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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 09/28/2014

Last week’s gospel was from the beginning of chapter 20 of Matthew and today’s comes toward the end of chapter 21, so the lectionary has skipped a few things. Most notably it has skipped Jesus’ triumphant, all glory, laud and honor Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem as well as his cleansing of the temple when he overturned the tables of the money changers and those selling animals for sacrifice: “My house is a house of prayer but you’re making it a den of robbers!” he scolded them. The lectionary addresses those events at other times of the church year but in considering this week’s gospel, it helps to know that this is the background.

The Palm Sunday entry, triumphant though it was, represented the beginning of the end for Jesus. The religious and political authorities had been suspicious of Jesus for awhile, but at this point in the narrative the tension was increasing. As long as Jesus stayed outside of Jerusalem those in power could more or less ignore him as a minor annoyance, but inside of Jerusalem which was the seat of power, the threat level was rising; Jesus would have to be dealt with. But it’s as if Jesus knew that and didn’t care as evidenced by today’s parable. In some of his parables Jesus could be rather subtle in getting his point across, particularly when it involved revealing the hypocrisy of those in positions of power. Having entered Jerusalem though, the time for subtlety was past.

Jesus told them the parable of the two sons where the father tells number one son to go work in the vineyard, the son refuses but then changes his mind and goes. The father tells number two son the same thing and he says he’d be happy to go but then he stays home watching TV and playing video games. Jesus’ question then is, “Which of the two did the will of the father?” The chief priests and elders quickly and correctly say “Number one son.” As they answered though, it would be pretty hard for them not to know that in Jesus’ eyes they were number two son and just in case they missed it, he hits them over the head with the statement about how the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom ahead of you.

As I said, the time for subtlety was past. It was past for the chief priests and elders and with this parable it’s past for us too. With a lot of Jesus’ parables you can come at them from a variety of angles, there isn’t just one interpretation; subtlety is intentionally built into them. With this one though, while there again might be more than one angle, it’s pretty hard to get around the fact that the point Jesus was making is that God requires productive and obedient living from those who claim to be faithful. It raises the old thing about deeds vs. creeds or walking the walk vs. talking the talk. It’s pretty clear that Jesus saw the religious leaders as talkers but not walkers and they would not have appreciated that assessment, especially when they heard themselves contrasted with the tax collectors and prostitutes who, in Jesus’ estimation, had heard the call for repentance and had changed their ways.

The message is pretty clear but it does present some questions for Lutherans who focus so much on grace and it’s not what you do it’s what God has done for you. That is central to Lutheran theology but in this parable and in other places in the Bible too, it’s hard to avoid the idea that what you do does matter. Jesus was making that point, but he wasn’t saying that what you believe doesn’t matter and he wasn’t addressing the issue of grace vs. works. His point to the religious leaders was that the two go together; what you believe leads to action or it should lead to action that supports those beliefs; action is not an option. Any separation of believing and doing is a distortion of the gospel message. The parable then is a caution to the religious leaders; just because you have a position of authority that doesn’t make you better or more faithful than anyone else. Action has to follow and the call to action is the same for everyone.

Jesus wasn’t subtle here; there is accusation in what he said and it probably caused the accused to miss the message about repentance that’s also included here. Part of that is the very hopeful message that it’s not too late. In the parable, the first son wound up doing what his father asked, but not before being disrespectful and rudely dismissive of the order to go work in the vineyard. But the disrespect was not his last word; he changed his mind. It wasn’t too late so he repented, and he acted on his repentance. It wasn’t too late for the tax collectors and prostitutes either. Again, the implication is that their actions changed as a result of hearing the preaching of John the Baptist. In both cases, repentance was more than a feeling, more than feeling bad; it led to a change in action and it’s never too late for that to happen. It’s never too late to repent and to live in a manner worthy of the gospel.

That’s what St. Paul said in his letter to the Philippians. “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” That was from last week’s reading. Nine years ago when this text came up I handed out little cards with that verse printed on them. I’ve still got one taped on my desk upstairs; maybe you still have one somewhere, tucked in a Bible or something. It is a good verse to run across every once in awhile; it’s a good reminder.

In this week’s part of Philippians Paul offers some thoughts on how to do it, how to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. Things like, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Paul reflects the teaching of Jesus here as this is part of the message he was trying to get across in today’s parable; in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

Paul follows that with what is thought to be one of the earliest known Christian hymns, one which may or may not have been written by Paul, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it extends the message of humility to Christ himself, “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

This great hymn is then followed by a verse that I always find interesting: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Work out your own salvation. In Paul’s writings he often wasn’t shy about offering lists of vices and virtues. He also wasn’t shy about offering general instruction on how to live a life worthy of the gospel. But with this verse he indicates that despite his advice there isn’t really a “how to” manual; everyone has to sort out for themselves what salvation means and what it means to live a life worthy of the gospel.

By including the hymn though, in effect Paul is saying, “This is the gospel! This is what God has done for you! This is what Jesus has done for you in emptying himself and fully identifying with what it means to be human! Jesus has given you the model; now work out what that means for you!”

You get the idea that Paul knew it wouldn’t always be easy. “What would Jesus do?” is a nice slogan but what he would do isn’t always clear; ethical choices can get pretty complicated but still, these lessons today make it quite clear that action is called for. However, what that action looks like can be very different from person to person, from situation to situation. Factors like humility and love and looking to the interest of others rather than always looking to defend our own rights have to be considered though both in working out our salvation and what it means and in determining what our work in the vineyard looks like.

Apparently Jesus thought that the lowly regarded tax collectors and prostitutes had done a better job of working in the vineyard than the priests and elders who felt pretty good about themselves. But then, it’s never too late. When our response or lack of a response convicts us like it did the priests and elders, it’s never too late to change. The vineyard is still out there and there is still work to be done.

Rev. Warren Geier


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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