The parable of the wicked husbandmen occurs in all three of the synoptic gospels. It is also called the parable of the wicked vinedressers or the parable of the bad tenants. But what significance, if any, does the parable hold for us today?
What Is the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen?
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During His ministry, Jesus told the parable of the wicked vinedressers. The parable is about a landowner who had a vineyard that he loved.
He did all he could to make it the best vineyard possible before hiring people to tend it for him. After the vineyard is leased by the vinedressers, the vineyard owner goes to a foreign country.
When it was time for the harvest, the landowner sent a servant to collect his portion. But the wicked husbandmen treated his servants abominably. They killed one, stoned one, and beat another.
The landowner sends a larger group with the same results. Finally, the landowner sent his son thinking they would respect him more than they had the hired servants.
But when the wicked husbandmen saw the land owner’s son, they decided to kill the heir hoping to get the estate for themselves.
They murdered the landowner’s son. You can read the full parable of the wicked husbandmen in Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1–12, and Luke 20:9–19.
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What are Vinedressers?
Some translations call the wicked husbandmen vinedressers. The Greek word used in the parable is geōrgós, (pronounced gheh-ore-gos’) and could also have been translated as a land-worker, i.e. farmer, or husbandman.
A vinedresser or husbandman would have been hired to work the land. They would oversee the growing and harvest of the crop. They leased the land and worked it with the understanding that the vineyard ultimately belonged to the landowner.
What is the Meaning of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants?
As we seek to understand the meaning of the parable of the wicked husbandmen, there are a number of things we need to note in the tale.
- The characters in the parable
- The actions taken
- The final result
The key to understanding a parable is to use the Bible and images common at the time to help with the explanation.
The characters in the parable of the wicked tenants
There were four main characters or character groups in this parable:
- The landowner
- The tenants
- The servants of the landowner
- The landowner’s son
Let’s look at each character in turn as we seek to understand the parable of the tenants.
The landowner in the parable of the wicked husbandmen
Typically in Scripture, the landowner is used to represent God. You can see an example of this in Matthew 20:1-16. Let’s consider all that the landowner had to do and see if we can see any parallels between him and our Heavenly Father.
1. The landowner had to choose the right location for the vineyard. Grapes require the right temperature, irrigation, altitude, quality of sunlight, and amount of frost-free period to prosper. The landowner had to consider all these factors as he chose the location for his vineyard.
2. He had to research the quality, types, and depth of the soil. He had to think about things like the quality and source of the water, how he would irrigate his field, the distance to the nearest vineyards, and the cost of the land.
3. He had to decide what type of grapes to plant based on what would do well in that area. Then he had to actually plant them. Planting involves marking the rows, planting stakes, digging holes for each pot (which contained a plant that had been nurtured to get the roots established). It also involved putting just the right amount of space between each plant to allow them to flourish.
4. He had to mix the soil and ensure that it is watered and fertilized. He dug a wine vat so that the harvest of grapes can be fermented onsite.
5. He built a hedge so that the vineyard was protected, the borders were clearly defined. It had the added benefit of beautifying the vinery.
6. He built a tower so that the tenants would be able to watch over the grapes to protect them from unwanted elements such as predators and thieves. The tower provided a cool place to store the harvested grapes so they would not ferment. The tower also provided shelter for the families of the vinedressers so they could live in the vineyard instead of travelling back and forth each day.
Now I’m not telling you all of this so that you can go and plant a vinery (unless you really want to). Rather, I want you to think about the care that the landowner took to prepare this vineyard. A vineyard which he then leased out to persons who basically reaped the benefit without the initial investment. Doesn’t that sound like our Heavenly Father?
Who are the servants in the parable of the tenants?
The word translated as servants is the Greek word doûlos, (pronounced doo’-los). ; A doûlos is a slave (literal or figurative, involuntary or voluntary), in other words, a bond(-man) or servant.
After Christ’s ascension, doûlos was commonly used by the apostles in reference to themselves. For example, in Romans 1:1, Paul calls himself a doûlos of Christ. James, Peter, and Jude also used the same word to refer to themselves (see James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1, Jude 1:1).
