We will actually cover two parables in this study, since Matthew ties them together (“Listen to another parable”, v.33) and indicates that they have the same target (“When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them”, v.45). As ever, when we read teaching like this addressed to Pharisees, we should instinctively assume it probably applies to people like us: the apparently religiously keen and observant.
The first parable is very brief and fairly simple. The two sons represent the two groups of people Jesus refers to in vv.31,32. The first son represents the tax collectors and prostitutes, whose lives had been marked by a blatant rejection of God’s demands, but whose repentance means they are “entering the kingdom of God” and are relating rightly to God. In contrast the second son represents those who loudly proclaim their commitment to God and say all the right things, but don’t obey. Jesus mentions John the Baptist, since in the preceding verses Jesus has clearly associated his ministry with that of John’s, and linked their refusal to respond rightly to John with their failure to recognize his authority. Implied is the fact that the obedience the Father especially wants to see is a lived out proper response to Jesus (and not mere professions of commitment and talking the talk).
The second parable is extraordinary in that it is the most allegorical of all the parables and because it is autobiographical in a prophetic way. It is worth noting that the image of the vineyard was commonly used in the old testament to speak of the People of God. The landowner clearly represents God, whose care and patience and expectation are described. The tenants refer to those given the responsibility of looking after the vineyard – for God, not for their own gain – which at the time meant the religious leadership (so v.45). The servants are the prophets; the son clearly is Jesus himself. The tenants’ treatment of the servants shows their refusal to acknowledge their responsibility to the owner and his claim on the vineyard. We need not imagine the thought expressed in v.38 lay consciously behind the imminent putting to death of Jesus, but the wickedness of what they were shortly to do is laid bare. The crowd deliver the verdict themselves (v.41), though they perhaps did not understand the import of the parable (they might have supposed for instance that the tenants represented the Romans).
Jesus then moves from speaking of the rejected son to speaking of the rejected stone. He had spoken of his forthcoming death and resurrection (eg 20:19); if the fate of the son pointed to his coming death, the stone saying pointed to his resurrection and vindication. Rejection of Jesus was not only profoundly evil, it was futile and foolish. God’s requirement of fruit stands: v.43 is not only a warning to Israel’s leadership, speaking of new tenants (ie the apostles), but is phrased so as to be a warning to all Israel. The blindness of sin is clearly seen in the Pharisees response. We would do well to reflect on our fruitfulness, and our tendency to ignore our responsibility to God – all we do, all we have is for him.