Progressive Prison Project

Innocent Spouse & Children Project

Greenwich, Connecticut

“The Stone Which The Builders Rejected
Has Become The Chief Cornerstone”
Jeff Grant
This is my  favorite line of scripture – it comes from Psalm 118.
I think it powerfully explains how incarcerated people, although 
discarded, can be recast as leaders of their families and communities.
I knew I wrote something on this in seminary, and I searched my 
files. Here is an exegetical paper I wrote on Matt. 21:33-46 
that incorporates this theme. Please write in and 
let me know if it holds up. Jeff

Exegesis of The

Parable of the Wicked Tenants

 Matthew 21:33-46


A.            Introduction:                         Matthew 21:33-46, is a parable of its time and place, that reaches back into Old Testament roots (Isaiah, Psalm 118) and projects far ahead to societal issues in the future.  This paper will show how the Matthean author has cleverly blended a scathing postcolonial polemic against Roman oppression with a powerful message of hope and renewal to his small constituency of “Christians” in then present-day Antioch.  Offered in discussion of this premise are the relevant historical facts, some literary background, an exegetical analysis of the pericope, and a conclusion.

B.            Historical and Literary Setting:            No one is certain exactly where or when the Gospel of Matthew was written. As Ignatius was in dialogue with the rabbinic academy of Jamnia/Yavneh, which sat from 75-90 CE, it would be reasonable to date the gospel between these dates.[1] There is internal evidence that Matthew must have come from a wealthy urban church such as great urban center of Antioch [of Syria][2] in what is now modern Turkey.   Incorporated into the Roman Empire in 64 CE, it served as an important staging area for Rome against its eastern adversaries. Estimates of its size vary, ancient sources range from 600,000 to 200,000 in population. Modern sources put the population at about 100,000 in the first century CE.[3]  

The city had a significant Jewish population, albeit still a small minority, that was granted rites as a politeuma, or political state.  Although given this favored status, and with size significant enough to command respect, the Jewish community did not fare well with the general populace. 

After the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple (70 CE), Titus, the Roman General and later Emperor, received significant attention with his triumphal entry into Antioch.  Many Antiochene citizens demanded the destruction of the Jewish community, but Titus instead refused to exterminate them or revoke their position as politeuma. Instead, he took some of the items plundered from the Jerusalem Temple and erected them at Antioch’s Daphne Gate. At a higher place on the gate, he erected Roman statuary, showing Rome’s victory in Jerusalem. Antioch’s Jews, who lived mostly in the southern quarter around the Daphne Gate, were humiliated.[4]

Matthew’s audience of disciples may have been between forty and two hundred people, city dwellers living in small cramped apartments in tenement buildings. Only the wealthy had larger spaces with room enough to host gatherings. If the Christians (perhaps comprising a group of Jews and some Gentiles) in Antioch had gathered only in one house, there would have been only about forty at the time Matthew was written. If there were several groups inside and outside the city, Matthew could have been addressing up to two hundred. [5] It appears that Matthew had modified language of prior writings to be more inclusive of a wider audience and social strata.[6]  This might lead us to believe that Matthew was speaking to both rich and poor, landowner and tenant, in order to deliver a more effective and meaningful polemic against the conditions of the day and hope for the future.

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants appears in all three of the Canonical Gospels (Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-19), as well as the Gospel of Thomas, with notable differences. Matthew places the parable as second in a trilogy of Judgment against Jewish leaders.  The first parable in the trilogy is a parable of “the two sons,” and the Third parable in the trilogy is the parable of “the wedding banquet.”  Importantly, the both the first and instant parables, the themes of the vineyard and the “son” are carried through.  Matthew is making a statement about the conditions in Israel at the time, and about the conditions in Antioch in the present.  In Mark the parable is part of a series of confrontations with religious leaders that in turn are part of the broader suffering servant motif in Jerusalem. Luke follows Matthew and Mark by setting the parable within the context of the temple, and within a conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders that gets heated. The Gospel of Thomas provides no narrative context.

