THE SON OR THE VINEYARD?
By Brad H. Young, Ph.D.
The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (Luke 20:9-19; Mk. 12:1-12; Mt. 21:33-46), which is told by Jesus upon the Temple Mount during the week prior to His crucifixion, is often considered to explain how the Jewish people were rejected by God and replaced with the Church as the new Israel. The old Israel has passed into oblivion,
according to this interpretation. Here I will suggest that the parable is not about the church but about Jesus Himself. In fact, the traditional teaching about this parable contradicts the message of Jesus. -1-
Has God rejected the Jewish people? Will God break His eternal covenant with the Jewish people in order to establish a new Israel according to the parable? -2- Many Christian teachings on this parable proclaim that Israel has been disinherited and replaced. One must ask the question: Is this the message that Jesus wanted to communicate the week before His passion? Although great validity is given to this approach for the parable, the Bible interpreters who hold the position do not explain the key terms of the illustration or the conclusion of the dramatic story that Jesus tells to the priests on the Temple Mount. What does the key term "husbandmen" mean? What is the significance of the son? Why is he called beloved (Luke 20:13)? Why does Jesus refer to a stone? What in the world did Jesus mean when He said, Every one who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one it will crush him" (Luke 20:18)? None of these questions are answered adequately by New Testament critics who confidently teach that Jesus wanted to disinherit the Jewish people by telling the so-called "Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen."
Is it possible that Christians may not have understood this parable properly? Although many people strongly believe that they are correct when they say that God rejected the Jewish people when they read this parable, they do not understand the key terms of the Gospel passage or the difficult saying about the stone in the parable. Is it possible that Christians have been sincerely wrong about this parable? In fact, dogmatic church doctrine may actually conceal the meaning of Jesus' message. A careful study of the parable reveals that Christians who have accepted the traditional explanation of the parable may actually have rejected Jesus' teaching about Himself! The parable is not about the Church. The story is about Christ.
What did Jesus teach in this parable? A man had a vineyard. He leased it to husbandmen (tenant farmers). The owner of the vineyard sent his servants to collect his portion of the produce from the tenants. The tenants refused to pay the assigned distribution to the servants of the owner of the vineyard. Then, in a shocking turn of events, the owner decides to send his beloved (only) son to collect. The tenants kill his son. Does the parable emphasize the vineyard or the son? -3- The leading figure of the entire story is the son. The main theme of the parable focuses upon the vineyard owner's son, not upon the real estate. Furthermore, at the hart of the story, Jesus proclaims, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner" (Psalm 118:22-23). In conclusion, He goes on to make the curious declaration, "Every one who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one it will crush him" (Luke 20:18). No one will understand the parable unless he or she defines the key terms of the parable in their original Jewish setting in life. The final stone saying is a key verse for the story. The Jewish background provides rich insight into the original message of Jesus.
What should the "Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen" be named? The traditional title of the parable is greatly misleading. It tends to vilify the Jewish people as the "wicked husbandmen" even though the term tenants (husbandmen) can only relate to the corrupt Temple leadership who received their position of authority from Rome (Luke 20:1; Mk. 11:27; Mt. 21:23). Other New Testament scholars have suggested that it should be called the "Parable of the Vineyard." The traditional title emphasizes the actions of the tenants, i.e., the wicked husbandmen. The second suggested title focuses upon the real estate. Is the vineyard the main theme or are the wicked husbandmen the primary emphasis? Parables teach one message. I contend that the most important part of the parable is the son. When the parable's title focuses on the vineyard or the husbandmen, the image of the leading character, the son of the owner, is pushed into the background. When one understands the message of the parable in the original context, it becomes clear that the parable is not primarily concerned with either the wicked husbandmen (i.e., tenant farmers) or the vineyard (land). It is a parable about the son. The story focuses upon Jesus Himself.
The illustration should be titled "The Parable of the Only Son."
The name we give a parable is important. It shows how we understand its controlling idea. What was Jesus trying to say?
The message of the Parable of the Only Son is seldom if ever understood. Those who emphasize the actions of the tenants miss the message. Others who believe that Jesus addresses the issue of the vineyard forget that He is speaking about His own purpose and mission. One must not miss the point of Jesus' illustration. When a man or a woman faces death, especially execution, he or she will consider the pain of suffering before they think about what the Church will be like many years into the future.
