The Wicked Tenants

Why Did Jesus Die?

This question is not meant as a theological question. What was the immediate cause of His death? When speaking of an “immediate cause,” we are looking at the final act in a series of provocations. What was Jesus saying or doing that led to his crucifixion?

The aspect of Jesus’ message that is often focused upon, is His teaching about the “Good News of the Kingdom of God.” Jesus famously offers blessings to the poor, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness in the “Beatitudes.” (Matt. 5:2-11; Luke 6:20 – 22). In His first recorded sermon in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberty to the oppressed (Luke 4:18, 19). His teaching was very popular among the poor, the outcasts and the oppressed. But there is another aspect to Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus’ teaching centered around a great reversal. In this teaching, those who have been suffering, will finally find deliverance. There is another side to the great reversal. That the “first shall become last and the last become first” is good news if you are currently last. However, it is bad news for those who are currently first. It turns out that Jesus’ Good News was not Good News for everyone. The Good News contained both deliverance and judgment.

In 21st century America, it is easy to forget that Jesus saw himself as the last in a long list of Jewish prophets, who declared judgment against the leaders of His day. Although the Beatitudes are familiar, less known are Jesus’ series of “woes” to the rich, those who are full now, and those who laugh (Luke 6:24 – 26). The entire 23rd chapter of the book of Matthew is dedicated to Jesus’ list of woes to the Scribes and Pharisees.

Jesus concludes his message to the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew by declaring: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore, I send you prophets, and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify …” (Matt. 23:33, 34a ESV). The second half of the great reversal was Jesus’ teaching that declared judgment on the Jewish political and religious leaders, and ultimately, judgment on Israel itself. Let’s take a deeper look at Jesus’ message of judgment.

A great place to begin is the Parable of the Wicked Tenants which is recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 21:33 -43; Mark 12: 1 -12; Luke 20: 9 -20). In this parable, Jesus directly challenges the political and religious leaders.

In this story, the “master of the house” plants a vineyard, leaves for another country entrusting his property to his tenants. At harvest time, the master sent servants to “get his fruit.” The tenants viewed the vineyard as their own to do with as they pleased. They took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned yet another. The master sent more servants, who received the same treatment as the first.

“Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” (Matt 21:37 ESV). They killed the master’s son as well. Finally, the owner had enough, and meted out judgement for their horrific insubordination. He killed those tenants “and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in his season.” (Matt. 21:41 ESV). This thinly veiled metaphor was directed to the Jewish leadership that had been thoroughly unfaithful to God’s purposes. God was going to overthrow the Jewish political and religious leaders and replace them with another. The leaders got the message (Matt 21:45)

In the story of the tenants, it is easy to connect Jesus with the master’s son. As such, Jesus placed himself in a long line of rejected prophets who admonished Israel to change. Although we might not often think of Jesus as a prophet of Israel’s demise, the theme of judgment in his teachings was pervasive. In the Gospels, Jesus’ teaching about Israel’s judgment begins with the ministry of John the Baptist.

As John the Baptist was baptizing people in the Jordan River as a symbol of their repentance, he had a special prophetic word for a group of Pharisees and Sadducees who emerged from the crowd: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come…Even now, the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (Matt. 3:7, 9 ESV). In keeping with the theme of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, he tells them not to take comfort in their Jewish ancestry. They could be replaced. “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Matt. 3:9).

Their ancestry did not bestow on them a special status, instead it bestowed a special responsibility which they had forfeited. John went on to foretell that the one coming after him, Jesus, would be the one who would bring the winnowing fork of judgment in his hand. John saw Jesus’ ministry as bringing God’s judgment to its final conclusion.

The pinnacle of Jesus’ teaching on the judgement of Israel can be found in His Olivet discourse. (Matt 24:1-51; Mark 13: 1 – 36; Luke 21: 5 -24). Although the Olivet Discourse may address other prophetic concerns, its immediate context is the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel’s demise.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has just lamented of Jerusalem’s fate: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37 ESV cf. Luke 13:34). Once again, Jesus mentions how often Israel had rejected God’s prophets and refused to repent. A hen gathered her chicks under her wings to protect them. Jesus wanted to protect Jerusalem from judgment, but they were bent on their own destruction.

Immediately after Jesus’ lament, his disciples pointed to the Temple in reverent awe. Jesus responded by declaring that the Temple would be destroyed beyond all recognition. His disciples then asked, “When will these things be?” This question about the Temple’s destruction was the catalyst for Jesus’ Mount Olivet Discourse.

Jesus described the pandemonium of people fleeing Jerusalem: “Let those in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house… Pray your flight man not be in the winter or on the Sabbath.” (Matt. 24: 16 -20 ESV Luke 21:21 – 23)). Luke’s rendering adds some additional detail: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Luke21:20 ESV).

Luke ended his portrait of Jerusalem’s destruction with these words: “They will be trampled under sword by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:24 ESV). Why mention “the time of the Gentiles”? The implication is that the time of Jews has ended. The Jews were no longer central to God’s plan – at least until the times of the Gentiles were fulfilled. Although Parable of the Wicked Tenants doesn’t state who the new tenants will be, here, Luke made it quite clear for his audience that God’s new tenants would be Luke’s own readers: The Gentiles.

