The Two Sons, the Tenants, and the Wedding Feast
As Matthew nears the end of his account of Jesus’s public ministry, he records three more parables. Jesus has reached Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders approach, questioning him. So, he speaks to them in stories to reveal who they are and what they’re doing.
The Parable of the Two Sons
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
As Jesus enters Jerusalem on his way to the cross, he encounters the Jewish leaders. They don’t like him. Jesus is a threat to their authority. He teaches with power. He heals effectively. He has baffling insight and wisdom. And on top of it all, he claims to be the Messiah. Their pride can’t handle this combination. Before them stands Jesus, the Son of God, and instead of bowing down to him, they interrogate him.
Jesus knew his Bible, so he was not surprised to meet such opposition from the leaders of God’s people. It was always this way—God would send a messenger and Israel would persecute them. Claiming to be on God’s side, they’d prove otherwise by their actions towards God’s mouthpiece. Without fully realizing what they were doing, their violence toward the prophets was a foreshadowing of the violence toward God himself in Jesus Christ. That’s why Jesus dies with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
What we do with God’s word is a pointer to what we would do with God himself. If we treat his word as worthless, disgusting, imposing, violating, or offensive, then we will also treat God himself that way. When, for example, something like the Nashville Statement seeking to reaffirm biblical values on sexuality meets such outrage from within Christianity, we must begin to think how we would react to Jesus if he were here today.
When saying what the Bible says about a topic creates such debate, we must wonder how the wider church views the Bible—if the God presented there is the God known to the masses. Or, perhaps, we’ve created a new God, one that has the semblance of holiness but is disguised as an angel of light. How we treat God’s word is how we treat God. The only thing preventing us from killing him is that the first century Jews already did.
And here is Jesus, standing before them, on trial before he goes to trial, the prophet before his hard-hearted congregation. The old saying, “actions speak louder than words,” would be an apt title for this parable. This parable shows us the importance of doing what is right, not merely talking about doing what is right. The Jewish leaders talked a good game, but no matter how much they studied the playbook, they always ran the wrong play. The Divine Coach had them on the field, and they trusted their intuition more than the Coach’s word.
The parable of the two sons is the setup for the next two parables, but before we move on, we must be sure to understand this one. This parable teaches two primary lessons on two different levels.
Lesson one, level one: the one who listens and obeys God is the one who does God’s will.
Lesson two, level one: the one who listens but disobeys God is the one who fails to do God’s will.
Lesson one, level two: anyone can come to Jesus, all you must do is listen and obey.
Lesson two, level two: whoever comes to Jesus must truly want to listen and obey, not merely pretend to.
Level one is what we see in the story itself. Level two is what we see in Jesus’s words after the parable. The Christian life, from beginning to end, is comprised of listening to God’s word and walking in obedience to it. We won’t be perfect, but what we do with what God says will prove how we really view God. We may say we follow him, but our arrival in the vineyard is the only ultimate proof that we actually do.
Since Adam and Eve sinned and lost their home in the Garden of Eden, the world has been inhabited by sinners, the nation of Israel not excluded. Some were easier to spot. They were the tax collectors, extorting their fellow citizens on behalf of Rome. They were the prostitutes, violating their bodies and the bodies of others for money. Sin consumed their daily life, unable even go to work without marring their soul. They were the wicked, outcast, despised. But they also repented and believed Jesus when he came to them. It was not hard for others to see their sin, and it was not hard to see it themselves. Their problem was not knowledge of sin but what to do with that sin. They’d been banished and left to their own devices. So, when the Physician comes, they ask for healing. Their response to the gospel was the proper one, even if their life before showed no openness to God. This group comprised lesson one. They initially refused to listen to God, but later changed their mind. Jesus came to them, and they decided to stick around.
But there was another group of sinners in Israel. They didn’t look the part. They were those who read the Bible and prayed and went to the temple for feasts and sacrifices. They were the ones who appeared close to God. But their heart betrayed them. When God came to them, they didn’t draw near. The tax collectors and prostitutes begged for mercy; the Pharisees and scribes thought they already had it. And in their arrogance, they found themselves not fighting for God but fighting against him. It is never enough to make promises to God, or to say you believe, or to memorize the right words. What ultimately matters is that our heart truly desires God. The outside can be clean, but as Jesus said, it could be merely a whitewashed tomb.
Jesus didn’t have to engage the Jewish leaders—he knew who they were even if they couldn’t see it—but he engaged them anyway because God’s word of grace goes out to all, even to the God-haters. Anyone who repents can have God. Jesus was giving them a chance to see themselves and to repent of their sin. But they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do it. All they had to do was obey his voice, but what went out pure as the newly fallen snow, fell to their dirty heart and became a mud so thick they couldn’t wash it off. Not only couldn’t they, but they also wouldn't even try. Instead, they plotted in their heart against the Son who came to save. They listened to the Father and said, “Sure, I’ll go,” then turned their back and plotted murder.