The message of Jesus will be heard clearly when one begins by defining three key terms in the story: 1. Husbandmen, 2. Beloved son, and 3. Stone. These key terms must be viewed in light of the parable's Jewish context and the stone saying at the conclusion of the Gospel text.
1. Husbandmen = tenant farmers who live on the land.
First, the husbandmen are not merely farmers. They are tenant farmers who occupy the land in the absence of the landowner. They agree to pay him with a portion of the produce. They live on the land and retain a tremendous amount of control as long as they keep their side of the bargain. They must remember who owns the land and pay him according to their agreement, which was probably about forty percent.
2. Beloved son = only son.
Second, the beloved son in the parable (Luke 20:13), should be translated as the only son. -4- Linguistic studies in both Greek and Hebrew have argued correctly for this meaning of the term beloved. Hence the word beloved in Greek, agapetos, as well as its Hebrew equivalent yachid, both mean "only." The son of the story is the vineyard owner's one and only son (Luke 20:13, see also Mark 12:6, "he had still one other, a beloved [only] son"). -5- This point is vital for the plot of the story parable, because a normal Middle Eastern family of the period would have consisted of several children. The landowner therefore would probably have more than one heir. The single heir developed the intrigue for the story. He had one son. The original audience of the parable understood the plan of the tenants. These tenant farmers devised their scheme and determined their course of action. Since their absentee landlord had only one son and heir, they reasoned that if they killed his son, they would possess the vineyard. After all, they lived on the land, the land owner was not present, and the only heir would be dead. They would be able to claim the vineyard for themselves.
3. Stone = Jesus the Son of David.
Third, the stone mentioned in the end of the illustration is a reference to the son of David. This is confirmed by the Jewish interpretations of Psalm 118:22-23, in light of King David's life. At least the Jewish commentaries of this Psalm related the stone to King David. At the beginning, King David, the greatest of all the kings of Israel, was rejected by the builders. The rabbis said, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner" (Psalm 118:22). 'The builders' [mentioned in the verse] refer to Samuel and Jesse. The words 'has become the head of the corner' refer to David because he became the head [that is, the greatest] of the kings." -6- David was rejected by the builders. They saw his small stature and his red hair (ruddy appearance). They would have preferred one of the other sons of Jesse, but David was chosen and became the greatest of all the kings of Israel. The basic idea of this Jewish commentary on Psalm 118 has been explained in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which preserved Hebrew fragments of the apocryphal Psalm 151. David was not the first choice of Samuel and Jesse; in the Dead Sea Scroll, King David asserts, "Smaller was I than my brothers and the youngest of the sons of my father, so he made me shepherd of his flock... He sent his prophet to anoint me, Samuel to make me great; my brothers went out to meet him handsome of figure and appearance. Though they were tall of stature and handsome by their hair, the Lord God chose them not. But he sent and took me from behind the flock and anointed me with holy oil, and he made me leader of his people and ruler over the sons of his covenant." -7- David as a stone was rejected. But he became, nonetheless, the chief cornerstone.
THE SON, THE STONE, AND THE BUILDERS.
Finally, it should be noted that the key terms in the parable make a play on words. They look and sound alike in Hebrew. The word play focuses on the terms, son (in Hebrew, ben), sons (in Hebrew, banim) or builders (in Hebrew, bonim), stone (in Hebrew, eben) or in the plural stones (in Hebrew, ebenim). In Psalm 118, the stone is rejected by the builders. In the Jewish commentary, the son of Jesse who is despised and rejected becomes the stone of the corner. He is David, the greatest of the kings.
The Jewish literature tells us about how the builders, that is, Samuel the prophet and Jesse the father of David, rejected the future king. They wanted to anoint one of the other sons of Jesse to be king over Israel in the place of Saul. They did not want David to replace Saul. They preferred one of his brothers. But the Lord spoke clearly that though David was not as handsome in appearance, God looked on the inside and saw his heart. God chose David to be king (1 Samuel 16:1-13).
The builders, Samuel the prophet and Jesse, accepted the word of the Lord, and though David was rejected by the builders, he became the head of the corner. Though Psalm 118 did not have a title that ascribed it to David, in Jewish tradition it was related to King David. When Jesus made reference to the Psalm in the conclusion of the parable, it was natural for the listeners to understand that the only son of the owner of the vineyard was the son of David.