Much of the Gospel of Matthew was taken from the Marcan narrative framework, with the insertion of many sayings from Q (Quelle). The five great discourses of this gospel may generally be intended to suggest the five books of the Torah, and would reflect a theme that Jesus is the new Moses and the new Israel with a revelation from God.[7]

The gospels are sometimes seen as similar in style to the popular Greco-Roman biographies of the day (i.e. Socrates).  In keeping with this approach, the Gospel of Matthew is a biography that presents the career of Jesus both to legitimate to teaching and as a hermeneutic of its meaning. While some experts find that Matthew leans heavily on Jewish literary tradition, others find it to be more of a unique form that draws on extant forms, but conveys “good news” under a new literary form. The basis of the each suggestion as to form rests upon the manner of Sitz im Leben revealed in the gospel.[8]

A Sitz im Leben approach reveals that the evangelist who wrote this gospel is both a faithful transmitter of the of traditions he received from the early church about Jesus and the Christian life, and, also a creative shaper of those traditions into new combinations. There may have been several purposes for the writing of this gospel: to instruct and exhort members of this particular Jesus community, as sermon material, as mission material to outsiders, and as an apologetic and polemic to critics.[9] Many twentieth century scholars now see it more as the earliest expression of Christian proclamation. It may be, in truth, a mixture of genres including apocalypse, community rule, catechism, cult etiology, etc. Similar to the Book of Job, it is and attempts to accomplish several things at once.[10]

C.            Exegetical Study.                        In our pericope, the owner is referred to as the landowner, (or householder)[11], which is a favorite Matthean word referring to an absentee landlord.[12]  In the BDB, (Heb. n.f. ‘kalah)[13]the term is revealed to describe both “complete annihilation” and “consumption”, seemingly contradictory and impossible actions to reconcile without a state of near absolute authority.  It is this biblical landowner authority in biblical times that both repulses and intrigues Matthew.  He sees the edge of both light and darkness, and the anarchy that lives on the edge of oppression. We can only imagine that Matthew gave the owner a particular descriptive flavor based upon the living conditions experienced by Matthew’s urban audience in Antioch, and to which audience it was meant to have particular meaning and impact.  Separation and class struggle between owner and tenant in Antioch were clear; there would have been little hope for individual class mobility. Jews had a particular marginalized place in that urban society. Christian Jews meeting in secret societies would have understood the message of a landowner and a tenant in their world. 

In the Matthew parable, there were many examples of images and texts that provided a similar view, and which Jesus incorporated into his teachings. The most obvious example is of a vineyard, which is usually used as a metaphor for Israel. A vine in many texts is used a symbol of prosperity, and Israel was said to have been a vine planted by God. In times of plenty, there will be grapes and wine.  A vineyard’s destruction or removal is a prophecy of doom or judgment. Matthew makes a tacit reference to Isaiah 5:1-7, the Song of the Vineyard, which is a poem and story about a unrequited love that contrasts the care lavished by God with his people’s sinful response (social crimes), using the allegory of a vineyard. It is fair to read Isaiah as referring to the vineyard as Israel, or the Temple, and God’s prediction to destroy it. However, it is also fair to read that God’s judgment is not a strict, impartial one, but rather a merciful vindication of the rights of the poor.[14] This reading agrees meaning of “vineyard,” in the BDB, (Heb. ‘ahaymatz), “my brother is wrath.”[15]
  This corresponds to another BDB definition, (Heb. n.m. ‘maal), “unfaithful, treacherous.”[16]Much the same as Matthew, it includes an ironic twist as to the real transgressor in the story.  The vineyard element is also a common element with the parable immediately preceding (as is the “son” element) as is the theme of doing God’s will. There are many similarities between then Isaiah story and the Matthew parable, leaving us to aptly conclude that the Matthew writer leaned on Isaiah heavily and intended the reader to acknowledge it. 

