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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 9/21

          When you hear today’s Parable of the Vineyard do you feel like those hired first who worked all day have every right to be upset that they didn’t get paid more than those who worked for only an hour?  I’ve heard the story lots and lots of times; I know it’s supposed to be about God’s grace but still it tends to get me every time.  It just doesn’t seem fair and there are plenty of places in the Bible that talk about justice and fairness and equity so I think we’re justified in feeling a little put off by this parable so you know what?  I’m going to change the ending.  I’m going to cross out verses 8 through 16 and write it this way.

          “When evening came the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay starting with the first and going to the last because the first should be first and the last should be last.’  When those who were hired first came, each was paid the usual daily wage as per agreement with the owner of the vineyard.  When those hired at nine o’clock came, the manager did the math and paid them three quarters of what the first had received; those hired at noon got half the usual daily wage.  Each of the other laborers received the appropriate wage for the amount of time they worked and they all returned to their homes.  No one grumbled or complained because they had no right to; each one knew they had received exactly what they deserved.  So it will be in the kingdom of God.”

          There; that’s better.  Equal pay for equal work; unequal pay for unequal work.  It’s only fair.

          You know though, while I’m editing and improving the Bible, let’s talk about the first lesson.  I think Jonah deserves a better shake than he usually gets.  He always gets portrayed as kind of a jerk, but I don’t think that’s fair.  Jonah was called by the Lord to go to Ninevah to get the people there to repent but he didn’t want to go because he didn’t like those people.  So when he gets on a boat and heads in the opposite direction he gets painted as bigoted, prejudiced, holier than thou, take your pick.  His failure to obey the Lord got him tossed overboard where he got swallowed by the whale, the part of the story that everyone knows.  And then, even after the Lord saved him by having the whale vomit him up on shore, Jonah was still extremely half hearted in his efforts to get Ninevah to repent because he really thought they deserved punishment.

          But you know what?  Ninevah did deserve punishment.  Let me tell you about Ninevah.  It was the capital city of the Assyrian empire which was the archenemy of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  From their perspective Ninevah was the evil empire, the axis of evil, whatever you want to call it.  Ninevah was a wicked, violent place.  So after sort of doing what he was supposed to do Jonah sat under a bush hoping to watch fire and brimstone rain down on Ninevah because it was a bad place.  He wanted the pleasure of watching its destruction and who cares if there’s a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also many animals?  Who cares??  You can’t be weak and let your enemies get away with stuff.  They’ll just attack you again.  Justice must be served.  Ninevah must be punished.

          So…when the Lord says to Jonah, “And should I not be concerned about Ninevah?” in my version of the story I want Jonah to fire back at him like some of the other prophets do and say, “Shouldn’t you be concerned about Israel, about your people, your chosen people?  Don’t they deserve better than to have you let Ninevah off the hook?”  I want the story to end, “And the Lord agreed and so punished Ninevah for their many transgressions.  Jonah, son of Amittai, returned to Israel and all of Israel praised the Lord for what the Lord had done for them.”

          Isn’t that a better ending?  If you’re bad you deserve to be punished.  Doesn’t that improve things?  Well, maybe; except for, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love;” except for, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

          What I did with my edited “improvements” to these stories is to recreate the world as we already have it.  What the Bible does, in contrast, is to create and imagine new possibilities.  Jesus didn’t come into the world to tell us what we already know.  We already know how the world works and that’s what I gave you in my ending to the parable of the vineyard.  There’s nothing wrong with my ending; it’s fair; everyone got what they earned, no one was cheated.  But where does that leave us?  It leaves us right where we started; you earn your way, you get what you deserve.

          In Jesus’ ending, no one got less than they deserved, some got more; but everyone got what they needed.  In my ending that wasn’t the case.  The usual daily wage was just enough to provide for a family at a subsistence level.  Those who only got three quarters of the usual daily wage, or half, or less, well, even though that was all they really earned, even though the landowner was fair, somebody at their house wasn’t going to eat that night.  For Jesus that’s not OK.  In Jesus’ kingdom everyone gets what they need.

          In my ending to the Jonah story, again I just recreated the world we already know, the world as it has existed since the beginning, where if you attack me I’m going to attack you and call it justice.  It’s a world of revenge and retaliation where power rules and the cycle of violence goes on and on.  It certainly can be argued that there are times when such actions of retaliation are called for, even necessary, but one of the things the biblical ending of Jonah does is to create an image where the violence ends.  It’s just a story.  Historically the city of Ninevah was ultimately destroyed by the next superpower to come along and other prophets celebrated its capture as the wrath of God deservedly come down on Ninevah.  But in this odd, somewhat comical little story of Jonah, a different possibility is raised.

          Of course what both of these stories are about is grace.  Part of what we learn as we get into these stories is that as much as we talk about grace                    (and as Lutherans we probably talk about it more than anyone) as much as we talk about grace, we still have trouble understanding and accepting it.  We get hung up on a system of merit, you get what you deserve, or we get hung up on something like Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven where grace and forgiveness are the rule, but then there’s the kingdom of this world where all of that grace and forgiveness stuff sounds good, but another set of laws is at work.  There certainly was truth in how Luther saw things, but I don’t think Jesus or the prophets before him were just preparing us for the heavenly hereafter.  They continually offered images of another way, inviting us to imagine the possibilities for this world.

          Those possibilities are not fully realized here and now, but we do get glimpses; at our best we are able to provide glimpses of the possibilities of God.  In the kingdom of God though, the possibilities are fully realized and as we struggle sometimes with way things are, we can and should cling to the good news of God’s possibilities.  Because, what God’s possibilities fully realized  means is that in the Jonah story we are Ninevah, repentant Ninevah that escapes the judgment and wrath that Jonah is so sure that they deserve.  In the parable of the vineyard we are those hired at the last hour who don’t deserve much, but who get all that they need.

          We worship a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We worship a God who is free to do what he chooses with what belongs to him.  The good news is that we all belong to him and he chooses eternal life for us, the eternal life made possible in Jesus, even though based on our own merit, we don’t deserve it.  We are people dependent on God’s grace called to live lives of grace that reflect this undeserved gift.  In repentance, may we humbly accept the gift of grace, and may we see that it belongs to others too.        


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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