“We’re all stories in the end, eh? Make it a good one.” -The Doctor
I love stories and those with the imagination to tell them, for stories often convey deep and lasting truth in ways that couldn’t be communicated in any other way. Because stories approach the truth obliquely, I’m often left remembering and pondering and wondering long after they have reached their conclusions. There are certain books and movies that I enjoy reading or watching repeatedly. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve read the Harry Potter series (especially Deathly Hallows) or watched Star Trek IV, or certain Doctor Who episodes. The new Wonder Woman movie will probably wind up on my repeat list, too. But it’s not because I believe that there is a parallel wizarding world, or that time travel is possible, or that superheroes with fantastical powers walk among us. Those parts of the stories are just window dressing on the truth, and if you are distracted by the curtains, you will miss the main point.
This week’s lectionary readings contain two stories that I see as using different window dressings to communicate the reality of God’s grace. The first story is from Jonah and as I wrote last year, isn’t primarily about a big fish. God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and warn them if they don’t change their ways, they will be destroyed. Jonah doesn’t want to do this, and takes some convincing to go, but eventually does what God asks. The people take his warnings seriously, which makes him mad because he wanted to see them destroyed. That’s where today’s reading picks up the story:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
The second story is one Jesus tells his disciples, but if taken at face value it is difficult to understand and makes little sense.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
I can certainly understand why the day laborers who worked twelve hours would be resentful of the ones who only worked one. And wouldn’t the landowner be setting a bad precedent for next year’s harvest hires? Isn’t this kind of treatment akin to (gasp!) socialism? What exactly was Jesus trying to tell us?
The traditional interpretation of the story is that it’s about heaven: the one who makes a deathbed confession winds up in the same afterlife as someone who has been a faithful follower since childhood. I don’t disagree with that thinking, but I think there must be something more to the story. Jesus talked about “the kingdom of heaven” quite a lot, often using stories and metaphors. In most of these instances, it was pretty clear that he wasn’t talking about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by; he was talking about something that was immanently present. So how does this story fit in with all the other stories Jesus told about the kingdom of heaven? And how is it similar to the Jonah story?
If you take away the draperies from the stories of Jonah and the laborers in the vineyard, you can see God’s grace through the window. The truth of the Jonah story is that God’s love is for everyone, even those who we think must be God’s enemies because they are our enemies. The truth of the laborers in the vineyard story is that God’s love isn’t something we can earn. It doesn’t depend on us, but on God. In both stories God’s faithful servants aren’t particularly portrayed positively. They whine that God is unfair and they are not appreciated for their efforts. They expect God to think and behave like human beings usually do: quid pro quo, tit for tat, and you shouldn’t get something for nothing. Sometimes, God’s most faithful servants are the least aware of God’s grace. Like the proud Pharisee in another story Jesus tells, they think that God’s grace is something they earn through good behavior. But it doesn’t work that way, and following that line of reasoning leads you farther away, not nearer, to God. God’s grace is for Jonah and the Ninevites, for the early and late workers in the vineyard, and for Pharisee and publican alike. And it’s only when you realize that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s grace that you can begin to really experience it. Or as Jesus put it, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
God’s love, demonstrated through God’s grace, is beyond rational comprehension and stretches to infinity and beyond. And that’s good news to me!