The people expected the Messiah to come from the house of David. This is seen in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus is from the house of David. The kingly Messiah was to be called the son of David, ben David. The stone in the parable refers to the son of David.
Though the stone is rejected by the builders, it becomes the head of the corner. In the parable the only son of the vineyard owner is killed. Although he is defeated by death, he is the son who becomes the head of the corner. How can he be successful after he is killed?
The parable is a prophecy about Jesus and recalls the earlier predictions Jesus made about His passion. In the prophecies that Jesus made about His death, one always hears a final word of victory. Jesus tells the disciples, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon; they will scourge him and kill him, and on the third day he will rise" (Luke 18:31-33). He is the son who is rejected and killed. But on the third day He will rise from death.
THE STONE SAYING.
The stone saying at the conclusion of the parable is of primary significance. Without an understanding of the stone saying, the message of the parable will be missed. Jesus concludes the story with a prediction of His future victory. The death of the only son who is rejected by the builders will not hinder the ultimate success of the son of David. Jesus explains:
Key verse: Luke 20:18
What is preferable? Is it better to be broken to pieces or to be crushed? What is Jesus saying to the crowds of people gathered in the Temple?
"Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces but when it falls on any one it will crush him."
The somewhat puzzling saying is not about being broken or crushed. The emphasis of Jesus in this saying, as throughout the parable, is upon the stone. The stone is the theme. It does not make any difference whether one falls on the stone or the stone falls upon him or her. The strong point is clear: No matter what happens the stone remains!
The rabbis give a similar illustration. They speak about the attacks against the Jewish people. The people of Israel are compared to a stone. They teach, "If a stone falls on a pot, woe to the pot! If a pot falls on a stone, woe to the pot! In either case woe to the pot!" -8- In a similar way, the stone remains while the pot is broken. The people of Israel are victorious in spite of the attacks against them. It does not matter if the pot falls on the stone or if the stone falls on the pot. One can easily sense a note of sharp humor in the colorful saying. Perhaps the people standing upon the Temple Mount who listened to the stone saying smiled when Jesus said, "Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces but when it falls on any one it will crush him." The parallel rabbinic saying makes reference to the chosen people. Though the people of Israel are attacked by others, they remain victorious. No matter what happens, the Jewish people survive with a strong faith and a clear identity.
THE STONE AND THE SON OF DAVID.
Jesus is betrayed by one of His close disciples, Judas, who was among the inner circle of his twelve followers. The corrupt leadership of the Sadducean priests, who had received authority over the Temple complex, were willing to cooperate with the Romans. As builders, neither the Romans nor their Sadducean Temple leaders were ready to recognize Jesus as the son of David. The High Priest Caiaphas received his position from the Roman overlords. -9- He realized that someone who claimed to be the son of David or made allusions to a messianic task must be eliminated to save the people from reprisals by Rome (see John 11:48-49). The question of taxes and the purification of the Temple were strong provocation for the Romans and their allies among the Sadducean priests. As a foreign governor, Pilate believed that Barabbas was more dangerous to Rome than Jesus. Since he had to release a prisoner during the feast, he preferred to release Jesus, who was less of a danger in his view. In the end, Jesus' saying about His fate came true. Pilate gave sentence and the Romans crucified Jesus.
Jesus is concerned about the hostility which He will be required to absorb. He has many supporters from among the people on the Temple Mount, though some of the Sadducees cooperated with the Romans. The parable is a way of talking to those who would cooperate with the Romans. Jesus desired to speak prophetically in a non-threatening way. Jesus is sharing His pain with those who will listen. The Parable of the Only Son portrays a strong confidence in the special mission of Jesus.
But one must not forget the pain. Jesus loves all people. His suffering had a higher redemptive purpose. In speaking prophetically about His death, He shared His love with others--even those individuals who desired His death to pacify the Romans and to prevent a national catastrophe. Of great interest is the fact that the large number of people on the Temple Mount strongly supported Jesus. Not only does the conclusion of the parable say that the priests and their scribes "feared the people" (Luke 20:19), which clearly indicates that Jesus had many friends among the crowds gathered together on that day, but also, when they heard about the fate of the son of the vineyard owner, they reacted by saying, "God forbid!" (Luke 20:16). Apparently, they were shocked by the fate of the son and did not desire to see His death. Perhaps these supporters of Jesus on the Temple Mount were like the Pharisees who warned Jesus when Herod Antipas wanted to kill Him (Luke 13:31).
