The background of the parable is that Jesus has entered Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and has been questioned about his authority. At this time his popularity with the Pharisees is not so great. Also Jesus just demonstrated and told a parable about a withered fig tree. The fig tree was just the beginning. Whereas the disciples asked about how this happened (thinking of power), they should have asked why. The fig tree is then related to “this mountain” or Mt. Zion upon which Jerusalem sits. It’s not a question of moving mountains but the removal of that particular mountain. So Israel is about to be removed in some fashion, is the exegetic warning. But why and for what purpose is fleshed out in the parables to follow? What does follow is a parable of two sons, and the Pharisees are chastened again as being those who said they would do the fathers will, but then did not go. This leads us into our parable.
So the parable, as shown above, does not exist in a void. It is told as part of the surrounding texts to serve its context. The story has a point to make, and as previously discussed in my other post, it usually makes that point in a stark, shocking and sometimes offensive manner.
Given the background of the text above, consider the characters of the parable. We have a landowner, vinedressers, servants of the landowner, the son of the landowner and others (or a nation or people). Now in identifying them we have to remember to stay within context. The story unfolds that the landowner is the one who established the vineyard. This imagery spoken of within a Jewish setting would no doubt bring to mind Isaiah 5:1-7, where God is depicted as establishing Israel as like unto a vineyard. So we can safely say that in their historical setting God is in view as the landowner. Next we have interaction between the vinedressers and the servants. The vinedressers are beating and killing the servants. We have probably heard or read this parable before, and so we know that the servants are as the prophets as the vinedressers are the leaders of Israel that were to protect and see to the growth of the fruit or the people. We also know how the whole of the gospel ends and so we easily see that the son is Jesus. Yet this whole point seems to elude the chief priests and elders Jesus is speaking to (Matthew 21:3). They are more than ready to exclaim that upon the death of the landowners’ son that the vinedressers are wicked men who should be destroyed and replaced. They were evil men who thought only of keeping the vineyard for themselves.
In like fashion Jesus leaves the parable for a moment to quote Psalm 118:22 and 23. Now builders are pictured, who looking over options for a stone to use as the chief cornerstone for their building, reject the actual one as something unfit and not appropriate for what they want to see built. This reinforces the notion that they want something different from what God is setting up.
Jesus then drops the bomb that all along he has been speaking of them, and that the kingdom of God will be taken away from them. They must have been horrified that the judgment they just pronounced was in fact against them. The “others” is to be understood then as the kingdom of God being given to the Gentiles and getting dispersed into the whole world.
So what? This is usually the question asked when trying to get to the application portion of a text. Well we see that Jesus was answering the chief priest’s question about his authority. He was announcing that as the vinedressers they are looking to kill the son, who is in fact God’s only Son. His authority is then derived from God the Father who established their mountain, and will soon see it pass. Yet even in all this the chief priest and leaders only take him to be a prophet (Matthew 21:46).