What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” – Matthew 21:28 (NET)
With the Temple as the backdrop, Jesus embarks on a series of parables. The first one of these is known as the “parable of the two sons.” Not only is the parable offered in the Temple, but it begins with a question, “What do you think?” (Matthew 21:28a), that is directed to “the chief priests and elders of the people” (21:23b). They had posed a question to Jesus in regards to the authority upon which He was acting in His dramatic display in the Temple following His “triumphal entry.” Jesus had not answered the question, but instead posed a question to them. He continued to question them, as was just said, by prefacing a parable with a question.
The parable of the two sons, spoken in the Temple and to the Temple authorities, uses a vineyard as its setting, with a father and two sons as the characters in the story. Israel as the point of reference is unmistakable. The father and two sons theme is quite prevalent in Israel’s history: Abraham with Ishmael and Isaac, Isaac with Esau and Jacob, and Joseph with Manasseh and Ephraim. The fact that it is being directed to whom it is being directed, in the place where it is being spoken, with the conclusion drawn about a failure to believe on the part of those to whom Jesus speaks (Temple authorities), is further judgment upon the Temple and its system. We have to remember that, prior to this, Jesus has pronounced judgment on the Temple by way of His actions and His words in the Temple. A fig tree has withered and He has spoken of the mountain to be thrown into the sea. The setting for all of these things has not changed. The Temple remains in view. So it behooves us to continue hearing Him speak in this train of thought, without any unwarranted deviations from this path.
Following the parable of the two sons is the “parable of the tenants.” Jesus commences with “Listen to another parable” (21:33a), thus reminding us that Jesus is speaking to the same people to whom He was speaking with the previous parable. This parable tells a horrible story, filled with murder and shame, and Jesus uses terms such as “evil” to describe the antagonists in the tale. Of course, Matthew removes all ambiguity when he writes “When the chief priests (Temple authorities---representatives of the Temple) and the Pharisees heard this parable, they realized that He was speaking about them” (21:45). Jesus is calling the chief priests “evil.” Thus, He effectively de-legitimizes them, their positions, and that which they represent. With this, one cannot help but think about the Apostle Paul, standing before the council in Jerusalem and being struck on the mouth. Paul responds to his abuser by saying “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall!” (Acts 23:3a) The reply that comes to this statement is “Do you dare insult God’s high priest?” (23:4b) Now, this is not to say that Jesus was speaking to or of the high priest, and of course, He did not speak these words overtly, as they were implied in the parable and the chief priests made the connection themselves, but as we consider the issues of legitimacy and authority and the words of Jesus, it is interesting to note that Paul says “I did not realize, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You must not speak evil about a ruler of your people.’” (23:5)
Because Jesus refers to the antagonists in the parable of the vineyard as evil, with the knowledge that this epithet was meant for those who were challenging Him there in the Temple, Jesus may very well have been emphasizing that these men (and even the high priest) were not legitimate rulers, and that they were nothing more than the caretakers of an illegitimate and judged Temple. Indeed, Jesus also says “I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken from you” (21:43b), and it was the Temple---the place of God’s dwelling and the place where heaven and earth met---that represented God’s presence and His kingdom. This carries meaning on multiple levels, especially if we consider that Matthew, using these words that are absent from Mark’s account, most likely writes in a time following the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Romans.
Prior to the words of the forty-third verse, and just to be sure that all understand that Jesus has the Temple in mind as He is speaking, Jesus rounds out His parable by saying “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (21:42) Here, Jesus quotes from the one hundred eighteenth Psalm. The selection on offer from Jesus, which is to be called to mind by the section that He has quoted, begins with “Open for me the gates of the just king’s temple! I will enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the Lord’s gate---the godly enter through it. I will give you thanks, for you answered me, and have become my deliverer” (118:19-21). What follows that which is quoted by Jesus is “This is the day the Lord has brought about. We will be happy and rejoice in it. Please Lord, deliver! Please Lord, grant us success! May the one who comes in the name of the Lord be blessed! We will pronounce blessings on you in the Lord’s temple” (118:24-26). So not only is Jesus quite obviously speaking about the Temple, by using this Psalm He has actually gone back and effectively answered the question that was previously posed to Him about what He was doing and who it was that had given Him the right to do it. He is the one who comes in the name of the Lord and He is acting in the Temple on behalf of Israel’s God.