The word doûlos was also used in reference to those who follow or serve Christ (Acts 16:17, Ephesians 6:6, Colossians 4:12, Revelation 1:1).
The servants then, refer to those who serve the Lord and do His bidding. Based on how the servants of the landowner were treated, we can find parallels in the Old Testament treatment of the prophets.
Jesus’ own words also testify about the poor treatment of God’s prophets who were sent to warn Israel.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Luke 13:34 ESV
Who are the tenants in the parable of the bad tenants?
To understand who the tenants are in the parable of the vineyard, it’s necessary to read what happened before Jesus told the parable. While there are slight variations in the three accounts about what happened immediately before the parable, all three gospel writers mention the questioning of Jesus’ authority (Mark 11:27-33).
While Jesus was in the Temple, the chief priests, scribes, and elders asked Jesus who had given Him the authority to speak the way He did. Since Jesus knew exactly what they were trying to accomplish, He asked them a question instead of answering.
“The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men?” – Mark 11:30 KJV
The thing about this question is that the answer was obvious to all who had accepted Jesus as the Son of God. It was only those who chose to deny His identity that had a problem with the answer.
After they failed to answer the question, Jesus told the parable of the tenants. At the end of His account, the leaders were angry because they understood that Christ had told the parable against them (Matthew 21:45).
But it wasn’t just the scribes and Pharisees who were implicated in this parable. If you were to look at how the prophets were treated in the Old Testament, you’d understand that it was the entire nation that was represented as the tenants of the vineyard.
Israel had been given the role of prophets and priests to all humanity (Exodus 19:5-6). They were God’s chosen people who should have been pointing the other nations to the one true God.
Who is the landowner’s son in the parable?
The vinedressers called the landowner’s son the heir of the vineyard (Matthew 21:38). The Bible says this about Jesus,
But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. Hebrews 1:2 ESV
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:16-17 ESV
We learn from these passages (and many others) that Jesus Christ is considered God’s heir because He was the Son of God.
Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers Explained
Okay, so now that we have everything set up, let’s unpack the meaning of the parable of the wicked husbandmen. God made the children of Israel as His chosen people. He protected them until they became a mighty nation, rescued them from slavery, gave them a land overflowing with fruit. All He asked was for their obedience…something they eagerly agreed to do when they were asked to do so in the wilderness of Sinai (Exodus 19:1-8).
Yet, despite their pledge, it was a short time before God’s people began indulging in the very practices He had forbidden. Everything He told them not to do, they did. Soon, God’s people were in apostasy and God began sending His prophets to warn the Israelites.
But they wouldn’t listen. They treated the prophets abominably. They put them in prison, stoned them, or killed them. Finally, God sent His Son. Jesus was also treated horribly by His people. Eventually, they killed Him.
The parable of the wicked husbandmen was Jesus’ way of illustrating how God’s prophets had been treated over the years. His words were a testimony of how they would treat Him some day. But the story didn’t end with His death. There would come a time when the wicked tenants would reap what they had sown.
The landowner would return and he would give them the punishment they deserved. The landowner would replace the bad tenants with vinedressers who would appreciate the vineyard and would do the work they had agreed to do.
Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen: Moral Lesson
The vineyard in the parable of the wicked vinedressers was the land of Canaan aka the Promised Land. The evil vinedressers were the children of Israel. The servants were the prophets and the son was Jesus. This story is a very powerful illustration of what God did for the children of Israel and for what He has done for us.
We get access to things that were granted to us by the Heavenly Father – sunlight, air, water, a place to live, health, the ability to work and so many other things. We have a contractual obligation to Him: we were created to worship.
But we don’t.
We go our own way and do our own things. But because He loves us He keeps trying. He sent His messengers. He sent His only Son whom He really loved – all in an effort to get us to wake up and see the love He has for us and to serve Him as He deserves.
Today, I’m grateful that Jehovah keeps trying to reach me- even when I’m at my most disobedient, wayward self. He keeps loving me, seeking me, protecting me. He does the same thing for you and every other person on this planet. What a wonderful God we serve!
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