Another parable, in which Jesus gave a clue to whom those new tenants would be, can be found in the Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:16 – 24 cf. Matt. 22:1-14). In this parable, a man gave a great banquet, but all those who were invited made excuses. After all his friends had rejected his invitation, the master of the house became angry and told his servant to go quickly and “bring the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Luke 14:21 ESV).

These are the same groups of people Jesus had just told the Pharisees they should invite to their parties (Luke 14:13). The inclusion of the maimed is significant, because they were banned from full participation in Jewish worship (Lev 21:17- 23). The invitations are extended to the most marginalized in Judaism. To go throughout the “roads and streets” of the city would be the place that the beggars, the poor, and maimed would be found.

Those who had previously been excluded and ignored were now sought out and invited. For Matthew, those invited then included the “bad and the good.” Matthew’s word order placed the emphasis on the “bad.” In other words, those who would have been deemed “sinners” (tax collectors, prostitutes) were now invited. In Matthew’s account, the initial messengers were shamefully treated and killed. These messengers can clearly be seen as an allegory for heralding Old Testament prophets who Jewish leaders had rejected time-after-time. In the context of this parable in both Matthew and Luke, it was the Scribes and Pharisees who forfeited their seats and the banquet table.

During Holy Week, almost immediately after His Triumphal Entry, Jesus cleansed the Temple (Matt 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:46.-48). At the time of the Passover, Jewish pilgrims came from all over the Mediterranean world to bring their yearly Temple tax (half-shekel) as an act of piety. Most pilgrims would have brought pagan coins with idolatrous images on them. These coins had to be exchanged for Tyrian silver, the official coin of the Temple tax. Pilgrims could also purchase animals to sacrifice at the Temple market. These transactions would have required money-changes. Jesus turned over the tables of the money-changers and drove everyone out who sold livestock for sacrifices, famously saying “’ house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luke 19.:46 cf, Matt 21:13, Mark 11:15 ESV).

Jesus quoted Isaiah 56:7 here. Mark’s Gospel alone completes the quote: “a house of prayer for all nations.” The Greek word “nations” can also be translated “Gentiles,” which is the thrust of the passage in Isaiah. In Isaiah 56, the prophet envisioned a day when Gentiles would worship together with Jews at the Temple: “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people;’… the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD and to be his servants…these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful n my house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:3 – 7 ESV).

Mark’s inclusion of the phrase “for all nations” seems to be deliberate. The Temple market was a new addition to the Temple compound. Previously, the sale of sacrificial animals and the money changing occurred on Mount Olivet, just outside of Jerusalem’s walls. In 30 A.D., the High Priest, Caiaphas, allowed traders to move across the valley into the Temple area known as the Court of the Gentiles. This was the only area in which Gentiles were allowed. Many Jews at the time thought Caiaphas’ move desecrated the Temple. Furthermore, by establishing a market in the Court of the Gentiles, the High Priest was denying Temple access to the Gentiles, violating the very spirit of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Although the meaning of Jesus’ action of cleansing the Temple is lost on its 21st Century readers, those living in Palestine at that time would have seen it as a prophetic declaration of judgment of the Temple and the Temple Leadership – the High Priest and the Sadducees. It’s in this immediate literary context that Jesus issued the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-41; Mark 12:1-9; Luke 20:9-16), making it clear that the cleaning of the Temple was a foreshadowing of judgment of the wicked tenants. This imagery was not lost on Jesus’ chief priests: “after the chief priest and the scribes heard it [Jesus’ quote of Isaiah 56:7] and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.” (Mark 11:18 ESV)

It was the heart of Jesus’ message that brought Good News to the outcasts and the sinners, that also declared judgment on the Jewish leadership. Jesus’ message of judgment against the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and High Priests not only angered the Jewish leaders of His day, but because of Jesus’ popularity with the people, Jesus had become a real threat to their leadership. Embedded in Jesus’ message of judgment was the concept of the “new tenants.” Israel’s rejection of Him had sealed their fate. Now God would raise another “tenant.”

The time of the Jews was over — the death of Jesus marked the dawning of the days of the Gentiles. This message was not an invention of the church in Acts or the Apostle Paul. It was central to Jesus’ own teaching. Jesus’ fully anticipated the incorporation of the Gentiles into the people of God. These new people of God – the new tenants – were the new wineskins for new wine of which Jesus spoke. Next, we will look at how in his own lifetime, Jesus prepared his followers for the day when Gentiles would be included among the people of God.


  1. I am indebted to N.T. Wright’s work for this starting point. N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Fortress Press, 1992 pg 4 – 77.
  2. Darrel l. Bock, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Luke, Baker Bookhouse, 1996, pg. 1276
  3. Luke T. Johnson, Sacra Pagina Volume 3: The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, pg. 299
  4. Grant R. Osborne, The Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament: Matthew, Zondervan, 2010, pg. 664, 762
  5. ibid.
  6. Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew