Pentecost 16A Jonah 3:10-4:11, Matthew 20:1-16
I love the book of Jonah. It is a remarkable story and there is something about Jonah that always feels very familiar. His frustration, his desire to run away from God and God’s call, and his disappointment in God doing exactly what he always knew God would do appear silly to us. And yet, our ideas of what is fair, our ideas of ‘justice’ might make us feel like Jonah more often than we’d like to admit.
Jonah struggled mightily, not so much with God as with his idea of what is fair and right as opposed to God’s mercy and love.
Just before our text for today, we can read of Jonah’s brief sermon to the people of Nineveh, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be destroyed!” Now that is a short preacher! We probably all remember the story of his trying to avoid this ministry. Plenty of prophets have protested when God called them to go deliver his message to someone, but he is the only one in the bible who chose to run the complete opposite direction. Of course, he ends up being swallowed by the great big fish but, thankfully, God gives him a second chance. Jonah finally gives in and walks the streets of Nineveh delivering God’s message to the people. Thanks to his brief but crystal clear sermon, the entire city, including all the animals, repents and they avoid punishment.
Today, we see that Jonah, surprisingly, is not at all happy about this! His angry response to God: I KNEW this would happen and that is why I didn’t want to come here in the first place!! It is not like you were really going to do anything to them. Sure, we all hear the stories about how mighty and righteous you are, but I see what you’re really like. You are gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I knew you’d forgive them!
Jonah wanted God to do what he said he was going to do in the first place. He wanted God to squash them. In some ways, it is not an unfair expectation. The people of Nineveh had not lived very good lives and had done many wicked things, primarily because the city was made up of human beings, so God would have been right to punish them. The people of Nineveh were also enemies of Israel and Jonah knew very well the injustices that had been committed by them upon his own people. Someone in his position might have even been glad to know God was finally going to execute a sentence upon the Ninevites. They deserved it.
Jonah knew God to be a just God, a righteous God, and a mighty God. But God is also, just as Jonah said, gracious, merciful and loving. Jonah is so angry, so disappointed in God and his response to the repenting people of Nineveh, in God’s choice to not smite every last Ninevian off the planet, that he tells God he does not even want to live anymore.
In our Gospel lesson, we hear Jesus tell a parable about this same kind of disappointment. The disappointment in not seeing what we consider to be fairness executed by God. Our disappointment in mercy.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like, Jesus begins, and that’s our clue that something is going to be upside down. A landowner goes to hire workers for his vineyard. He agrees to pay a group of them a daily wage. Then later, the landowner sees more workers in the market place idle. They were just hanging around. He tells them to go on into the vineyard and he will “pay you whatever is right”. This process repeats throughout the day, up till about 5pm. Last time out, the landlord says to the newest group he finds standing around doing nothing, “why are you standing here idle all day?” They tell him it is because no one has hired them to work. Well, he sends them off into the vineyard, too.
End of the work day rolls around and it’s time to settle up the wages. But here is the surprise
twist in the story. The workers hired last all the way back to the workers hired first all receive the same pay: a fair day’s wage. No one was docked pay for starting late, for being lazy, for being late to the bus stop to be picked up for work. It was not an hourly wage, it was a day’s wage. First guys hired got the same pay as the last.
According to Jesus’ story, the last hired are being paid first. Imagine the ones who worked all day at the back of the line, thinking they would be getting a bigger paycheck, despite what the morning’s negotiations had been between themselves and the landowner, since they had worked more hours. But when it is their turn, they get paid exactly what they are owed. They are all paid a full day’s wage.
This appears unfair to the all day long workers and they complain. Interestingly, their complaint is, “you have made them equal to us.”
You have treated those who have worked less as equal to us. You can’t treat them as good as you treat me because I worked hard and they did not. That would mean that we were all equally valuable and that’s just not true. We are worth more than they are.
But the landowner’s response is this, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.” And that is true. It was not that they actually deserved more pay because they received exactly what they agreed to. No one took money out of their paycheck to pay someone else. It was the comparison and the unfairness the workers believed it showed that caused their hurt and grumbling. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Are you envious because I am generous? The original language here is very interesting. Literally it says: is the eye of your mind bad and evil because I am good and kind? The word for bad or evil is the same one Jesus uses earlier when he teaches the disciples to pray. Deliver us from evil.
Deliver us O Lord from evil thoughts because of the kindness of another.
Are you envious because I am generous has enough of a little prick in the heart as it is, but that is even a bit more of a hurt. Do you think badly, even evilly, just because I choose to be kind? That last line of Jesus’ parable is meant to bring us up short, to be a kind of splash of water in the face to bring us out of ourselves and back to reality; back to where we are in this world.
As we read the story, we can totally see the long working laborers’ point. But the landowner’s last words bring us back to where we are. This story is about the Kingdom of Heaven, not about our earthly ideas of fairness. This story is not about how much people should be paid for labor, it is about God’s gracious, generous, merciful nature.
Remember Jonah? He wanted God to have his nature, his idea of justice and punishment. The workers who were hired first and worked longest wanted the landowner to have their ideas of justice and fairness. But God is not like us.
How often do we end up trying to make God in our image rather than realizing God is actually in the business of remaking us in God’s image. In order to be a good and just God, God must to live up to OUR standards and expectations, our ideas of what is fair and right? If God actually shows mercy and grace to everyone, well, that means God has, as the day long workers said, made THEM equal to us in the sight of God. You know them. The ones we think we know all about. The ones we are sure ended up on the bad ends of things because of their choices. The ones who wouldn’t be out of work or addicted or homeless or involved in illegal activities if they had worked as hard as we did and followed all the rules like we did. God could not possibly think that someone who spent all their lives doing the right things is really the same as someone who only decided to turn to God when things were going bad or when their life is over. The Kingdom of Heaven can’t really be for everyone equally, can it?
Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Am I not allowed to do what I chose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?
What does all of this mean for us? This is my question for you. If Jesus is right, and the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to a God who is gracious and merciful and extends that grace and mercy regardless of how hard any of us work or how right and just we are by our standards, then this must this affect the ways we live and treat one another. So what does all of this mean for us? This isn’t about who is working the hardest or who is following the rules and doing the right thing; it never was. It is about who and how God loves and our call by God to love as God loves.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a person who sought vengeance but gave mercy instead, who threw away the ruler we are all issued as children to measure how right or wrong we and they are, how much I deserve and you don’t deserve, and began to measure fairness with handfuls of love instead; to measure justice not by the weight of a grievance but by the incalculable weight of grace instead. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a people who stopped worrying about their place in the line, who was first and who was last, and just love the ones beside them regardless of any line at all, simply because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.