The initial historical fulfillment of these prophecies took place in the disasters of AD 66–70 and 132–35, when the Romans destroyed the temple, the city of Jerusalem, and most of the leaders of the people.
Look at what Jesus underlines as the foundational offense: rejecting Him. Jesus puts Himself forward as the Son in special relationship with the Father. C.S. Lewis argues cogently that no one can take Jesus as just another good moral teacher. He must be either the Messiah or a megalomaniac. Jesus claims that rejecting Him is the climactic act that leads to judgment. Jesus puts Himself at the center of Yahweh’s purposes in the way He quotes the Old Testament in the parable. In verse 42, He applies Psalm 118:22–23 to Himself: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (see Isa. 28:16). In essence, Jesus is asserting, “The powerful may consider Me a valueless reject, but God will do marvels through Me and give Me a kingdom.” More soberly still, in Matthew 21:44, Jesus presents Himself as the dangerous stone (Isa. 8:14; Dan. 2:34, 44). “Don’t brush Me aside!” He is saying.
This story strengthened early Christians’ faith against the shame and disgrace that Jesus was “thrown out and killed” (Matt. 21:39). Muslims reject the crucifixion of the prophet Jesus as inconceivable; indeed, His death is a scandal to all those who are looking for earthly displays of power and influence. Plus, how many people were converted by Jesus’ teaching here? Outward results are not a good measure of faithful preaching. Our passage helped early Jewish Christians make sense of the radical changes in the leadership and outward form of God’s people taking place in the first century (Acts 2:23–37; 3:14–15). And Jesus’ parable helps us all see the larger New Testament picture of an expanded Israel of God made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers under the new leadership of Christ’s Apostles (Rom. 11; Gal. 6:16).
We who believe in Jesus must guard ourselves from the smugness and ingratitude He condemns here (see Rom. 11:21). The Master is coming, and we must render account. Let us be careful to produce the fruits of trust and just living that He expects. And let us keep in mind all of God’s abundant kindness to us suggested by this parable: the carefully prepared vineyard, the hyper-patient dealings of the landowner pleading for a response, and the Son who died. The brave man who spoke this parable was shortly on His way to “taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). What a reason for us to respond in faith and gratitude today and every day.