Jesus is teaching in the precinct of the temple, where he's delivering good news. As always, the chief priests, scribes, and elders are there to challenge him. They don't think he has the authority to do things like expel merchants from the temple (recall 19:45) and call school to session.
Jesus responds to their question with a question of his own. What do they think about John's baptism? Was it "from heaven, or was it of human origin?" (20:4).
They consult with each other. They're in a pickle: acknowledging that John's baptism originated from heaven will allow for a counter-response that they didn't believe it.
But saying what they really think will only get them in trouble with the crowds, who would stone them because they consider John a prophet. And yes, stoning was how things went down back then.
Solution? "We don't know."
Jesus responds that—tit for tat—he won't answer their question either.
And with that, it's time for another story.
This guy plants a vineyard, leases it to farmers, and leaves for several years.
At the time of harvest the owner sends his servant to collect the produce that he deserves. But the farmers send him away empty-handed after giving him a thorough beating.
The owner tries again with another servant. But the farmers kick this next guy's butt, dishonor him, and send him off empty-handed as well.
Third time's a charm, right? Wrong. The farmers really bloody this one up and throw him out of the vineyard.
The owner reasons that it's a good idea now to send his own "beloved son" (20:13). Yeah, you should be putting the pieces together right about now.
The farmers will respect him, for he's got a higher status than the servants. But alas, it's not that easy. The farmers say, "This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours" (20:14).
And they do just that: they throw him out of the vineyard and murder him.
What's the owner going to do?
Well, it won't be pretty: "He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others" (20:16).
The audience is kind of shocked by all of this.
But Jesus gives them a stern look and reminds them of the words of Psalm 118:22, "The stone that the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone" (20:17).
Ominously, Jesus adds, "Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls" (20:18). Dun dun dun.
At that very second, the chief priests and scribes are eager to lay their hands upon Jesus. They're not dummies. They know they're supposed to be identified as the farmers in the parable.
Now these guys really need a reason to justify charging Jesus before the governor Pontius Pilate.
The teachers start by buttering Jesus up. He sure is smart! He teaches God's ways! He speaks the truth and doesn't care what anyone else thinks!
Then they pop a big one: "Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" (20:22).
Jesus sees right through their charade. They're terrible undercover agents.
He asks whose picture is on the coin anyway. They respond, "The emperor's." (That would be Tiberius.)
Jesus tells them, "give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (NRSV).
The teachers fail in their mission and are shocked by Jesus's ability to maneuver around their tricky question.
Now the Sadducees take their turn.
Their sect denies that the dead can be resurrected. They cite the law of Levirate Marriage, which says that a man should take the wife of his brother and raise offspring on his behalf if the brother has died childless. Read all about it in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.
How about a hypothetical example to elucidate things?
There's this family with seven brothers. The first marries but dies childless. The second and then the third marry his wife, but they both die childless, too. This happens five more times, and no child is ever born.
Then the woman herself dies.
Sorry, did we mention this was kind of depressing?
The Sadducees want to know whose wife she'll be when the dead are resurrected. After all, each of the brothers had her as his wife.
Jesus makes quick work of this elaborate case-study by refuting one big assumption. It's people here and now who're getting married, but marriage isn't going to happen among those who are actually worthy enough to enjoy the future age and attain resurrection.
They're certainly not going to marry, and they're not going to die either. They'll be more like angels are now or even "children of God" in that they're "children of the resurrection" (20:36).
And if you're not convinced, he has another argument based on scripture.
During the whole burning bush scenario, we hear about the Lord who is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Fact check Jesus in Exodus 3:6.
Jesus underlines that God is the God of the living, not the God of the dead. The implication is that these patriarchs are all still alive in some sense even after their death long before the time of Moses.
Even some of the scribes are impressed with Jesus's ability to dismantle the objection of the Sadducees. No more questions, your honor.
So Jesus asks them a question.
Here's a little problem with Psalm 110:1. Why does David call the Messiah Lord, when the Messiah's supposed to be David's son, as far as his lineage is concerned?
So Jesus decides to go on an anti-scribe rant. They love to walk around in their posh robes. They love people fawning all over them in the market. They love seats of honor in synagogues. They love to recline on the best couch during banquets. (We've definitely heard all this before.)
But they devour even the measly resources of widows. They pray long priggish prayers. And they'll receive a whole lot of judgment. When?
Now Jesus sees something interesting. He watches as several wealthy people donate money to the temple's treasury. He also sees an impoverished widow contributing "two small copper coins" (21:2).
Jesus argues that the widow is contributing more than anyone else.
Proportionately speaking, he's right. The rich donate only a portion of their wealth, while the widow donates everything she's got.