Today’s parable offers an opportunity to appreciate the complexity of the gospel tradition.
Matthew’s version of the parable contains elements that are difficult to attribute to Jesus: allusions to the Greek Bible (Mt 21:33, 42), allegorical features (the vineyard is Israel, the tenant farmers are Israel’s leaders, the householder is God, etc.), and others.
The version of this parable in the Coptic (= the Egyptian tradition) Gospel of Thomas 65 (dating from the beginning of the third century) doesn’t contain allegorical elements and may be closer to the parable Jesus originally spoke.
In this simpler form, the parable reflects a reality familiar to all peasants, namely, the extortion practiced by hard-nosed absentee landowners.
A Simple Parable
The vineyard owner lives in a different country (Mt 21:33). This was a common experience among peasants in Galilee. The owner rented the vineyard out to tenant farmers or share-croppers who worked the land in return for a fee or a percentage of the crop. The owner sent his agents on a regular basis to collect what was due.
Modern scholars have pieced together bits and pieces of information to
gain a better understanding of the situation of tenant farmers based
on what is known about peasant free-holders, that is, peasants who
were fortunate enough to own and farm their own land. Some of the crop
would have to be used for trade to gain other necessities of life.
There were also social dues (gifts), religious tithes, and taxes adding up to about 35 or 40 percent. About 20 percent of the annual produce would be left to feed the family and livestock of a free-holding peasant. Far less would be left to tenant farmers who also owed land rent.
From this perspective, the parable is easy to interpret. The tenant farmers are frustrated, desperate, and driven to violence. They beat and kill the first two delegations from the owner.
When the owner’s son shows up, they miscalculate and presume that the owner is dead. Believing the son to be the sole surviving heir, they kill him in hope of gaining the vineyard for themselves. The plan is stupid and illegal, but they are driven by their otherwise hopeless situation.
The owner is very much alive. Everyone knows what his response will be. He will avenge himself against these foolish tenant farmers and lease to more compliant tenants.
The owner will not be deprived or defrauded of his harvest. If this was the form of the parable Jesus told, it was a warning to landowners against selfishly hoarding their harvest or exporting it.
An Allegorized Parable
In general, a parable makes one point. The story is about an absentee landlord and his tenant farmers. In an allegory, every element of the story means something else. Good storytellers don’t explain their stories (or jokes). The point is clear. When a story or parable is interpreted, inevitably the meaning is not what appears on the surface.
In Mt 21:43 Jesus (or the preachers, or Matthew) appears to make an allegory out of the parable, perhaps on the basis of Isaiah 5:1-7. But note carefully the differences between Matthew and Isaiah. There are no tenant farmers in Isaiah; God destroyed the vineyard itself.
Clearly in Matthew the problem lies with the leadership of Israel and not with Israel itself as in Isaiah (Is 5:5-6). The tenant farmers, that is, the leadership, must be replaced because they have not born fruit (see Mt 3:8-10; Mt 7:16-20; Mt 12:33; Mt 13:8; Mt 21:19). Thus, leadership will be transferred from the present group which has failed to a different group (preferable to the word "people" in Mt 21:43) that will produce proper fruit. This group is best identified as the leaders of the Judean-Christian community.