Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jonah 3:10-4:11

3:10 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.
4:1 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 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Matthew 20:1-16

[Jesus said to the disciples] “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 marketplace; 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.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Ever have the words “it’s not fair” slip from your lips? I suppose most of us are guilty as charged; after all, we are human. 

Left to our own devices we will curve inward on ourselves rather than broadening our view of humanity and the world around us. The former worldview distorts one’s ability to understand the concept of “fair” outside of the self. The latter worldview encourages growth, reflection, and a better grasp on God’s worldview. “Fair” to God looks a lot more like justice and restoration than it does a competition to get one’s due.

We will likely be hearing a lot of cries of “not fair” if the economic bottom drops out and COVID-19 continues to claim lives. 

  • Do we turn our focus inward and begrudge any hints of compassion or mercy? Or, do we open wide our hearts and arms, knowing that the grace-filled arms of God have our backs? 
  • Which approach will lead to better communication and possibilities? 

These are important questions to ask both as community of faith and as individuals. There’s no time like the present to get started.

This is why the story of Jonah is one of my favorite encounters in scripture. God sends Jonah on a mission. Jonah bails (quite literally) and ends up doing some time in a fish’s belly. This strange experience sets him back on track to warn the people of Nineveh to repent and turn from their evil ways. Seeing as how these folks are Jonah’s cultural enemies, he’s figuring they don’t have it in them to straighten up. Surprise! They do repent, and God changes God’s mind about their destruction.

Truly everything is possible with God, even enemies repenting and turning to new ways. We learn that even God is capable of a divine mind change. Like the very universe we inhabit that is constantly expanding, so too is God’s being and will for all creation. 

Jonah’s response, however, is predictably human. Even after being rescued from a fish’s gut, you’d think he might have just a little more openness and compassion. But no, Jonah is angry, and Jonah begins to sulk, and then Jonah even wishes to die. All of these reactions are in response to his sworn enemies being caught up in the arms of divine grace and mercy, too. But then we do like to keep God manageable and small. Even so, all God seems to want is to embrace all of creation in the divine arms because there is room for all and then some.

Jonah’s story concludes with one more lesson from God, this time about priorities. Here Jonah was willing to die because of a shade bush that he did nothing to cultivate, yet he is stingy with God about forgiving a vast city of people—and the animals, too. Hopefully, Jonah embraced this lesson and changed his worldview to a more outwardly focused one, recognizing that it is much better to have a good God than a fair God.

Jonah’s story is one that translates well into our own time. 

  • For what “enemies” are we not willing to desire God’s grace? 
  • Isn’t it stunning how easily one can be drawn into a narrow and self-serving perspective? 

You’d think Jonah had some reasons to pay forward a little grace. 

I suspect the same outrage is evoked by Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. It just doesn’t seem right that a group of workers, who have spent the better part of the day unemployed and sitting in the shade, should be paid the same wage as those who have been working from dawn to dusk. 

We Americans, who believe ourselves to be self made, independent and industrious, put a high premium on rewarding hard work and punishing sloth. Treating the late coming workers the same as those that have been in the field for the duration cannot help but destroy their incentive to work hard and earn their livings. Moreover, what incentive is there for the other workers to continue putting in a full day’s work once they find out they can get the same pay by showing up an hour before quitting time? In short, it just isn’t fair. But I have to ask, is “fair” what we really want? 

  • If that is what justice requires, what is fair punishment for the serial killer? 
  • Should the same punishment be inflicted on the parents who abused him since he was a toddler? 
  • What about the gym teacher who noticed the welts on the young boy’s body, but didn’t want to risk an ugly confrontation with the family? 

None of this is to suggest that the killer is not responsible for his deeds. They surely are. But the responsibility is not theirs alone and perhaps not even primarily theirs. 

I find myself at times in my life understanding Jonah’s feeling of frustration and despair. In my reading of Jesus’ parable, I find myself identifying more with the workers who went into the vineyard early and worked to the end of the day. And why not? I worked hard in school (at least after my second year in high school on). I worked hard in every parish I served. But is my thinking correct? Did I really pull myself up by my own bootstraps? I had the good fortune and a lot of help along the way. 

When reading Jesus’s parables, it’s necessary to explore the story’s metaphor. We often assume certain characters stand for God, others for “good” people of faith, others for “bad” people of faith. Every once in a while we assume a Satan or Antichrist character. 

One way to find the God character in parables is to locate the character who inverts cultural norms or status quo expectations. In this story, the landowner does just that.

The first workers, who agree to a wage when hired, we can hear them cry out, “It’s not fair!” Jesus’ listeners would have agreed. Many of us would agree. But Jesus says, “What I give you is not based on how much work you do. It’s based on the fact that I choose you in the first place.” We’re so used to earning appreciation, affirmation, respect, and love, that the concept of God choosing us, not for what we’ve earned, but because of divine generosity, seems ridiculous. We hear a challenge to the core of the social fabric.

Rather than earning our way into God’s presence, God has given Godself to us, first at Christmas, in the person of Christ, and then on Pentecost, in the Holy Spirit. God chose to be with us here on earth. We didn’t earn it. And Jesus’ parable reveals that the same is true for heaven: God choosing us is what determines our destiny, not our good deeds. Not how long we’ve believed. Simply God’s gracious generosity. It does not matter if we were chosen early in the morning or brought into the fold late in the day.

In other words, God’s approach to us is one of equity, not equality. You might want to read this parable as equality, since everyone receives the same wage. But, a denarius was a high daily wage for unskilled labor, maybe even twice as much as they might usually expect. Thus, the workers are already promised very generous payment. The landowner offers people not just enough to survive, but enough for abundance. The landowner understands that everyone needs a daily wage to survive, so guarantees that their ability to earn won’t determine their ability to survive. 

He also understands that, to find a way out of poverty, they need more than what’s considered fair. So he blesses each of them with an unexpected and unearned abundance.

And so it is with God. This story attempts to establish fairness or equality as God’s intent for dealing with humanity. God offers us all the same divine presence and eternal blessing–regardless of our works, the strength of our faith, or the rightness of our belief. God offers us an overabundance, so that we can do more than just get by in faith, but thrive in faith. We receive whatever we need to live abundantly, some more, and some less, but all that is needed.

In colleges and universities across the country, schools are discussing the importance of equity, and the difference between equity and equality. 

  • Equality is an approach that gives the same amount of resources, opportunities, or assistance to everyone. 
  • Equity is an approach that gives everyone the amount of resources, opportunities, or assistance that they need in order to truly level the landscape. 

Of course, investing based on people’s specific needs means that some people will receive more, others less, and some, none at all.

While some might decry this as unfair, consider some of the ways equity already plays in our lives. For instance, some church and university events, there is provided audio assistance technology, closed captioning, and American Sign Language interpreters to assist people who are deaf or hard of hearing. That’s a move toward equity, since not all people need access to those resources but they are ensured for those who need them.

If a university admissions team visits college fairs attended by suburban schools with large transportation budgets, but visits individual urban high schools with smaller budgets and a higher proportion of Black, Latino/a, and other students of color, that’s a move of equity. It ensures that students in the city know the college exists, as well as what academic, scholarship, and extracurricular opportunities are available for them.

I believe Jesus’ parable today is about equity, and not equality. The goal of equity isn’t to give everyone the same thing. The goal is to give everyone what they need to succeed. This doesn’t guarantee anyone’s success, but it does remove unnecessary barriers from their journey toward thriving. And God is all about helping us thrive!