In all events, the so-called "Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen" would be better titled, "The Parable of the Only Son." Not only does Jesus speak about his special task as the son of David but also he speaks about His future victory. The stone remains. Moreover if the stone saying is studied in light of the passion predictions of Jesus, one sees that each time Jesus mentions His death He also prophesies that on the third day He will rise. The traditional interpretation of the parable has focused upon an ecclesiology. Wrongly, they teach that the parable is about the Church. The new Israel replaces the old. In reality, the parable is about Christology. Perhaps it is the most messianic text in the Gospels.
Jesus is saying that, though the son (ben) will be killed, He is the stone (eben) which cannot be moved or destroyed. The stone will attain the final victory. The stone rejected by the builders becomes the chief cornerstone. Even in death He will triumph. The stone cannot be stopped. His victory, moreover, is also the ultimate triumph of the people. Jesus will triumph and His victory will be complete. Death cannot defeat Jesus the Son of David! He is the stone that becomes the head of the corner.
-1- I have discussed the parable in my book, Jesus and His Jewish Parables (Paulist Press, 1989). Here I have summarized the results of my earlier study with some practical application. Return
-2- On this vital theological issue, see the important work of Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham (Eerdmans, 1989) and Clemens Thoma, A Christian Theology of Judaism (Paulist Press, 1980). See especially the long foreword to Thoma's book by David Flusser. Wilson's treatment of the subject is creating a strong foundation for study. Return
-3- The strong emphasis on the wrong approach is based upon the verse, "...he [the owner of the vineyard] will destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others" (Luke 20:16) and the text unique to Matthew, "...the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it" (Matthew 21:43). I have treated these texts extensively in my book Jesus and His Jewish Parables (cited above in note 1). Here I would emphasize that the vineyard is merely a part of the background stage which is set to focus attention on the overwhelming figure of the only son. One must listen carefully for the one point that a parable is teaching. Cf. also David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Magnes Press, 1988), pgs 552-574. Return
-4- I greatly appreciate the rich insight of R.L. Lindsey and his treatment of the Gospel of Luke in his work A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (Baptist House, 1973). Dr. Lindsey has shown that Luke preserves the Semitic text of the Gospels and the original Hebrew flavor of the teaching of Jesus. I am grateful to Dr. R.L. Lindsey and Prof. David Flusser for their comments concerning the "only son" in the parable. Return
-5- On the question of the best translation of the term "only" agapetos in the parable, see Jesus and His Jewish Parables, pg 309 notes 15 and 16. C.H. Turner, in his article which appeared in the Journal of Theological Studies 27 (1926), pgs 113-129, made the point quite clearly. David Flusser argued for this meaning of the text (private communication). Return
-6- Midrash Hagadol on Deuteronomy 1:17 (Fisch, pg 32) and see Jesus and His Jewish Parables, pg 313, note 37. Return
-7- Psalm 151, the apocryphal Psalm attributed to Kind David, which was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (see also the Greek version in the LXX). See J.A. Sanders, Discoveries in the Judean Desert, the Psalms Scroll of Qumran 11, (Oxford, 1965), pgs 48-56. See also the Hebrew article by David Flusser and S. Safrai, "Shire David Hechitzoneyim," Sefer Zikaron Layehoshua Grintz (Tel Aviv, 1982), pg 84 and pg 92. See my discussion, Jesus and His Jewish Parables, pg 313. Return
-8- Esther Rabbah 7:10 and see P. Billerbeck, Das Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, vol. 1, pg 877 and A. Hyman, Toldot Tannaim Veamoraim, vol. 3, pgs 1189-1191. Return
-9- On the trial of Jesus, see especially David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, pgs 575-609. Return
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Brad Young received his doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1987. His dissertation, written under Professor David Flusser's supervision, was titled "The Parable as a Literary Genre in Rabbinic Literature and in the Gospels." His dissertation is now available in book form titled, Jesus and His Jewish Parables. It is published by Paulist Press, 997 MacArthur Blvd., Mahwah, N.J. 07430, 201-825-7300
While at the Hebrew University, Dr. Young served as a graduate assistant to Professor David Flusser, Chairman of the Department of Comparative Religion.
Dr. Young is now  teaching at the Graduate School of Theology at Oral Roberts University, where he is the Associate Professor of New Testament Studies.
Yavo Digest, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1991
Bible Scholars: Question the Answers
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