There is a kind of through the looking glass feel to this parable. If you think of the classic fairy tale structure, where a king sends three messengers on a quest to redeem his belongings, in this case the wine of his vineyard, the story goes something like this:
A king had three sons. He also had a vineyard which he carefully prepared and left in the hands of tenants. When the time came for the vineyard to yield up its harvest, the king sent his eldest son to negotiate with the tenants, but they tricked the eldest son, and he fell for their trickery out of greed or dishonesty or plain dumb stupidity, and his fall led to his death. After a while, as he had not returned, the king sent his second son out after him. Again, the tenants ran rings around the middle child, and he, too, fell prey to their wickedness and his own insufficiency. Finally, the third son, the youngest, the darling one, came to his father and begged to be allowed to try his hand at completing the quest. The king at first refused, afraid to lose his one remaining heir, but eventually he relented, and the youngest son set out, and through a combination of charm, bright honesty, righteous cunning and winning ways, defeated the tenants, and restored the king’s rightful property. The watchtower turned out to contain an imprisoned princess. The king was so glad to receive his vineyard back, and the princess’s father so glad to receive his daughter back, that between them they endowed the happy couple with marriage, riches, and happy ever after.
That’s how the story is supposed to go. And in that classic context we don’t worry so much about the fate of the wicked tenants, nor allow them to fill us with the fear of hellfire.
But this parable has skewed the picture, and here’s why. There is no happy ending. There is no ending. The king leases his vineyard to new tenants, and the suspicion may be that the same cycle will at some point repeat itself. After all, Jesus is quoting and developing a parable used by Isaiah eight centuries or so earlier, ending with judgement, which was picked up by the Psalmist, pleading for restoration, which has cycled through scripture and repeated whenever it appeared appropriate to the times. It is not a fairy tale, nor is it a fable with a single moral to the story. It is a complex narrative with multiple points of entry, capable of conveying meaning to chief priests in first-century Judea, prophets in the eighth century before them, people of the un-thought-of nation of America two thousand years hence.
There is no happy ending, because there is no ending; but there is hope in this parable. The central character of the story is not the tenants who come to a bad end, nor the slaves and the son whom they sacrifice. It is the vineyard. And in the ending that we have, the king reclaims his land. He starts over. He makes sure that the vineyard is sustainable. He does not give up and he does not let go. He does what is necessary to ensure that his vines grow. Back in the Song of Songs, God says, “My vineyard, my very own, is for myself;” it is a love song.
There is judgement in the parable. It is present in Isaiah, and in Matthew. Back in Hosea, the vine itself is unfaithful; as it grows and spreads, it offers its fruits back to other kings, other gods. There is judgement in the image. But there are many different ways to find ourselves in the parable.
The vines may be each of us, any of us whom God has planted in this good earth to bear fruit. The parable asks, are we rendering our harvest back to God? Sometimes vines need pruning; are we taking care of our roots, our fruitful brances, are we shedding deadwood as we grow, that which makes us less healthy, less productive, less alive? The hope for the vines is that God has planted us, and tends us, and cares for us.
And what of the tenants? Which of us does not bear some responsibility to care for the vineyard of God? If we are parents, or godparents, we have promised at the baptism of our children, our charges, to raise them in the knowledge and love of God, and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. If we are baptized ourselves, we have promised to work in the vineyard of the world, proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, seeking and serving Christ in all persons. How diligently are we tending to the vines that are in our care? What fruits are we offering back to God? And how do we respond to those messengers from God who come to our conscience and demand an accounting, those little taps on the doors of our souls? Do we offer ourselves back to God, or do we kill them and bury them, hoping God won’t notice?
Or are we called to be the slaves, the prophets, the ones sent to be those clarion calls to the conscience of others? Do we have the courage?
But as I said, the central character of this parable, this set of parables is the vineyard. As Jesus told it, the vineyard is the people of Israel, planted and protected by God, but betrayed by God’s stewards, the chief priests and elders. The vineyard is those who find themselves betrayed and occupied by unsympathetic forces: the Judeans under Rome; the Christians of Iraq, under threat of extinction from ISIS; the democrats of Hong Kong; those living under the oppression of poverty and systemic inequality, awaiting benefits that never bear fruit; those living in fear of debilitating disease, of Ebola, of death; all of those who feel as though God, their king, has left to go and live in a far away country, out of sight and out of reach.
The hope of this parable for those people is that God has not forgotten them, that God has not forsaken them, that God will return and roust out those who would do evil unto them and restore them.
This is not a fairy story with a happy ending and a moral in its tail. This is a description of the real cycle of faith and life that we live out in the presence of God. Its message is an appeal to our conscience, yes; but it is also a promise that God will not, does not abandon that which God has planted. Its lack of an ending is a reminder, true and to be trusted, that God’s mercy endures forever.