Which way are you turning? How you respond to the Word of God is how you respond to God. Not everything in the Bible is easy to accept, but if we refuse it as an outdated interpretation or backward view of life, we will find ourselves walking out of the presence of God and into the presence of Satan. We will side with the enemy and post ourselves in the fortress of defiance. But the gospel goes even there. God never stops shooting his arrows of light. The question is, what kind of target is he going to find? One of flesh, easily penetrable, or one of stone, impenetrable? When Jesus sends his armies of grace, let’s wave the white flag.
The Parable of the Tenants
33 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 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 have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore 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 let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
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 marvelous in our eyes’?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
The parable of the two sons was the soil from which the parable of the tenants grew. It was the necessary first step. What we do with God’s word is what we do with God.
When God created the world, he gave Adam and Eve everything they needed for flourishing. But what God provided soon appeared lacking to them. So, they sinned and found themselves in the wild world beyond the Garden. When God brought Israel out of slavery and into the Promised Land, he gave them everything they needed for flourishing. He provided land flowing with milk and honey, gave them his law to show them the way, showered his love and grace and mercy from above. He was with them, appearing as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He made his dwelling place among them, in the inner court of the temple. What did they lack? Apparently, to them, a lot.
Israel wandered far further than around the desert. They wandered in their heart, attaching their affections to other gods, other nations, other idols. They turned from the One who set them free to that chains that would bind again. And they did it happily. They were crazy, and Jesus wants to show them how crazy they were. So, he tells them a parable, explaining more fully what their ancestors have done and what they’re about to do.
This parable is allegorical. The owner of the vineyard represents God. The tenants represent Israel. The servants represent God’s prophets. The events of the story seem, as a standalone, outrageous. Why would the tenants kill the servants? He’s merely doing the job of the owner. In fact, he’s doing the job of any good servant, collecting the fruit of the vineyard, which doesn’t belong to the tenants but the owner. But what sounds outrageous in the parable is the very outrageous life Israel has lived. When boiled down to a simple story, it reveals the human heart as extraordinarily wicked.
But perhaps the most extraordinary detail is the owner who keeps sending servants. He keeps losing what, I would imagine, were good, hard working people to this band of evil tenants. This tells us something of the heart of God. We see God as short-tempered and impulsive. We read the Old Testament, for example, through the lens of our confused, one sitting read-through instead of the lens of God’s long-suffering patience.
For example, in a famous passage of Joshua 10, Israel is fighting the Amorites, and God causes the sun to stand still, giving his armies enough time to destroy the entire nation. Many people have a problem with that. In fact, the New Atheists often use these bouts of genocide in the Old Testament as proof against the goodness of God. But what happens in Joshua 10 is not before God’s word in Genesis 15:16. God tells Abraham in a dream that his people will be slaves in a foreign land, but he will bring them back to the Promised Land one day. That day is not yet, however, because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
What we perceive as impatience in God is actually long-suffering of which we are unable to imagine. And here, in this parable, Jesus is reminding the Jewish leaders of God’s patience not with the wicked nations but with his chosen nation. Israel’s iniquity is not yet complete. But the finish line is approaching. The clock is running out, and in a last-minute hail-mary pass, the Father is sending the Son. Surely, they will respect him.
But, of course, the tenants do not respect the Son. Instead, they see their chance at finally attaining ownership themselves. The rebellion reaches its fever pitch as they slay not merely another messenger but the beloved son. What Jesus tells as a story is about to happen in real life in a matter of days. And Jesus knows it’s coming! Oh, the patience and grace and mercy of Christ! To stand there, telling the story of his impending death to the very ones who are to commit the murder. How great the love of God for the world!
But the love of Christ had no impact on his audience. They heard the message—it was not unclear. And instead of repenting, they listened as Jesus pronounced woes upon them. Their response was a greater desire to kill him, but they feared the crowds because they held him to be a prophet. And a prophet he was, but not merely. He was the Son.
The Parable of the Wedding Feast
22 And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, 3 and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.” ’ 5 But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. 7 The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Though our Bible breaks the narrative into a new chapter, Jesus has not yet left his audience. He speaks to them again in parables, this time with the parable of the wedding feast. He’s still talking to the Jewish leaders, teaching them through this story what may happen at the end of their life if they refuse to accept his invitation.
My oldest son, Jack, was five-years-old, he attended a wonderful Christian preschool that takes the Bible seriously. At the end of the year, every five-year-old and their parents are invited to a special year-end party: the marriage supper of the lamb. The children and relatives dress in white. They gather in a room, with a throne before them, and each child, when called by name, comes and lays his or her crown at the feet of Jesus. Then, with the joy and playfulness of a child, gives Jesus a high five or fist bump. There is joy and wonder. There is singing and rejoicing. There is hope and longing. They’re invited, and as only a child could, they go with unhindered joy.
