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The wicked guests and the destruction of their city

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The wicked guests and the destruction of their city |

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Jesus v. Jerusalem: A Commentary on Luke 9:51–20:26

13. The Parable of the Wicked Guests (Luke 20:9–19)

The Pharisees and priests were clever enough to recognize that the parable [of the wicked tenants] had been spoken about them (Luke 20:19). The irony, for them, is that this recognition drove them only to begin the very crime that the parable foretold they would commit: they sought to lay hands on Jesus, the Son. Their reaction was different than that of the people who simply denied they would ever do such a thing.

To the Priests and Elders

While the Pharisees’ and priests’ reaction in general is recorded in all the synoptics, Matthew’s version of the parable and the interaction at the end of it involves significant differences with that of Luke. The differences are great enough to demand that Matthew’s account is a separate telling from Luke’s. Let’s review this:

First, the Luke’s account begins by saying Jesus told the parable to the people (Luke 20:9). In Matthew, however, Jesus’ audience is identified as “the chief priests and the elders of the people” (Matt. 21:23); He tells three sequential parables—the parable of two sons, the parable of the wicked tenants, and a parable of the marriage feast—all without any change of audience.

Second, the body of the parable of the wicked tenants is slightly different in that the owner sent groups of many servants at a time (Matt. 21:34–36) as opposed to one at a time in the popular retelling in Luke 20:10–12.

Third, in Luke, Jesus draws the conclusion of what the owner would do upon his return—“He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others”—and when the people hear of this judgment they respond, “Surely not!” (Luke 20:16). In Matthew, however, Jesus asks the audience of priests and elders what the owner would do upon his return, and they themselves give the answer: “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’” (Matt. 21:41).

Fourth, in both cases, Jesus immediately cites Psalm 118:22 concerning the rejected cornerstone, and also adds Isaiah 8:14–15 concerning the stumblingblock. But in Matthew, He gives an additional explicit prophecy of His own: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matt. 21:43). This prophecy comes in between His references to the Psalm and Isaiah, whereas in Luke these citations are presented with no interruption.

Now the first and fourth of these difference could probably be explained away in the desire to harmonize the passages. But the second and third are much more difficult, especially the third. There is no way to explain the different reactions to the parable, and the difference between Jesus stating the owner’s judgment versus the priests themselves stating it. In this case, we are left with only a few options: 1) the texts are corrupted, 2) there is a contradiction in the Gospels, or 3) these are separate tellings of the same parable.

I find the third option here the most satisfactory with the evidence. Since this parable summed up the entire history of Israel, and summarized Jesus whole lawsuit against that nation, it was highly important, as were the citations of Scripture He appended to it. It was so important it bore retelling, probably many times over. But we have two instances recorded, probably within minutes of each other—first, privately to the priests and elders, then again, openly to all the people. We have, of course, already discussed the fact that Jesus probably told many of His parables many times in many places to different audiences. He would naturally have altered the minor details at different times as all storytellers do, but would have always retained the powerful meaning that brought the point home. Here is simply one more case of this, and with a particularly pointed parable.

What is important here in this separate telling in Matthew are two of those outstanding differences, directed to the priests and elders themselves: first, the fact that the priests and elders were able to draw the conclusion of judgment for themselves. Just like the wicked servants in an earlier parable who condemned themselves with words out of their own mouths (Luke 19:22), Jesus would let these idolaters and murderers condemn themselves with their own deduction (Matt. 21:41). They had just recited their own verdict and sentencing in this lawsuit.

Second, note the emphasis on Jesus’ explicit prophecy about the coming destruction and transfer of sovereignty (Matt. 21:43). The Jews had just pronounced their own guiltiness and the judgment they deserved. Jesus then added the testimony of a second witness—the Psalmist in 118:22—and then He confirmed the sentence: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” We have noted this verse several times, and will discuss it again later. It is indeed the consummate pronouncement of Jesus’ teaching so-called “replacement theology.” The kingdom would be taken from the Jews and given to a new people, a peculiar people, who would become the fruitful people the Jews had failed to become.

The Great Banquet

Immediately after His private telling of the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus adds another parable. This is an expanded and intensified version of an earlier parable, the parable of the great banquet (Luke 14:15–24). And while we are focused mainly with the account of Luke, our necessary diversion here into Jesus’ final temple confrontation in Matthew begs us to examine this parable as well. It was, after all, part of the same discourse. Further, it is a welcome addition that it provides another example of Jesus retelling His parables and elaborating on them, and in that it is one more confirmation of the judgment coming upon Jerusalem.

The whole passage is worth reproducing. “And again Jesus spoke to them [the chief priests and the elders] in parables, saying,”

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. 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.” But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, “The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.” 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. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” And he was speechless. 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.” For many are called, but few are chosen (Matt. 22:1–14).

This is similar enough to recognize as a version of the same parable told earlier in Luke, and the meaning is fundamentally the same. Yet, it is considerably more intense. Here the first servant-messengers (another reference to the prophets, no doubt) were simply ignored. Another wave of servant-messengers (more prophets) are treated as such a nuisance that while some still ignored them, “the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them” (v. 6). This murdering had not been mentioned in the earlier version. Jesus is certainly adding it here as part of the same indictment of Jerusalem He had given already, and would give again in the very near future (Matt. 23:34–36).

The king responds to these “murderers” with wrath: “he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (v. 7). This is an obvious foreshadowing of exactly what would happen to Jerusalem. The King would not walk into Jerusalem Himself and level the place, but He sends his troops. Indeed, he would send the Roman army. These troops would be “his” not in the sense that they were believers, but in the sense that they would act in His providence as His agents. And they would do two things: first, they would destroy the murderers. The murderers were the entire generation of Israelites (Luke 11:50–51; Matt. 23:36). Second, the armies would set the murderers’ city on fire. This, again, is exactly what happened in ad 70. And once again, this was Jesus’ pronouncement on the day of the triumphal entry:

For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation (Luke 19:43–44).

Those that escaped the destruction and burning of the city, we learn later, would be led away captive. This is Luke’s explicit version:

For there will be great distress upon the earth [land] and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Luke 21:33–34).

And yet, after this destruction, the wedding feast itself carries on. The King sends out His servants to round up more guests. Clearly, the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and the whole Old Covenant sacrificial system would be no hindrance at all to the progress of the kingdom of heaven. And note: this is yet the same feast as it was before. It would be the marriage supper of the lamb. All that was different was the guest list. Out with the old Whore Jerusalem, and in with the new saintly bride—arrayed in the fine linen of “the righteousness of the saints” (Rev. 19:7–9; cf. who had righteousness in Rom. 10:3–4).

And yet, even during this post-destruction wedding feast, some people would sneak in who did not belong. But the King would identify them quickly based on their lack of that fine linen wedding garment. Whether these should be interpreted as the Judaizers who would cause so much dissention in the New Testament church, or whether these should just be understood as general heretics in the church (of which there would be plenty), it is not clear. But their end is: “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13).

An Jesus ends this parable very much like the earlier version: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (22:14). Indeed, all of Israel had been called, but only the elect few would make it into the feast clothed in righteousness. “The rest” would end up destroyed, burned, or led away captive.

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Next Section: True Sovereignty (Luke 20:19–26)

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