Proper 20, A
“They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness;” the psalmist declares. “they shall sing of your righteous deeds.”
Except nobody really seems to be singing about God’s righteous deeds today. Jonah certainly isn’t. Jonah is angry. “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. Jonah understands the goodness of God with crystal clarity, and that very goodness has got him so bent out of shape he’s practically a pretzel.
We all remember Jonah from Sunday school – perhaps more for his imagination-stimulating time in a piscine belly than for the rest of his story. A refresher. Jonah is a prophet. Sort of. He doesn’t exactly follow in the footsteps of your typical prophet. God tells him to go to Ninevah – home of Israel’s enemies, a dissolute and decadent bunch and spread the word of God. Expressing his disinclination for the assignment in actions rather than words, Jonah hops on a boat going the other direction entirely, into rather nicer territory. Demonstrating an omniscience that should surely not have been surprising to a prophet, God finds him out and raises a horrible storm that convinces the sailors to dump him out as fish food. Eventually delivered from his unpromising position in the digestive tract of the sea creature and called a second time to prophesy to Ninevah, Jonah opts for obedience, but an obedience without enthusiasm. Jonah trudges across the land repeating a mere 8 words over and over, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Ninevah’s shocking response belongs in the Prophet Hall of Fame. First of all they didn’t kill him, which is the best you can realistically expect as a prophet – it’s a very dangerous occupation – but even more than that, his words found purchase. He gained not a few followers, but a complete capitulation of the entire population right down to the livestock. His words, his acts, saved 120,000 people and their chickens and their cows. Thanks be to God! Far from jubilant, Jonah sulks with the drama of a teenager caught out after curfew.
Fast forward 500 years. Peter, presumably speaking for all the disciples asks, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus makes some generally reassuring assertions, then tells the parable we just read. One homiletics professor describes this parable as the scriptural equivalent of cod liver oil: “You know Jesus is right, you know it must be good for you, but that does not make it any easier to swallow.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven, p. 100).
Parables mean to place us into a situation, make us identify with the characters in the story. True confessions: when I read this story I take my place in the field early or maybe with the 9:00 crew on a particularly humble day. Their anger is my anger; their envy my envy. No matter how many times I read this text, I feel the unfairness of the largesse offered to the newcomers after all my hard work. No matter how many times I read this text, I am surprised by the landowner’s question, “are you envious because of my generosity?” Well, yes actually. Or frustrated anyway. Its not fair! God’s not fair!
Fair is not a God concept, not a Kingdom thing. Love, yes. Grace, most certainly. Justice, again and again. But we cannot equate justice with fairness.
There is a marvelous cartoon with 3 people of differing heights, 3 boxes of the same height, and a fence with something interesting happening on the other side. In the first pane, labeled “fair”, each person stands on a box. The tallest towers over the fence, the medium-sized fellow can just peek over, and the smallest cannot see, even on tiptoe. In the second pane, labeled “just”, all three stand looking just over the fence – the tallest with no assistance, the second on one box and the shortest on 2.
As long as fair means getting what is deserved God will not be fair. As long as fair means offering more (money, attention, effort, whatever) buys you value relative to God’s other children God will not be fair. That is the human world, not God’s. It’s Jonah’s world, where Jonah hated his enemy so deeply that he could not rejoice in the salvation of an entire country. It’s the laborer’s world, where enough is not enough if someone less worthy also gets it. It’s our world where we measure our lives against the yardstick that is another person’s life – He who dies with the most toys wins, might makes right, etc.
That is not God. God is not fair.
Not fair when God values the last to come just as much as the first to arrive. Not fair when God calls us back again and again even after we flee defiantly in the opposite direction from his call. Not fair when God sits with us in the belly of whatever whale of a problem has swallowed us whole. Not fair when God takes in that one last worker, the one no one else would hire. Not fair when his unlimited, unstinting grace washes over us all buoying us up in the endless ocean of Godly love. God is not fair. Thanks be to God!