The Generous Heart of God

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11

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.

 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 labour 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 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When 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.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

There’s a truth I’ve tried to communicate to my children, and tried to live by myself which is — be careful about what you say on Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Snapchat. Or Instagram. Or whatever it is the kids are using now.

Be mindful of your words, I tell them.  Because you never know who is reading. A statement that seems rather innocent to you, may be offensive or even hurtful to another person.

I stumbled upon a teachable moment for my children some time ago when I casually browsed through my Facebook page, and saw a comment by the man who cut my hair.  He’s a generally pleasant person, so I was horrified to read what he wrote.  I have to edit it a bit because his language is too awful for me to repeat.  He wrote:

“Standing in Walmart behind a black (n word) and her black (n word) kids.  She just spent $280 in groceries using her Access card.  How is this fair?  What is going on in the world?”

There are some generous ways to interpret what he said.

Clearly, he was annoyed to be standing in line at the grocery store behind someone with a large order.  $280 buys a lot of groceries. And all of us hate to wait.

Maybe he was also annoyed by the children, who might have been whining or screaming, or trying to coax a candy bar out of their mother.

When I have to wait, I get annoyed.  All of us do. But obviously, there was something else going on with my friend.

He took the time to write about the color of the woman’s skin.

He wrote about the color of her children’s skin.

He used a word to describe them that I hope all of us would find objectionable.

And he was angry because the mother paid $280 for her groceries by using her Access card.  Access.  Food stamps.  We all know what that means.

This is what the man who used to cut my hair saw:

This woman ahead of him was getting something for nothing.

The woman in front of him was getting something she didn’t earn or deserve.

And the unfairness he observed made him angry.

Because he had earned his groceries.

And he believed the woman in front of him had not.

We all have a sense of what is right and what is wrong. We all have a sense of what is fair and unfair.Today, in this text we just heard from the book of Jonah, we learn something about God’s sense of fairness.

As far as anyone can tell, Jonah was an ordinary Jewish man,minding his own business, and God tells him to go at once and preach to Nineveh.

And Jonah thinks to himself, “Well.  Isn’t that strange?  Jewish prophets are called to preach to other Jews. Jewish prophets are never called to preach to non-Jews. Especially not to Ninevites. Jews preach to Jews. That’s the way it’s always been done, as far as I can tell.”

God’s instruction to preach to the Ninenites is not just unusal. It was outrageous. It was so outrageous that Jonah panics. Jonah runs as far and as fast as he can away from Nineveh.

In all fairness to Jonah, it isn’t really surprising Jonah thought God must be joking.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyria, a brutal empire. Assyria had been responsible for the earlier destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel.  To Jews at that time, the Assyrians were the baddest of bad guys.

Jonah must be thinking, “Why would God want me to have anything to do with them?More to the point, why would God want to have anything to do with Assyrians? Assyrians are the worst!!”

So Jonah freaks out and runs away and gets on a ship so he can get as far away from Nineveh as possible.

We all know how that turns out. This is the part we remember from Sunday school. The big fish. Jonah is followed and swallowed.

Jonah ends up inside a big fish for three days and the whole time he’s sitting inside the fish, Johan complains.  About everything.

 

Jonah complains about the injustice of the whole situation.

Jonah complains about God telling him to do an unreasonable thing.

The scripture says that God finally tells the fish to spit Jonah out on shore, but I imagine the fish was also pretty happy to get rid of Jonah.

Funny thing about how the story of Jonah turns out.  Jonah stumbles into Nineveh and mumbles a one-sentence warning about its imminent downfall.  He shows up late, cranky, covered in fish goo, and utters the word God has given him.

The people in Nineveh, from the animals to the regular folk all the way up to very highest reaches of government, hear Jonah’s half-hearted message which may be the least inspiring prophetic uttering in the Scripture.

Despite Jonah’s half-hearted effort, the whole city repents.

The people of Nineveh change their mind, and turn to God.

And God changes God’s mind about striking down Nineveh.

But you know who doesn’t change in this story? Not one small bit, not one iota?

Jonah.  Boy, is Jonah mad.  Jonah is furious. He cannot believe what he has just witnessed.

Jonah knew that God is, “gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing, “ but Jonah still thinks that the God’s love should only apply to Israel. All along, Jonah has been taught that Israel is God’s favorite. But now he sees God forgiving Israel’s worst enemy.

Jonah can’t stand seeing the people of Nineveh get something they don’t deserve! Jonah resents that a blessing has come upon these murderous, non-believing Ninevites.

And then, the story ends with a big question mark.  Without us really knowing if God has convinced Jonah that the Ninevites deserved God’s mercy.

The story ends with God shaking God’s head and saying to Jonah, “I gave you that bush to cover your head, and I took away that bush.  Here’s the thing you need to understand, Jonah– I am in charge here, not you. Why shouldn’t I love Nineveh?”

