The Vineyard

The parable of the tenants[1] is clearly an important part of the New Testament as it is documented at length in three Gospels. What makes it even more interesting is that it appears to be a partial continuation of a similar story given in Isaiah 5. That is not to say that the newer parables are copies. Far from it, the differences arguably outweigh the similarities. However the parallels are striking enough that I believe we may assume that the hearers of the New Testament parables would almost certainly have been reminded of the Isaiah passage.

The aim of this paper is quite simply to analyze the links and meanings of the passage in Isaiah 5 and the New Testament parables. The analysis of meaning will be relatively straightforward as both the Old Testament and New Testament passages go to some length to explain or interpret at least a part of the message that is being given.

The first thing to notice is the difference in preparation between the Old and New Testaments. Isaiah speaks of the hill being fruitful, the fencing, the removal of the stones, the planting of the vine, the building of the tower and the making of the winepress. The New Testament accounts do not include any mention of the quality of the land, the removal of stones or any vine planting.

There is also a difference in the accounts with regard to who is tending the vine. Isaiah 5:2 implies that the Lord himself was harvesting the vineyard; in fact the whole passage suggests that he tended it Himself. By the New Testament we find that the Lord of the vineyard had gone away; others had been left to tend the grapes.

The next clear distinction is that Isaiah's account suggests that there was a problem with the quality of the fruit; he had looked for good grapes but only received wild ones. We are not told anything about the quality of the fruit in the New Testament. The problem instead is that the tenant farmers are refusing to have anything to do with the messengers coming from the Lord of the vineyard.

The final clear distinction is in the fate of the vineyard. In the New Testament it is simply handed on to those that were more worthy to tend it; in Isaiah's passage the vineyard has the protective hedge removed, the wall destroyed, it shall be wasted and uncultivated.

As mentioned previously the interpretation of this extended metaphor is relatively straightforward as it is provided by the text. The vineyard is Israel [2], the plant is Judah and the fruit looked for is sound judgment and righteousness. From the New Testament we know that the husbandmen are the leaders of the Jews[3]. It should be noted too that as parables goes this one was not particularly cryptic as even the enemies of Christ were able to readily discern the interpretation.

I think the Isaiah passage does add one very important dimension to this story that is lost in the Gospel accounts; that is the close attachment that owner had to His vineyard. Especially in Luke's account one might almost accuse the vineyard owner of reckless abandonment[4]; he plants it and then disappears off of the scene. In Isaiah's account we instead see a landowner grafting day after day to clear the ground and render conditions perfect only to find that the hill that looked fruitful started to produce the wrong kind of fruit. Judgment between the landowner and the vineyard is even invited to see what is fair.

I believe the foregoing is a relatively accurate statement of what we can safely derive from these passages. However I also think that there is possibly a stronger connection between these two accounts and that the Isaiah passage is actually a prelude to the one given in the Gospels. Nonetheless I should stress that I am now about to extend the typology beyond what the Bible itself interprets for us.

The springboard for this concept is that the starting and ending conditions of the two stories are very different as was the time when they were delivered. Isaiah's passage was delivered subsequent to the entry into the Promised Land but prior to the deportation. The Lord's parables were delivered after the return from captivity but prior to the birth of the church.

I wonder therefore if the fruitful hill that Isaiah references was actually the land of Canaan[5] and the stones could easily be the stumbling blocks[6] that were slowly driven out before the Israelites. We also know that God inhabited the tabernacle and then Solomon's temp; God tended to Israel Himself. The destruction pictured at the end of Isaiah's account could then easily be the deportation with Jerusalem left wasted as Is 5:5-6 predicts. We also know from Ezekiel that God left the temple at that time.

The New Testament account may then take over as the Jews return from exile. This time the land is not described as pleasant and the stones were not there to be driven out. Also this time the care of the community was handed to the civil and religious authorities[7]; we do not read of God entering into the post exilic temple. Now we do not read of specific shameful treatment of the post exilic prophets[8], but then again there aren't many accounts of that for the pre-exilic ones either. Finally the New Testament account speaks of the rulers being killed and the vineyard being turned over to new tenants. This of course happened with the fall of Jerusalem. Arguably it happened spiritually some years earlier with the advent of the Church.

As I said, the latter part of this paper is a little fanciful and you are urged to read it with caution. The earlier parts I believe stand on a stronger Biblical basis. We have an important New Testament parallel which we know was readily apparent to the religious authorities. I believe that was because the context of the parable was the account is Isaiah 5. There clearly are some major discrepancies between the accounts. The safest orthodox explanation is that the Lord was only carrying forward the three points if interpretation given: the land being Israel, the plant being Judah and the fruit being righteousness. A more ornate explanation has been offered for prayerful consideration.


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