Readings for this Sunday: Jonah 3:1-4:11 | Psalm 145:1-8 | Philippians 1:21-30 | Matthew 20:1-16
Have you ever wondered why, in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “us” and not “me”? “Forgive us our sins… Deliver us from evil… Give us our daily bread…”
Repeating the prayer week after week, daily, no doubt, for some of us, have you ever wondered why not “Forgive me… Deliver me… Give me my daily bread…”? You might say I’m making too fine a point, except for the direction of these stories today.
These texts—especially the Jonah and Matthew readings—they are the type that stand by themselves, aren’t they? They are self-evident. They need little added to them. Jonah is ticked off, he is furious because God shows mercy to people that Jonah is absolutely convinced do not deserve it. And as a victim of their brutal foreign policy, he has a history to prove it. And yet, despite Jonah’s resistance at every point, God does show mercy, and uses Jonah to do it:
“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?”[i]
I love that add on about the animals. They keep showing up in the story, these non-human agents—the whale that spits Jonah up at Nineveh’s doorstep, the worm that eats the plant that gives Jonah a hint of comfort. Heaven and earth seem intent on Nineveh’s salvation, despite how it looks to Jonah.
And which of us are not offended by this landowner God in Matthew who would dare to pay workers who have clearly put in a different level of effort the same daily wage? That’s nuts, right? That’s like justifying the vast disparity between CEO pay and worker pay. That’s like everyone getting a “B” when I’ve clearly done “A” work and my lab partner hardly even showed up and when he did, was on his phone all day.
So much for that stereotype of God being a God of justice in the Old Testament, and of grace in the New. Nope. We have the same God who shows up in both of these texts and refuses to let us get comfortable in our illusions that we are more deserving than another. We have a God who refuses to resolve the tension between justice and grace that seems to persist in God’s very self.
And you can see the response too. You can imagine how furious the early workers might be when they get paid the same as the guy who put in a tenth of the effort. And we don’t have to imagine how Jonah feels. It’s there in the story. He is ticked. He is angry. He is seething and he doesn’t let up:
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And [Jonah] said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”[ii]
Like Jonah, I suspect the unfairness of these stories strike out at us like the sting of a bee. But I also wonder if we can see how right they are.
Think of it this way: would you rather have a fair God, or a gracious and merciful and generous one? Of course, our answer to this question might have a lot to do with where we imagine we reside in the stories. Are we Jonah or are we the Ninevites? Are we the workers who showed up early or are we the eleventh-hour type? Are we the offender or the offended?
If you’re like me you might easily give the “right” answer, noting all the ways I’ve not measured up, talking about the privilege that you and I share as first-world Christians of a country whose foreign policy certainly resembles the brutality of Jonah’s despised Nineveh more than it does the two-third’s world realities of the Middle East or of West Africa where Ebola runs roughshod over impoverished towns while Western doctors are flown out for first class treatment. Are we really sure we put in a longer day’s work than the women we remember on CROP Walk Sunday who walk miles a day on average just to get water that we get out of any number of taps around our houses? Are we really sure that we work harder than the poor who wouldn’t be poor if they just gave it a little more effort?
Of course we know we live in the luxury of our illusions much of the time whenever we move toward intolerance. And yet, how easy it is for us to sit under Jonah’s unpredictable plant and cry foul when God gives others blessings they don’t deserve and wages they didn’t earn.
The real problem here may be that we actually would prefer not to have what God wants. Consider God’s question to Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?” Literally, the question is better stated, “Is it good that it burns to you?” We might ask the question another way: Is your anger about what’s not fair, or is this something else? You seem to be enjoying that anger, nursing it like you might a good drink. Are you really sure this is about what’s fair? Or is it actually a way for you to keep yourself from what you know is fair and right? Is your anger a way to wallow in convenient and self-serving deception? Is it a way to hide from the truth that I may just not be that special.
Some have observed that verse 12 is the center of the parable, and the real issue isn’t wages, but superiority: “you have made them equal to us!” they cry out to the landowner.
I need to be better. I need to be more valuable. I need to be special if I am going to be lovable.
But this is hard to hold onto when we pray for our debts, and our daily bread. It’s like we are in this thing together whether we like it or not—Jonah and the Ninevites, the early and the late workers. Paul tells the Philippian church:
27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,[iii]
You see, there is only us in the church. And this gospel proclaims there is only us anywhere.
An underlying question here is this: does generosity get us where we wish to go? Does it pay off? And I suspect this only becomes answerable when we remember we are not talking about an equation, but a relationship. These stories are about a lover who calls out like a siren to Jonah and Nineveh alike because they are all God’s children. This is a story about a mother who understands that each of her children deserve to have their daily bread, a day’s wage, enough to make it through the day—no more, no less. This is ultimately not a story about limits, but generosity, and sufficiency, and freedom. This is a story about what is right in the deepest sense, and in the only way that will lead all of God’s children and the creation around them to life. This is a story about us.
How much better off would we be if we lived according to what we needed, rather than what we refuse to give up? How much better would we be if we viewed this story of us through the language of love? I wonder what God is saying to you as we look together toward Nineveh under Jonah’s unpredictable plant, about you and about us. I wonder what God is yet doing in us so that we might live in the light?
St. Andrew Sermons