Commentary. This parable begins much like Isaiah 5:1-2 (the reading from the OT accompanying our gospel). It is the third parable in Matthew with a vineyard setting (20:1-16, the workers in the vineyard; 21:28-32, the two sons). What does the vineyard represent? In Isaiah it represents Israel and many have assumed that is its meaning in the parable, e.g., the vineyard = Israel; the tenants = religious leaders; landowner’s slaves = prophets whom they rejected. With this interpretation, we note that the vineyard is not destroyed, but turned over to new tenants. To use another biblical metaphor, the unfaithful, greedy shepherds are removed (Mt 9:36; Ezekiel 34) and new shepherds are installed to care for the sheep.
A Matthean Emphasis. In the context of Matthew’s gospel the vineyard takes on a broader, more universal meaning. Rather than simply, “Israel,” the vineyard is generally taken to mean the Kingdom of God. Remember that entry into the Kingdom was central to the closing warning in the parable of the Two Sons that immediately preceded our text.
Another theme that continues from the preceding parable is the importance of actions that reflect the value of the kingdom. The chief priests and elders of Jerusalem are criticized for a manner of living out their faith that is inconsistent with God’s call; they refuse to change their hearts in the face of the prophetic actions of Jesus. They understand that to acknowledge his authority means to abdicate theirs. They not only say nothing in response to Jesus’ question; they do nothing. As seen in the parable of the Two Sons, bearing fruit is expected of all disciples.
In today’s parable, four times the word karpos (“fruit”) appears in the text, although not always translated that way [v. 34 literally “time of the fruits” = NAB’s “vintage time;” 34 and 41 literally “fruits” = NAB’s “produce;” and in v.43 translated as “fruits”]. By comparison the word karpos occurs once in Mark’s version (12:2) of this parable. Matthew’s use of this theme/image is consistent across his gospel (see also: 3:8, 10; 7:16-20; 12:33; 13:8, 23). It is central to this parable.
There are some significant differences between Mk 12:2 (At the proper time he sent a servant to the tenants to obtain from them some of the produce of the vineyard) and Mt 21:34 (When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce). In Mark the servant is sent “at the proper time” (kairos); the implication is that the fruit was ripe and thus the time to harvest the fruit was here. Yet in Matthew vintage time (kairos) of the fruits “drew near.” In other words, the fruit was almost ripe, but not quite. The expression is the way in which Matthew speaks of the in-breaking of the kingdom (3:2; 4:17; 10:7) and of Jesus’ hour (26:45) pointing to the coming (here, but not fully here) sense of God’s kingdom breaking into our time (chronos).
It is perhaps noteworthy that in Mark the landowner seeks to receive “some of the produce,” literally, “a share” of the fruit of the vineyard. Presumably the workers get to keep their share. But in Matthew the landowner seeks to receive “his produce,” possibly implying “all,” since he owned the entire vineyard. This may well be the meaning when one considers v.41:” give him the produce at the proper times.”
Owning Land. In the parable of “The Two Sons,” when the chief priests and elders remain silent in the face of Jesus’ question, in v.41 the leaders of Jerusalem have no problem in answering when Jesus asks: “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?”. They do so quiet immediately and with some vehemence: “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death.” The tone and tenor of the response indicated that this parable has hit close to home. The story of an absentee landowner reflects a familiar economic situation at the time; some of the chief priests and elders to whom Jesus is speaking would probably have owned land away from Jerusalem. The landowner must be a wealthy man, because a newly planted vineyard could not be expected to produce fruit for at least four years, during which he would have no return on his capital outlay. Once the vines began to bear fruit there would be an agreed proportion of the crop due to the owner, leaving the tenants to derive their living from the rest. The fault of the tenants in withholding the due produce is compounded by the violence upon the servants. This fault is massively compounded by their decision to murder the owner’s son and so to attempt to take over the property.
Matthew 21:33 planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower: The hedge, wine press, and watchtower are the standard equipment of a first century vineyard and are not only allegory. Nonetheless, the vineyard evokes the image of Isa 5:1–7 in which the elements together point to the allegory of vineyard=Israel. It should also be noted that the targums (Aramaic translations of the OT with additional commentary) indicated that the “tower” represented the Temple in the mind of at least part of 1st century Jewish thought.
Matthew 21:24 when vintage time: the Greek expression ho kairos tōn karpōn is “the time of the fruit.” Such as translation tends to obscure Matthew’s repeated reference to “fruits,” twice in v.34 and again in v. 41. It is only in v.43 that karpōn is literally translated.
Matthew 21:34 tenants: There are some commentaries that suggest a Roman identification for the tenants. This seems to be an effort at ameliorating anti-Semitic sentiments and connecting this parable with the Roman responsibility for the crucifixion. The identification of the tenants as the current Jerusalem leadership is exacted both by the context in which this parable is set (as still part of Jesus’ response to the chief priests and elders, which began in v. 27) and by the explicit comment in v. 45.