The Matthew parable seems to draw heavily from Psalm 118:22-23, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” This may have actually been an ancient proverb and is mentioned or alluded to in all versions of the parable.  The Psalm is an individual thanksgiving song; it is difficult to place our parable in conversation with what can only be described as a convoluted psalm.  However, the two lines that Matthew draws from are powerful and oft quoted.  Matthew, and perhaps Isaiah, may have been utilizing a deliberate piece of wordplay in Hebrew between the word ben [son] and eben [stone], and their plural banim [sons] and abanim [stones].  (See, for example, Matt 7:9). “The Hebrew mind enjoyed these verbal equivalents that were fundamental to their way of thinking.”[17]
  A piece of stone deemed unworthy for a position of prominence in the structure by experts has then become the most prominent. Indeed, this text was very important in the church’s attempt to understand the rejection and execution by his people. [Matt 21:42, Acts 4:11, 1 Cor 3:11. Eph 2:20, 1 Pet 2:7-80.[18] In light of the meaning of “stone” given in the BDB, (Heb. ‘yadoah), “a chief of the people,”[19]  it makes sense to when we retranslate, substituting ben for eben, the psalm and the parable would then read “the son who was been rejected has become cornerstone (chief of the people)”, which was a clear message of hope and renewal.  If this is indeed what Matthew meant to say, what better way than to draw upon Isaiah as a powerful source, and use it in a way that could be interpreted correctly by his community.

D.            Conclusion.                         Although The Parable of The Wicked Tenants, was written specifically for its Matthean audience in Antioch, it’s easy to see how its lessons of hope and renewal can easily be applied to the situations of modern day slums in this country, the plight of Dalits in India, and similar instances of colonial/post-colonial oppression.


Allison, Jr., Dale C. “Matthew”, in, The Oxford Bible Commentary, Ch. 57.

Brown, Francis, Driver, S.R. and Briggs, Charles A. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Brown, Robert K. and Comfort, Philip W., Translators. Ed. by J. D. Douglas. The New Greek-English Interlinear: New Testament, 4th.

Carrington, Phillip. According to Mark: A Running Commentary On The Oldest Gospel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.

Jensen, Joseph and Irwin, William H. “Isaiah 1-39”, in, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Part One. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990.

Kselman, John S. and Barre, Michael L. “Psalms”, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Part One. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990.

Meier, John P.  “Gospel of Matthew”, in, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4. K-N.

McKenzie, John L. “The Gospel According To Matthew,” in, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, II.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Norris, Frederick K. “Antioch”, in, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1. A-C.

Tuckett, Christpher M.  “Matthew”, in The New Interpreter’ Bible, VIII.

Viviano, Benedict T.   “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Part Two. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990.

[1]Benedict T. Viviano, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Part Two, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 631.

[2]Frederick K. Norris, “Antioch”, in, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1, A-C, 266.

[3]However, the inclusion of slaves could increase this estimate significantly.  Norris, 265

[4]Norris, 266

[5]1 Cor 16:19 and Rom 16:5 are examples where first century CE Christians met in larger houses of patrons, or in rented halls.  Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 28.

[6]For example, the “poor” and “hungry,” in the Q beatitudes, in Matthew became, “poor in spirit,” and those who, “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” [Matt 5:3,6].   Christpher M. Tuckett, “Matthew”, in The New Interpreter’ Bible, Vol VIII, 104

[7]John L. McKenzie, “The Gospel According To Matthew,” in, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Vol. II, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 62.

[8]John P. Meier, “Gospel of Matthew”, in, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4, K-N, 623

[9] Viviano, 631.

[10]Dale C. Allison, Jr., “Matthew”, in, The Oxford Bible Commentary, Ch. 57, 847

[11]In Greek, “housemaster.” The New Greek-English Interlinear: New Testament, 82

[12]Viviano, 665.

[13]BDB, 478.

[14]Joseph Jensen and William H. Irwin, “Isaiah 1-39”, in, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Part One, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 233.

[15]BDB, 27.

[16] BDB, 591.

[17]Phillip Carrington, According to Mark: A Running Commentary On The Oldest Gospel, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 249.

[18]John S. Kselman and Michael L. Barre, “Psalms”, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Part One, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 523.

[19]BDB, 396.


Progressive Prison Project/
Innocent Spouse & Children Project

Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Director
at Christ Church Greenwich

254 East Putnam Avenue
Greenwich, Connecticut, USA 06830
(o) +1203.769.1096
(m) +1203.339.5887

Lynn Springer, Advocate
(m) +1203.536.5508


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