Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen
The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen is a parable of Jesus found in three of the four canonical gospels (Luke 20:9–19, Mark 12:1–12, and Matthew 21:33–46), and in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. It describes a householder planting a vineyard and letting it out to husbandmen, who failed in their duty.
The parable (from Matthew)
From the King James Bible, here is the parable as Matthew has written it :
- There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country: And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it.
- And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise.
- But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son. But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him.
- When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen? They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons. Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?
- Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.
- And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet 
All the Synoptic versions of the parable state that the priests of the Sanhedrin understood that Jesus' parable was directed against them, and thus that they are the husbandmen. The term husbandman is translated as tenant or farmer in the New International Version and as vine-grower in the New American Standard Bible. Workers often tended absentee estates and if the owner had no heirs the workers would have the first right to the land.
The description of the vineyard is from Isaiah 5. Using a vineyard as a metaphor to describe Israel was a common practice for religious discourse at the time. It could also be God's covenant, or perhaps the world itself. The produce made at the vineyard might be a metaphor for all the good produced by the people, which the authorities are not sharing with God, and trying to keep for themselves. The produce of the vineyard might also be the people themselves, as people are what the government tends.
The owner of the vineyard is God and the son is Jesus. A common interpretation of the servants is that of the Jewish prophets, although they could be all of God's preceding messengers. The meaning of the "others" who will be given the vineyard is debated. Some proposed interpretations have seen them as other Jews, or Christians, or maybe even the Jewish Christians. They are usually seen as the new Christian community.
As a consequence of these interpretations, the parable is usually interpreted as saying that God (the owner), keeps sending prophets (servants) to collect what is due, the grapes, a symbol of good. The priests (leaseholders) however refuse to comply with the prophets and instead hurt each one worse than they did the previous, wanting ever more control of Israel (the vineyard) for themselves; but when they finally kill the son, God (the owner) will revoke their right to Israel (the vineyard), and give it the followers of Jesus (the others) instead. God had granted his vineyard, his covenant, his land that produces grapes, symbolizing good, to his workers, the Jewish priests or all the world's authorities, to be worked for his benefit. Yet when he sends someone to collect what is due, the prophets of the past, his tenants refuse to pay up and hurt each succeeding servant worse than the last, meaning the increasing disregard of the will of God. God has given the vineyard to be worked for God's benefit but the husbandmen seem to want to keep the produce, indeed control of the vineyard, for themselves. When they finally kill his son who came to collect what was due, God decides that he has made a mistake by granting the vineyard to them and takes it back and gives it to those he thinks will be more trustworthy.
Jesus is thus criticizing the Jewish authorities directly for rejecting God's will, and for their treatment of Jesus himself, Jesus being the son of the parable. The husbandmen could also be seen as all of humanity as it is stated that they are the ones who killed the son, Jesus being killed by the Romans at the request of the Jews.
People have seen meanings in the other elements of the story, such as the far country being heaven, or more abstractly the time between Moses and Jesus, but there is no general agreement on these elements of the story.
There also seems to be a direct historical reference by Jesus to Sennacherib, king of Assyria, some 700 years previous. Sennacherib conquered Babylon at the time that Hezekiah was king of Judah, and set up several rulers over the city, all of whom were overthrown. Finally, he sent his son and heir apparent Assur-nadin-sumi to rule, but after a short time, he was also killed. Finally, Sennacherib himself went to Babylon and destroyed the city stone by stone, and placed a curse on it that it should not be rebuilt for seventy years.
Is Jesus saying that the chief priests and perhaps the Roman authorities must be replaced? That Judaism will be reformed or, as Christians largely hold, replaced by Christianity? Or that all of humanity's old ways are to be replaced by the new way taught by Jesus? He is also telling this to the priests who know it is about them, so Jesus is accusing them of wanting to kill him, predicting that they will, and that they will lose their deal with God as punishment.
Jesus seems to refer to himself as a stone on which a building is built. The building would seem to be the new Christian community. Jesus predicts he will be rejected, perhaps meaning his death. This passage is a quote from Psalm 118:22–23. Many writers of the New Testament used this Psalm to sum up their understanding of Jesus' death as part of his role as the messiah. The Psalm refers to someone being saved from death by God. It is notable that the Hebrew word for son, ben, is almost the same as stone, 'eben, which might be what generated seeing Jesus as a stone. Since the synoptics state Jesus said this in the Temple, this could reflect their view of Jesus as replacing the function of the Temple, bringing God's presence to humanity. God takes away the vineyard not for hurting or killing his servants but his son, showing how much he valued his son, and the quote shows the son's importance in God's new plan for the vineyard.
