PROPER 20, A
How much do you remember about the story of Jonah? All I really remember is that he spent three days in the belly of a great fish. The reading we heard today is at the very end of the book of Jonah and I think it is much more interesting than what we learned in Sunday School.
God called Jonah to go to Nineveh to call the residents to repentance. Jonah responded by running away – by boat, which is how he wound up in the belly of the fish. But the second time God called him he followed orders. Not only did he go to Nineveh and preach repentance, he was successful! Even the king repented. You’d think he’d be ecstatic!
Instead, Jonah was highly displeased. He’d rather die than see the Ninevites forgiven. And the Lord said to him, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Remember this question. Is it right for Jonah to be angry?
Jonah stomps off outside the city waiting to see what will happen. What happens to Nineveh is nothing. What happens to Jonah is another thing. God makes a bush to grow up and give Jonah shade for the day and then makes a worm show up to destroy the bush. And again Jonah is mad.
God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah replies, “Yes, angry enough to die!” God’s response is the point of the whole Book of Job. “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 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
It’s plain to see that Jonah has made up his mind about the people of Nineveh and he believes they should be punished. I even think there’s a sense in which he has been looking forward to it. He sits down outside the city to see what happens, still hoping God will rain down fire upon them, or some such terrible catastrophe.
He is very angry that God will not do what he wants. And I do know a bit about how he feels. Don’t we sometimes feel that way too, when we see scoundrels making a lot of money, or see wealthy people escaping the justice system. We want the bad guys held accountable and we want them punished. “It’s not fair!” we say.
Of course, it’s rather a different story when we are the ones who have done something wrong, isn’t it? Then we want God to be merciful to us.
It isn’t often that the Old and New Testament lessons go together as well as they do this week. If the parable Jesus tells in the Gospel today seems at all incomprehensible, just go back to the Jonah story.
Neither story is about fairness. They are both about grace, specifically the grace and forgiveness of God. And both should remind us that in God’s Kingdom, grace and forgiveness are much more important than fairness. Both stories also help us see that in God’s eyes, everyone is equally important, whether sinners or saints. Talk about not fair!!
In the parable today we have a landowner who hires day workers to work in his vineyard. Some work all day, some work part of the day and some work only an hour or so. When the landowner pays them all the standard daily amount, one of the men who had worked the whole day grumbles, pointing out the unfairness of that.
The landowner says to the grumbler, “Friend,” and according to Robert Capon, the word used in Greek for this is seldom used as it carries an element of sarcasm, more like “listen, Buster, 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?”
In giving equal amounts of pay to each worker no matter how much or how little they worked, the landowner has defied the customs of the marketplace. He values the work of each the same, and we’re not used to that. If we work hard and win the prizes we expect rewards greater than others — BUT that is not the way it will be in the Kingdom and we must find a way to understand and accept this difference.
First and foremost we have to leave the judging to God. Second, we have to understand that God loves all his children equally. And why is it we get so hung up on judgment that we seem to forget that God’s mercy is also available to us? If we get the same mercy from God as anyone else, why get so bent out of shape about it?
I think we all tend to be like the older brother of the Prodigal Son. If we’ve worked hard all our lives and followed the rules, we resent God’s forgiveness of a sinner who repents at the last moment. “That’s not fair,” we exclaim.
Well, “fair” in that sense is not part of God’s promise to us. He didn’t promise us fair. He hasn’t said, “if you are good all your life, I promise to punish those who aren’t.” Our desire to see others suffer is a sure sign that we still have some growing up to do.
Are we being good because it is a joy to serve the Lord? Or are we being good so we can look down on others? Are we focused on how we can become better people or are we focused on what’s wrong with others? Are we grateful for the gifts we’ve been given or are we envious of the gifts God has given to someone else?
The parable seems to say very clearly that even those who come late to the table are welcome to the feast. And we are meant to be comforted by this. Whether we die at the end of a long and righteous life or die in our youth, before we have time to grow in the faith, Jesus will be there to meet us.
The next time you say, or hear that voice in your head say, “That’s not fair!” stop and ask yourself this: did I react because it was unfair to someone else or because it was unfair to me. Who’s standard am I applying, my own or God’s? Is the situation an example of true injustice or is it a form of envy?
Then remember Paul’s line about God’s kingdom – we are no longer male or female, slave or free, rich or poor. We are no longer smart or dumb, capable or hopeless, motivated or lazy, handsome or homely, popular or not, interesting or boring. And when the world turns, all these labels will be gone, and we will all be nothing more than beloved children of God. Why not try to live that life now? AMEN.