Updated: Oct 9, 2020
“The Parable of the Wicked Tenants”
Marten Van Valckenborch
(1535 – 1612)
painted between 1580 and 1590
"Museum of Fine Arts"
Reflection on the Painting
Marten van Valckenborch was a Flemish Renaissance painter, specialising in landscape scenes, populated with religious or allegorical themes, such as our Parable. We see the vineyard on the left; the landlord sending his son in the top middle; and the wicked tenants mistreating the servants at the bottom right. All the elements of the Parable depicted, in one painting. All the elements of Jesus foreshadowing his own death, in this one Parable.
To put this Parable into context, we should remember that it was not unusual in the First Century for a wealthy investor to buy a farm or a vineyard and then leave it in the care of tenants. It was a concept that all the people listening to this Parable would have been familiar with. Come harvest time, the investor would send someone to collect their portion of the proceeds and thus make a return on their investment. In our Parable, the landowner is God, the vineyard represents Israel, and the tenants are the Jewish religious leadership who were trying to discredit Jesus.
Jesus is recounting in this Parable that His Father sent numerous prophets to Jerusalem, but they were not listened to and were even mistreated. But now God has sent His own Son, Jesus, hoping that He would be listened to … but as we know, He was killed too … Jesus is thus prophesying His own death in this Parable, at the hands of the religious leaders in Jerusalem.
33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time’.
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes?’
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.””
As we compare today’s Parable with the Parable of the Two Sons, we may think that we are still in the same setting. There is no explicit reference to a change of audience. However, as we reach the conclusion of the chapter we realize that this Parable is spoken to the ‘chief priests and the Pharisees’.
First Jesus talked to the ‘chief priests and the elders of the people’, and now the ‘elders of the people’, namely the political authorities, are not present.
This shows three important things about the Gospel of Matthew:
1. That the previous Parable was told by Jesus in a different context and time.
2. That the responsibility for the death of Jesus falls on the religious leaders of his time. This is for two reasons:
a. Because most of the Christians of Matthew’s Community come from a Jewish
background, thus the Gospel does not make the “crowds” directly responsible for
b. Because the Gospel of Matthew was written after the fall of Jerusalem (70 A.D.)
when the Jewish political leaders did not have any political influence, the Gospel
does not insist on their immediate responsibility over his death either.
3. Why does the Gospel stress the role of the “religious authorities”? Because at the time the Gospel was written they persecuted Christians and expelled them from the synagogues.
The theme of the vineyard was used in the OT to refer to the People of Israel.
The Prophet Isaiah wrote a song of love in rather ambiguous terms. We do not know if the vineyard refers to the beloved friend’s bride/spouse or to an unfruitful piece of land.
As we read on, we discover that the friend spent his energies caring and working hard in the land, but the expected fruits do not arrive: is the Prophet saying that this is a barren piece of land or is he talking of an ungrateful bride/spouse? Onlookers would think spontaneously of a woman; however, the Prophet brought a surprise as he compared the vineyard to neither of them, but to the House of Israel.
The ‘Song of his Friend’ is the image of the Chosen People who were unfaithful to God. A story that ends with a bitter note as God decided to destroy the vineyard and make the land permanently barren.
The Vineyard in the Parable
Unlike the text of Isaiah in our Parable, the vineyard is good and bears fruit. The problem resides rather in the tenants. But who are they?
Used to the story of the Prophet Isaiah, the listeners would immediately think that the tenants represent all the People of Israel. The conclusion at the end of the story, however will make the point clear.
If we read the Parable in terms of the Kerygma (the basic proclamation of the Christian Faith), we see that Jesus is the Son of the (heavenly) Landowner who is sent from God and died on the Cross, outside the walls of the City, as it is so well represented in our Artwork today.
However, the story has a turning point when after the violent death of the Son we hear a reference to Psalm 118. All of a sudden the vinedressers become builders and the Son is the Stone.
With this addition, the story does not lose any of its drama, however, it ends on a positive note: the victory of Jesus and his resurrection.
The Story of Israel
God has sent his Prophets not just occasionally, but continuously, and the people did not listen to them. Then God sent His Only Son: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
If we turn to verse 24 we see that his audience did not want to answer the question Jesus posed to them. In the Gospel of Matthew (unlike in Mark who has Jesus answering it) the listeners are forced to take their own conclusion. Jesus said “What will he do to those tenants?”.
The answer turned out to be a self-condemnation, since they understood that “He was speaking about them”.
I think that the full message of the story is revealed in the following verses which are not included in our Sunday text:
“‘The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls’. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.” (Matthew 21:44-46).
The audience of Jesus are not anymore the “chief priests and the elders of the people” but the chief priests and the Pharisees.
The ultimate responsibility for the death of Jesus lies not with the “Jews” in general, but their religious leaders. The Prophet Isaiah had insisted on the unfaithfulness of the People of Israel, Jesus on the contrary shows that those who rebel against God and His Son, are not the people, but the religious authorities.
The initial argument of our story was about the authority of Jesus and it was about Jesus’ authority to justify the ‘cleansing of the Temple’. The answer is now clear: For the people, Jesus is a Prophet, therefore, his authority comes from God.
The religious leaders are not able to accept this truth, however they were afraid of the crowds and they will wait for their opportunity to kill Jesus just before the Jewish Passover. They are the unfaithful tenants who killed the Prophets and will now also kill the Only Son of God.
God has given us a “land” to till and to take care of: our lives as Christians. We live our Baptismal Promises as we take right decisions according to the values of the Gospel. However, being faithful to our Baptism is also about taking responsibility for the faith journey of others. We can be instrumental to elicit faith in other persons: our children, our closest relatives, our friends and co-workers, even non-believers. We contemplate once again our missionary vocation to make disciples through the coherence of our choices in life.
So many times we realize that our society refuses to accept the Gospel. The image of Christ killed outside the walls of Jerusalem is a fitting representation of a world that prefers to keep Christ outside of its own views and interests. We contemplate how Jesus invites us to give the reasons for our faith everywhere.
We see in the image of the landowner of the vineyard a description of the God, the Father:
1. God trusts fully the workers He sent to take care of His vineyard.
2. As each one of us is this ‘vineyard’, a soil able to yield abundant fruit, God has indeed bestowed on us innumerable gifts. We see how God is taking care of us, provides for us and shows his love through his protection.
3. It is very saddening to realize that the chief priests and Pharisees understood Jesus’ words, but didn't respond with a show of repentance. We are reminded that God gives us countless opportunities to come back to Him, and so we contemplate God’s great patience with each one of us.
 Matthew 21: 44  Matthew 21: 23  Isa. 5:1-7: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard”  Hebrews 13:12: “Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood”.  Marten Van Valckenborch (1535-1612): “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants” painted between 1580 and 1590. "Museum of Fine Arts", Vienna (Austria).  Psalm 118: 22-23: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”  Jer. 26:5: “to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently—though you have not heeded”. Jer. 29:19: “Because they did not heed my words, says the Lord, when I persistently sent to you my servants the prophets, but they would not listen, says the Lord”.  Jer. 35:15: “I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now every one of you from your evil way, and amend your doings, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall live in the land that I gave to you and your ancestors’. But you did not incline your ear or obey me”.  Matthew 21:24: ““I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’”  Mark 12:9: “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
 Matthew: 21: 23: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”