The saying about the stone being rejected by the builders technically refers to a cornerstone, but it is almost universally interpreted to mean a keystone, and without that meaning the saying has very little significance. As a keystone, it is essentially an allegory for people rejecting the single most important thing (without a keystone, an arch built from sections will collapse). Metaphorically, the saying, in the context of the Synoptics, is interpreted as a direct criticism of the priests for rejecting what was most important. Scholars are divided though, whether the stone is supposed to be Jesus himself, or whether it is just the teachings he gives.
Skeptics usually hold that Jesus did not really predict his own death and that predictions of this sort are examples of vaticinium ex eventu, prophecy after the fact. This could be seen as referring to the new Church's belief that they had superseded Judaism through Jesus' death, resurrection and role as the messiah. Others think it might be a reference to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem as seen by Christians as God's punishment for Jesus' death and their assumption that their new communities were the new Temple. There is no mention in the parable of the method of Jesus' death, crucifixion, or resurrection, unless the Psalm quote is counted. The son is killed outside the vineyard, which might be a reference to Jesus' death outside the city of Jerusalem, although in Mark's version of this parable he is killed inside and then thrown out.
Seeing Jesus as a "stone" to build on precedes Jerusalem's destruction however. Paul, in his letter to the Romans chapter 9:33, refers to Jesus as a stone. Paul does not use the Psalms for his scriptural support but instead uses quotes from Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16. Luke stated, probably after Jerusalem's destruction, in Acts of the Apostles 4:11 that Peter used the same Psalm to describe Jesus shortly after Jesus' death. 1 Peter, which most scholars consider pseudepigraphal, uses both Isaiah and the Psalm as references in 2:6–8.
The parable, according to the Q hypothesis, probably appeared first in Mark, then was copied and slightly altered by Matthew and Luke. Mark's source is in dispute, with the earliest tradition given by Papias as Mark's source being Peter. It is also found in the Gospel of Thomas as sayings 65–66, who some have suggested preceded the canonical Gospels, although its dating is still largely uncertain to scholars.
Here is the version of this parable that appears in Thomas (Patterson–Meyer Translation):
- 65. He said, "A [...] person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard's crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, 'Perhaps he didn't know them.' He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, 'Perhaps they'll show my son some respect.' Because the farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!"
- 66. Jesus said, "Show me the stone that the builders rejected: that is the keystone."
The part about the stone which has been rejected by the builders appears in the three canonical gospel accounts as well, but appears within the parable, instead of afterwards as a separate thought as it does here in the Gospel of Thomas. It also lacks Jesus' short explanation between the two found in the Synoptics.
The Gospels claim Jesus told this parable, but his statement about the stone seems to be taken from the Septuagint version of the Psalms, a version written in Koine Greek and associated with Hellenistic Judaism. There has been much skepticism over whether Jesus really said it, at least in this form, as he would probably have said it in Aramaic or Hebrew, although the Gospel authors may have used the only version of Jewish scripture they had available to them for composition. They might have also used the Greek version as they were writing for a Greek speaking audience. If both Matthew and Luke took it from Mark and kept the quote they thought Jesus had really said it. Jesus also uses it in Thomas in almost the same form.
Matthew's version states the method of killing the third servant, stoning, which the other versions lack. Stoning might be a reference to Christian martyrs' deaths, perhaps the death of James the Just. Matthew also has the priests say that the husbandmen should be thrown out, a joke on them when they later realize they are the husbandmen, although Mark and Luke have Jesus say that to them. Both Luke and Matthew have a statement about the stone's destructive power that Mark lacks.
Irenaeus used this parable to defend the link between Judaism's God and Jesus, in his Adversus Haereses. If one sees the servants as the Jewish prophets, then the owner who sent them must then be the same father of the son in the story, who are God the Father and Jesus, so the God of the Jews must also be Jesus' father. Marcion held that Jesus was not the son of the God described in the Jewish scriptures. Some have transferred this parable against the Jewish authorities to all Jews and have used it to justify anti-semitism, although all the books agree it was directed against the chief priests, who were Sadducees, not the Jewish people in general.
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- Brown, Raymond E. et al. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary Prentice Hall 1990 ISBN 978-0-13-614934-7
- Kilgallen, John J. A Brief Commentary on the Gospel of Mark Paulist Press 1989 ISBN 978-0-8091-3059-7