The question mark hangs in the air. Why shouldn’t God love Ninevah?

At the end of the day, I think Jonah’s problem isn’t with Nineveh. Jonah’s problem is with God Jonah sees God’s concern and love for Nineveh as unjust.  Unfair.

Jonah’s problem with God isn’t just that Jonah doesn’t want to do what God wanted him to do. Jonah doesn’t want God to do what God wants to do, which is to love Nineveh.

Jonah is a lot like the hot, sweaty, tired workers in the vineyard who thought they understood the rules that say the longer and harder you work, the more you’ll get paid. Then they saw the less hot, less sweaty guys collect a full day’s pay for only one hour of work.

Their problem at the end of the day wasn’t with the workers who showed up late, but with this ridiculous landowner who defies anyone’s sense of basic fairness, let alone good business practice.

More than one commentator has made the observation that this parable of the laborers in the vineyard may have been the parable that got Jesus killed.  And they very well may be right. It certainly a parable that makes some people mad as hornets every time it gets told today. So it’s not difficult to imagine that it made people plenty angry in Jesus’ time.

Imagine that you are a religious mover and shaker, and one day you hear this itinerant preacher say that all those people at the back of the synagogue, in the cheap seats, are the ones who will be first.

And you realize that this Jesus is maybe talking about people who aren’t even in the church.

Maybe Jesus is talking about the people sitting outside begging, covered with leprosy, unclean, unwashed and unsaved.  The guy who cut you off in traffic. Or the smelly homeless guy at the bus stop. It could be that Jesus is saying that those people are the ones that God, in fact, loves best.  Or at least loves as much as you.

“Well,” you might think.  “This is certainly strange.  This is certainly something new.”

This parable from Matthew and the story of Jonah both strike at the very heart of who we are.

People who think we know the rules of how the world is supposed to work.

People who think we know what fairness is and what justice looks like.

People who like to sort the world into neat categories of deserving and undeserving, right and wrong, good and bad.

We’ve known about fairness from the time we were little children. “That’s not fair.” “She cut in front of me.”  “How come he gets to stay up later?”  “If you get to cut the pie, I get to pick the first slice.”

If you are a parent, you have heard this.  If you are a human being, you know this. We all know that terrible feeling when we are certain we’ve been cheated. The pull in your gut, the pounding of your heart, the words of anger forming in the back of your throat when you see something happening that just isn’t right,

The big problem here, in both of these scripture passages, is that when God is in charge, it seems hardworking, reliable, faithful people get short-changed.  And who likes that?

Well, the people in Nineveh who had long suffered at the hands of a murderous government liked it.

The laborers who showed up late because their kid was sick and they didn’t have a babysitter and their car wouldn’t start, and still got paid a full day’s wage just the same liked it.

So if these scripture passages makes us mighty uncomfortable, or even mad as hornets, it must be because we see ourselves as the front of the line people, the hardworking reliable folk who just got cheated.

We look down at our paycheck, look up at the landowner, and all we can see is all kinds of crazy.  Because what the landowner does seems to make no sense.

Or we can imagine that there is no front of the line, or back of the line. That in the Kingdom of God, there is no hierarchy that says some people are more valuable to God than others.  Maybe we can imagine God plays no favorites, and wishes goodness for everyone.

Maybe we can imagine the sense of fairness that God has gifted to every human being can grow into a vision of justice and equality for everyone.

Because there are systems in this world that are, indeed, not fair.  There are powers and principalities that are outrageously unjust.  There are still lots and lots of tables that not only need to be overturned, but also thrown out a window and burned as firewood.

And our God-given sense of fairness and our prophetic call for justice can be a powerful and beautiful thing when we move beyond, “She’s getting something she doesn’t deserve,” to words like:

It’s not fair that some affordable healthcare and others have to wait for care until their condition is do desperate, they’ll go to the emergency room.

It’s not fair that some have safe water to drink, while others do not.

It’s not fair that two people who have committed the same crime will end up with wildly varying punishments based only on the color of their skin.

It is not fair that some go to bed hungry while others have so much that they fill up landfills with what’s left over.

It could be that this parable is telling us to step out of line, in the best possible sense of the phrase and become more like the landowner in how we live our lives now.

We never know where we are in line anyway, and if we learn nothing else from these stories of Jonah and vineyard, it’s that God is going to surprise us, challenge us, get in our face, send us where we don’t want to go, and be in relationships we don’t want to be in, and, if we’re very, very lucky, the love of God we have received in Jesus Christ will soften our hearts.

And soft hearts are what we need. Soft hearts that can be broken for the people and the place that break God’s heart.

The good news is that God is not fair, at least not by our definition of the word;

God is generous.  God is love. God is the vineyard owner who messes up his accounting. God is the one who decides to call a reluctant prophet to emerge from a big fish and speak a word that changes the world.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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