When Will They Learn?

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21:33-43

Tales of unrequited love have long shaped the tragic imagination. In classical literature, there’s the tragic drama of Euripides’ “Medea,” a mother who seeks blood vengeance and personifies the old saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” There’s Shakespeare’s “Othello,” in which the spurned Roderigo hastens the downfall of “one that loved not wisely, but too well.” And among the many tragedies in the world of opera, few equal the haunting, yet vengeful story of Bizet’s “Carmen.” Meanwhile, real-life tragedies of spurned love play out in divorce courts and in murder trials across the land.

Ah, but the Bible itself is no stranger to spurned love. The Creator makes the man and woman in the image of His love…and off they go trysting with the Tempter. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob hears the complaints of His people against Egyptian slave drivers. He comes down to rescue them and at Sinai He makes with them a covenant of enduring fidelity.

And then it’s déjà vu all over again…the story unfolds through the pages of the Old Testament, of failure and apostasy, followed again and again and again and again by the actions of a rejected and suffering God who reaches out to an obtuse people.

Our Old Testament Reading, Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard” is a poignant reminder of that love, so often spurned and unrequited. God, the beloved, plants and constructs a vineyard with loving care so it will yield fruit. But what He gets for His troubles is wild grapes. A lamenting God pleads with the vineyard keepers, those inhabitants of Jerusalem and the people of Judah, “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I had not done?”

Then the love song turns tragic. God, who in love had planted and developed this vineyard with His own hands, brings ruin to His vineyard. Why? Because He looked for justice but received bloodshed, for righteousness but received an outcry. Behind this tragic tale stands the exploitation of God’s people by the Jerusalem aristocracy; the king, the court, and the temple priesthood.

All of this echoes throughout the telling of Jesus’ parable in the Gospel Reading. The vineyard story is as familiar to Jesus’ listeners as…as…well, as what? What stories do we tell that are, at one and the same time, a reflection of our finest hour with an epic tragedy of self-inflicted loss? The stories from warfare abound with tales of brave men in number sent to their doom by foolish commanders in ill-fated battles with no hope of success—Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava. So much so lost.

Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel Reading is a commentary on Isaiah’s song. The plot is nearly identical and deceptively simple. A man constructs a vineyard, reminiscent of God’s loving care in Isaiah 5. He leases the vineyard to others and then, in time, wants his share of the produce. He sends three servants, whom the tenants rough up and kill, followed by another set more numerous than the first, who are treated the same way. A bad lot, very bad!

But then…with what seems to be the most obtuse sense of logic, the owner thinks that if he sends his son, they will respect him. Not surprisingly, the tenants see this as an act of powerless desperation by the owner. “What a fool!” they must think. And they take charge and kill the son. But once again, as in Isaiah, the mood shifts. “Hell hath no fury…” The owner will come and “put those wretches to a miserable death” and give the vineyard to someone who will produce fruit the owner desires. In the heat of actions, the temperature suddenly turns frosty. After all, “Revenge,” they say, “is a dish best served cold.”

In the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—this parable, told in Holy Week, captures the rejection of Jesus by the Jerusalem establishment, and hints at the coming destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. It also hints at the beginning of the Gentile mission, the “other tenants” who come into the vineyard of Israel through the Jews’ rejection of Jesus, as St. Paul often notes.

Unfortunately, given the human tendency to kick a person when he’s down, the tragic side of this story is that it has fueled anti-Semitism by Christians through the ages. But in more recent time has contributed to the unfounded accusation from secular critics that the Gospels themselves are anti-Semitic. And among the really far-out critics, the accusation that Jesus acts with anti-Semitic motivation. It’s ridiculous on the face of it…but these days, it’s amazing what gains traction. Jesus and the New Testament writers are not anti-Semitic. They’re Jews themselves!

No, on the lips of Jesus, this parable has a more fundamental meaning, which Isaiah comes to hint at in the later chapters of his prophecy, “Who has believed our message?” The utterly illogical action of the owner in sending the son reflects the long-suffering and compassionate God who reaches out to His people in the face of the most blatant forms of apostasy and idolatry. This parable, whether in its Isaiah form, or echoes of it in our Psalm today, or in fuller form from Jesus, expresses “the divine pathos,” God’s longing pursuit of the human race. “Adam, where are you?”

Now it is so easy, because it is so tempting, for a preacher to turn this parable into a threat. “See! Look what happened to those wretched workers. And if you don’t pull your weight in the Church, God will do the same thing to you! If you don’t hop to it and do this or that or the other…you are crucifying Jesus all over again! In fact, you’re worse than these vineyard tenants, because you should know better!” It is so easy to preach that sermon! But in doing so, the preacher, like an inept general, is sending his troops to the slaughter for nothing.

Jesus does not revel in the destruction of the wicked tenants. He turns their fate back on His listeners, but not to threaten them or us. Oh certainly it is possible to get people to “produce the fruit” if you use the right threat against them, but that’s not faith. And anything that is not done from faith—be it ever so good—is sin. No one is ever threatened into faith and faithfulness. No one!

Rather, what Jesus does in the painful darkness of the vineyard tragedy, is to set the love—this boundless, reckless, illogical love of God—He sets God’s love so very clearly as a self-immolating love that will suffer itself to be crushed in the winepress of crucifixion, so that the vintage of God’s wrath borne by Jesus may become for us the cup of salvation, that we may drink and not die. Us…who could never fare any better than those wretches back then.

The parable re-enacts in our ears the age-old mystery of divine love given to humanity that, when received in faith, blossoms in bountiful fruit. Yes, when that divine love is spurned, refused, rejected…the whole song unravels into destructive tragedy.

As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Of course God knew what would happen…apparently He thought it worth the risk. Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. You could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. If God thinks this state of the universe is a price worth paying for [His love]…then we may take it, it is worth paying.”

The vineyard of the Lord will never produce fruit by threats. The fruit comes only by faith, a faith that grows from the seed of love planted in us by God through His crucified Son. Where there is Christ, there is faith, there is love, there is fruit. So we believe. So we listen as Jesus says to us by this parable, “let Me sing [again and again and again] for My Beloved My love song concerning His vineyard.”