Sermon September 24, 2023
The First Reading: Jonah 3:10, 4:1-11
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
The Gospel: Matthew 20:1-6
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
“It’s not fair!” This is a frequent complaint from children and teenagers who feel that they don’t get what they deserve. But this complaint is not limited to young people only. I think we all have a finely tuned sense of what is fair, where we stand in comparison to others, how we should be treated, and what we deserve. And sometimes this can be tricky territory. Students may feel that they didn’t get the grade that they think they deserve; in the workplace employees may feel that they don’t get fair salaries or evaluations, in comparison to their colleagues.
The readings from Jonah and the gospel are obviously about this sense of what someone deserves and of fairness.
Jonah was quite vocal about this, to the point of appearing overly dramatic. “Lord, please take my life from me.” In fairness, we need some background to understand him. The city of Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian Empire and Israel had been enemies for a very long time. In the 700’s BC Assyria had practically destroyed Israel. Given this history, Jonah’s mind was made up. The Assyrians deserved to die. But then God called Jonah to preach to them. God’s message to the Ninevites was to shape up, to change their behavior so that they may be saved. If they did not obey, they would die.
The idea of giving them a last chance was just outrageous in Jonah’s mind. In fact, it could give the Ninevites only another opportunity to fight Israel again at a later point. For Jonah this whole issue was a matter of survival, but also justice. They deserved nothing but God’s wrath.
Consequently, Jonah tried to get out of his assignment by running away. That didn’t work out. Everybody who ever went to Sunday School knows about Jonah in the belly of the whale. So, eventually he made his way to Nineveh and delivered the most unenthusiastic announcement, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That’s all he said.
The funny thing is that the most unenthusiastic prophet became the most successful one. Right away the Ninevites did what they were told to do and that settled it with God. No retribution for past sins.
Our text today is the dispute between Jonah and God following this act of mercy and forgiveness. Jonah complained about God for being gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishment.
These are all positive attributes, but in Jonah’s mind the wrong people benefited from them, therefore they turned into something negative.
In the gospel, there were people too who benefited in a way that didn’t look as if they were deserving. All workers who were hired at different hours of the day got the same daily wage, no matter at what time they had started working. According to those who worked longer hours, the ones who worked only for an hour or two didn’t deserve the wages they got. The landowner wondered whether they had a problem with his generosity. Again, generosity is a positive attribute but when the seemingly wrong people benefit it turns sour quickly.
I think it is not difficult at all to put ourselves in Jonah’s shoes or in the shoes of those who worked all day and did not get more money. And I am sure we would respond the same way. If we work hard all day long while a colleague spends most of his time at the water cooler for chitchat, we would not be too happy if he had the same salary. After the attacks of 9/11, there was no thought that someone should talk to bin Laden so that he had a chance to change his ways.
It can be difficult to deal with this discrepancy between our understanding of what is fair or what we and others deserve on one hand, and God’s unlimited, unreasonable generosity and mercy on the other hand. And maybe the inability or unwillingness to grasp the vastness of God’s mercy and forgiveness is one of our biggest shortcomings.
Both Jonah and the workers who worked the longer hours had more than one option to respond to God’s actions.
Jonah could have rejoiced with the Ninevites for changing their ways and for being saved. He could have claimed rightly so to be the most effective and most successful prophet ever. Instead, he wanted to die.
What the parable possibly taught the disciples was that the workers with the long hours could have rejoiced with the ones who lucked out. They could have congratulated the ones with the fewer hours for still being able to feed their families on this day. They could have shared their joy over this completely unexpected gift. After all, they were day laborers who certainly did not have funds for a rainy day. If they couldn’t find work, they wouldn’t eat. And it is not that anything was taken from those with the longer hours anyway. They received the amount they agreed upon.
More generous and less calculating responses would have had an impact on everyone involved in both stories, especially on the relationship between Jonah and God, and the workers and the landowner respectively. But it was their human idea of fairness that didn’t agree with God’s idea of generosity. Both, the grumbling workers and Jonah, deprived themselves from celebrating with others God’s loving kindness among them.
God’s ways are not our ways, and the ways of faith are not necessarily the ways of the world. Different standards apply. This gives us something to chew on and to keep in mind, especially when we are tempted to grumble. Maybe there are other options. Amen.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.