But for those who’ve grown up in the world, the sense of innocent wonder is reduced to cynical critique. Invitations are not accepted with wholehearted joy; they’re evaluated against the next best option. And here in this parable, Jesus is showing us the inevitable end of our world. It’s a great party the Father will throw for the Son. To be included in that will be, truly, the greatest honor of which anyone could ever want. But here and now, the invitation is going out. Will we accept?
As Jesus made clear in the parable of the sower, his gospel seed is spread far and wide on all kinds of soil. Even the hard path receives a showering. But the hard path is unable to accept the seed because it has hardened itself again it. The soil is ruined. These Jewish leaders are the ruined path. But that doesn’t stop Jesus from sowing.
Here in this parable, Jesus is spreading the seed, showing the kind of heart the King has. He sends out invitations to the wedding feast and those who receive it RSVP no. The king, giving them the benefit of the doubt, offers the invitation a second time, thinking perhaps there was a misunderstanding. Everything is prepared. Come!
But the guests paid no attention. They weighed the options and chose another path. This was not only rude, it was unheard of. Who would refuse an invitation into the king’s home? Dan Doriani puts it this way.
To sense the depth of this insult, imagine receiving an invitation to an intimate event hosted by the president or prime minister of the nation. This is neither a publicity stunt nor a photo opportunity, but an entire day with government leaders, including an hour with the president or prime minister himself, discussing policy. We accept the invitation and arrange to go. But when the day comes, we change our mind. It is a beautiful day for a round of golf or a long hike with a friend, so we skip the flight. Suppose that the president’s staff is tracking the flights of all his guests and learns that we are not on the appointed flight. Thinking the best, a staffer calls and says, “We see that you missed the flight. I have reserved a seat on the next flight from your airport. It is scheduled to leave in an hour, but the plane will wait for you.” If we still do not come, what must the president think? If we choose golf or a hike over a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet with the president, he must be dismayed as he concludes that we think nothing of him and scorn his office.
There is a dismay in Jesus’s tone. Why would the guests not attend the wedding feast? How are their reasons valid for ignoring such a generous offer?
On the heels of the parable of the two sons—where the word of the owner is ignored—and the parable of the tenants—where the messengers are killed—Jesus is saying to the Jewish leaders, “How can this be?” How can you who’ve been waiting for the Messiah ignore him, reject him, and refuse him when he stands before you? What else are you waiting for?
In the parable of the wedding feast, it’s not merely a refusal of the offer. Some are angry the king would invite them at all. They seize the servants and kill them. The king is, justifiably, very angry. So he sends his troops to destroy them. Is Jesus’s message not clear?
Isaiah 5 helps us understand his meaning. God has prepared a vineyard named Israel. But they have born no fruit. God asks, “What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!”
Some religious people are like these Jewish leaders or this barren vineyard. They appear to be on God’s side, but when the day of the invitation comes, they refuse to accept God on his terms. No matter how gracious he is, they will not enter his presence. He is not what they expected, and in their sin, he becomes to them not only insignificant but repulsive.
But others will come, and it is to those Jesus turns to at the end of the parable. These people can’t believe the offer. “Me? To the King’s house?” But they come, even though it’s beyond their wildest dreams. This parable, then, is not that different from the parable of the two sons. The Jewish leaders won’t come, but the unworthy will.
So we are back to the beginning. What will we do with the word of God? Will we heed his word or merely pretend to? God is granting us time to decide. But the time is coming to an end. There will be a reckoning. We may think we can sneak in—go in the back door, as it were. This parable shows us that cannot be the case. Once the party begins, a man finds his way inside. But he isn’t dressed for the occasion. He’s missing the proper garment. His stay is short. He’s thrown out. He missed his chance. He was called but not chosen.
His plight is easy to understand. He missed his chance. Game over. No more coins. But the others accepted the invitation, come to the party, and wore the garment—the sign that they belonged. How did they receive it and what does it represent? Let’s work backward because it’s in the representation that we find the path to receiving.
The wedding garment can represent one of two things according to the book of Revelation. It can be the righteousness of Christ (Rev. 7:9-14) or it can be the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev. 19:8). In other words, Revelation presents it as both. How can this be?
Think back to the parable. The invitations go out. The first group refuses to come, but the second comes. The second hear the invitation and accept. But they do more than just that. They come to the party. They change their plans. They rearrange their life. They dare to believe that they, of all people, are invited to dine with the King. They come, and in coming, they prove who they are. They’re the invited.
To be a true believer in Christ we must not only accept the invitation, but we must also come to commune with him. Our coming is the proof that the invitation has indeed come and has been accepted. In other words, the wedding garment of those at the feast is given through the righteousness of Christ, but you have to put it on, and in the putting on it becomes the righteous deeds of the saints. The garment proves that you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that you should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).
Salvation is by grace alone, accepted by faith alone. Jesus invites us. All we do is show up. He provides the rest: the garment, the meal, the party, the enjoyment, everything. He even provides the desire to come. But we must come. And herein lies the true message of these parables: God’s final invitation has come in Christ. Will we come to the party?