When Jesus entered into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, he publicly affirmed what had, up to then, only been hinted at, that he was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. His intentional fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 (Behold, your king is coming to you; … humble and mounted on a donkey) served as a bold announcement that Jesus was the very King of Israel. This event set up a series of hostile encounters, over the next four days, with the religious authorities of the Jewish people – the Pharisees and Sadducees. These confrontations, which are the subject of chapters 21 through 23 of Matthew’s Gospel, find their climax in Jesus’ prophecy of 21:43 that the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to a people producing fruits (a statement which hearkens back to the cursing of the fig tree in verses 18-22). Finally in chapter 23, Jesus utterly condemns the hypocritical leadership of Judaism with seven pronouncements of woe, ultimately condemning them for the murder of the righteous prophets that God had sent to warn and help the nation.
Palm Sunday’s entry into the city followed by Monday’s cleansing of the Temple prompted the religious leaders to ask Jesus by what authority he was doing these things (Mt 21:23). Without giving them a direct answer, Jesus told three parables which point to the failure of the Pharisees and Sadducees to lead Israel righteously. The consequence for their consistent hypocrisy and failure to heed the commandments of God, is revealed in this parable trilogy. The first parable (21:28-32) centers on their failure during the ministry of John the Baptist. The second parable (21:33-42) centers on the continual failure of the leadership throughout the history of Israel, culminating in their rejection of Jesus. And the third parable (22:1-14, which God willing, we will look at next time) reveals the continual rejection of Jesus’ mission through the church until the final Day of Judgment. Each parable highlights a particular segment in the history of salvation.
Though the church has historically understood these parables to be spoken against Israel, they most certainly apply to all of God’s people. Taken together, the parables challenge and call us to an urgent faith – not a mere profession or formal outward faith, but a true conversion-wrought faith that is a product of the new birth.