Rabbi Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein wrote that in the time of Yeshua, “The chief priests and the Pharisees, who supported them (mostly from the disciples of the school of Shammai), dominated the multitude of Israel.”
As heads of the priesthood and leaders on the Sanhedrin, they occupied a God-given place of authority over the Temple, Jerusalem, and Judaism in general. The Torah grants the priesthood charge of the Sanctuary and the assemblies therein. Exodus 18, Numbers 11, and Deuteronomy 17 establish the authority of the Sanhedrin. The Master referred to the Sanhedrin as “the seat of Moses”; that is, the place of authority in which legislators interpreted and applied the words of Moses.
On his last visit to Jerusalem, the synoptic gospels record that Yeshua excoriated the Sadducees and their allies with the following parable. A man planted a vineyard in the rocky soils of the Judean hills. He cleared the stones and used them to build a wall around the plot of ground to protect his vineyard from animals and thieves. He carved out of the stone an area for pressing grapes, and he dug a vat beneath to catch the juice. Before the first harvest had come in, however, he had to depart on a long journey. He rented out the vineyard to sharecroppers who would tend the vines and pay him a percentage of the produce. At harvest time, he sent a slave to collect his portion, but the sharecroppers did not want to share the crop. They beat the slave and sent him away empty-handed. The owner sent a second slave who received the same treatment and worse. They wounded him in the head and treated him shamefully. They killed the third slave he sent, and all subsequent attempts to collect on the vineyard met the same results. Finally, the owner decided to send his own son to settle the affairs, but like Joseph’s brothers in Dothan, the wicked sharecroppers saw him coming from a distance. “When the vine-growers saw him, they reasoned with one another, saying, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance will be ours’” (Luke 20:14).
Through means of this parable, the Master announced to the Sadducean priesthood and religious leaders of His day that their term of service was expiring. He concluded the parable by asking them directly, “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” (Matthew 21:40). They replied, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons” (Matthew 21:41). Thus they spoke their own doom.
Who are the new vine-growers? Who are the “others” to whom God will give the authority over Israel? In other places, the Master indicates that the twelve disciples will take positions of authority over Israel. In the Messianic Era, “when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne,” the twelve disciples “shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28). Yeshua granted to them the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and the authority “to bind and to loose” (Matthew 16:19), terminology that implies the authority to make legal decisions.
An honest, historical review of the situation must admit that the authority over Israel did not land with the community of disciples (at least not yet). Nevertheless, the Master’s words do not fall to the ground. Just as Yeshua predicted, the corrupt and immoral religious authority over Israel quickly lost its position of power and influence. Forty years after the Master spoke the parable of the vineyard, the Jewish Revolt brought those wretches to a wretched end.
In the year 70 CE, the stewardship over the vineyard of Israel changed hands. A new religious leadership rose out of the ashes left behind by the Roman war, and the center of power transferred from the Sadducees to the Pharisees when they convened in Yavneh under Yochanan ben Zakkai. For almost two thousand years, these new custodians have preserved the identity of Judaism and the Jewish people. They are the sages and rabbis of the generations. Ultimately, they too are only hired vine-dressers; they are not the owners of the vineyard. God has granted them temporary authority over the vineyard until the true owner returns from His long journey. When the Son returns, the vineyard will return to Him. In that day, “the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne,” and the twelve disciples “shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).