the son, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. You might hear the subtle accuracy of Jesus’ storytelling because he is directly stating what these leaders are going to do to him. They are going to seize him, take him outside the city walls, and crucify him.
So now the question comes to this audience. What will the owner of this vineyard do to these tenants? The answer again is obvious. They state in verse 41 that the owner will take these wretched people and give them a miserable death. Then the owner will lease out the vineyard to different tenant farmers who will give the owner his fruit at the harvest. You can imagine Jesus staring at these religious leaders and saying, “Exactly!” Notice how Jesus tells them that they are exactly right. He quotes Psalm 118 to show that this is exactly what God prophesied would happen. They are going to reject the Son but their rejection will not be their victory but their defeat because the Son is the cornerstone of this kingdom and the means of the world’s salvation (cf. Psalm 118:19-24). This is exactly what Jesus says in verses 43-44. Their rejection of him was predicted and according to God’s plan. They are not wrecking God’s plan. Their rejection is the plan.
Faithful and Fruitful
There are two key points of application that I want to make from these parables as it relates to our lives today. First, I want us to see clearly who will receive the kingdom of God in verse 43. The kingdom will be taken away and given “to a people producing its fruits.” Those who are not bearing fruit are cast out and eternally judged. God’s message is simple. Belonging to the kingdom means bearing fruit. This is where God does not show favoritism or partiality. Those who belong to God’s kingdom are any people who will produce fruit for the Father. God is not looking for people who say the right things. God wants people who bear fruit by doing the Father’s will.
Now I want you to love our Lord Jesus right here as we draw applications from this first point. First, Jesus knows who is real and who is fake. No one is fooling Jesus. Just because you look like you are righteous and you say that you are doing the will of the Father, he knows if that is true or not. There is no value in being fake. Faking the people around you isn’t doing you any good because God knows you and God knows your heart. Second, God receives those who change their mind and obey. These are notorious sinners that are entering the kingdom. By saying that the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom, Jesus is using those who at that time were considered the worst defiled sinners you could imagine. Therefore, anyone can enter the kingdom of God if they will stop refusing God’s will and go and do what he says. Third, words are not enough. God is not looking for a people who will say they will obey. God is looking for people who will change their lives and obey. It is not enough to confess our sins. It is not enough to utter words of repentance. It is not enough to pray a prayer to God. It is not enough to offer a promise to rededication. God is looking for the act of repentance. God wants us to change our ways and go do what he asks. Do not just say what you are going to do. Put a plan together to change and bear fruit.
Behold Our God
Second, I want us to see our Father in this second parable. Look again at verses 34-37. The owner of the vineyard sends his servants to collect his fruit from the harvest. But tenants beat, kill, and stone those servants. So what does the owner do? He does not do what you would expect. He does not do what any human would do. He sends more servants, more than the first time (21:36). Rather than inflicting immediate judgment for their insolence and rebellion, the owner sends more servants which represents the Father sending even more prophets to his people. Now what would you expect the owner of the vineyard to do after sending servants and then showing grace and sending even more servants? He does what no one would expect and what absolutely no one would do. In verse 37 we read that he sends his son. Now friends, this defies logic. This defies such logic that it borders on absurdity. If you have a bunch of wicked tenants who are using your property and they have mistreated and killed all of your messengers, do you think that you would send your own flesh and blood son? You would do the opposite. You would say that there is no way I am going to send my son if they dishonor me so greatly in the treatment of my messengers. Who would do something so ridiculous as to send his or her own son?
Here is the answer: God would. This is the staggering degree that God loves us. The love, grace, and mercy that God has for his people is so vast and so amazing that we cannot even begin to understand the parable. It does not make sense. The act is so outrageous that you are only left to draw one important conclusion. God must really love us. This what God is trying to tell us. Do you understand how much I love you? But God knows that we don’t. God knows that we can’t. Listen to what the apostle Paul proclaimed:
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:18-19 NRSV)
Paul wants us to understand the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. These are words of truth that we have heard so often that they may have lost their impact on us.
The way God showed his love for the world was that he gave his one and only Son so that everyone who will believe in him will not perish but have eternal life (cf. John 3:16). God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were helpless, ungodly sinners Christ died for us (cf. Romans 5:6-8). But maybe the picture in the parable helps us. God sent his Son because that shows you how much grace he has for you and how much he loves you.
Now I want your jaw to drop. After telling this parable, verses 45-46 reveal that these religious leaders were not moved to repentance but moved to try to arrest Jesus. Friends, do not reject Jesus like these leaders. Let God’s stunning love move you, not to merely say that you repent, but to truly repent. Let God’s love move you to change your mind and go do the Father’s will. God is looking for a people who produce fruit for him because he has done so much for you.