Tales of unrequited love have shaped the tragic imagination in dramas, like Euripides’s “Medea” or Shakespeare’s “Othello,” in which the spurned Roderigo hastens the downfall of “one that loved not wisely, but too well”; in epic poems with Dido on the shores of Carthage as Aeneas sails away, and in the haunting arias of Bizet’s “Carmen.” The real-life tragedy of spurned love plays out in divorce courts across the land. The Bible itself offers a startling panorama of spurned love. “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” hears the complaints of his people against Egyptian slave drivers and knows their sufferings, comes down to rescue them and makes with them a covenant of enduring fidelity (Ex. 3:4-9). Then unfold alternations of failure and apostasy, followed again and again by a rejected and suffering God reaching out to an obtuse people.
Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard” is a poignant reminder of such love. God, the friend, plants and constructs a vineyard with loving care so it will yield fruit, but what comes forth are wild grapes. A distraught God pleads with the vineyard keepers, the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the people of Judah, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?” Here the song turns tragic, as God will cause ruin to the vineyard because he looked for judgment (mishpat) but received bloodshed (mispach), for justice (sedaqah) but received a cry (se’aqah). Behind this threat stands the unjust exploitation of God’s people by the Jerusalem aristocracy.
Today’s Gospel, often inaccurately called the parable of the wicked tenants, is a virtual midrash or commentary on Isaiah’ s song. The plot is deceptively simple. A man constructs a vineyard, reminiscent of God’s care in Isaiah 5. He leases the vineyard to others and then 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, these tenants! With seemingly obtuse logic, the owner muses that if he sends his son, they will respect him. Not surprisingly, the tenants see this as an act of powerless desperation and kill the son. As in Isaiah, the mood shifts. The owner will come, “put those wretched men to a wretched death” and give the vineyard to others, who will produce fruit.
In all the Gospels the parable becomes an allegory of the rejection of Jesus by the Jerusalem establishment, which results in the destruction of the Temple and the transfer of the vineyard to other tenants. Unfortunately, this interpretation has fostered anti-Semitism throughout the ages. On the lips of the historical Jesus, the parable may have had a more fundamental meaning. The utterly illogical action of the owner in sending the son reflects that pattern in which a long-suffering and compassionate God reaches out in the face of the most blatant forms of apostasy and idolatry (see Hosea 11-12). This parable expresses what Abraham Joshua Heschel, in God in Search of Man, has called “the divine pathos,” which is the great paradox of biblical faith—a longing God’s pursuit of humanity. Jesus, who later laments over Jerusalem (Mt. 23:37-39), brings to expression this shocking side of God’s love, a love that will ultimately spell his own death. A better title for today’s Gospel might be “The Long-Suffering God.”
Matthew does not revel in the destruction of the wicked tenants, but turns their fate back on his hearers. The evil of the earlier tenants was that they did not bear fruit, and Matthew stresses twice that these new tenants must bear fruit. Matthew’s emerging Jewish-Christian community is to look to its Jewish heritage not only for a warning, but to find guidance for its life. Isaiah summoned the earlier tenants to justice and righteousness by learning to do well, redressing the wronged, hearing the orphans’ plea and defending the widow (Is. 1:16). Jesus’ followers who do not bear fruit in such areas as purity of heart and action, forgiveness and love of enemy, and almsgiving for the needy, will hear the ominous words of Jesus, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers” (Mt. 7:23).
The readings today re-enact on a divine scale the age-old mystery of total love given to another that should blossom forth in bountiful fruit, but that, when refused or abused, unravels in destructive tragedy. The Gospel calls on Christians today to think of themselves as gifted tenants of God’s vineyard, while warning them of the consequences of neglect. It may be the season for the church to review its agricultural practices.