September 21, 2014
“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Sounds like good news to me! In fact it reminds me of this call and response praise line we learned from the African American church: “God is good! All the time! All the time! God is good!” Usually that is a word of consolation. The truth is, however, that sometimes God’s goodness is not something we appreciate. In both our OT reading from the very short story of Jonah and the parable Jesus tells in Gospel, we have examples of people who don’t necessarily want God to be good all the time, who think God’s gracious goodness is misguided and unfair. Jonah hurls the words, “I knew you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and ready to relent from punishment” as an accusation at God, rather than as a celebration.
You remember Jonah—that grumpy preacher who was daunted by God’s call to preach the Good News to the people of Nineveh, and so takes a boat going in the opposite direction? I mean, he really didn’t want to go. Jonah and his sailing companions run into a storm on their way to Tarshish, and the sailors get mad at Jonah for not praying to his god to spare them. He shares with them that he’s not speaking to God right now because God asked him to do something and he refused.
This prompts the other sailors—who are convinced that if they can just get rid of this preacher who won’t pray, the universe will smile on them again—to pitch him overboard. Got what he deserved, right? Unfaithfulness is met with punishment. But that is not the end of the story. Because, as you recall, God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.
Why did he run away to begin with? What was so awful about being called to preach to the people of Nineveh? It’s hard to explain how strongly the people of Israel felt about the Assyrians who lived in the city of Nineveh. It was the ultimate symbol of sin and evil. The tension between the two groups can only be partially understood if you picture ancient tribal rivalries—bigger and worse than the feud between Hatfields and the McCoys or the Sunis and Shiites or the Roman Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland. I mean, deep, deep, long-standing distrust and disgust characterized these two populations.
It seems to me that Jonah ought to have been grateful that God did not call him to preach a word of grace to them. Jonah was not called to remind them that everyone is a precious child of God. No. Jonah was called to proclaim that if the city did not repent, God would wipe it off the face of the map, like Sodom and Gomorrah!
But even with that somewhat satisfying message, Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. When he is cast overboard, Jonah begs God to spare his life, not because he deserves it, but because God is merciful. God directs a big fish swallow up Jonah, and then to to swim over to the beach by Nineveh and vomit Jonah up (I’m not kidding–the Hebrew word really is the word for vomit). Not a pretty way to be saved, but still, Jonah is reminded that God is good. All the time. And all the time, God is good.
So Jonah unleashes fire and brimstone preaching on the Ninevites, just as he’d been instructed. And then a miracle happened. A real, honest-to-God miracle: the people listened. They did not say, “That preacher is crazy!” The people of Nineveh looked at themselves as individuals and as a city, and they realized that they were, in fact, sinners. They had not always done what God wanted them to do. Sometimes they had done the exact opposite. Sometimes they had avoided doing anything at all. Accidentally and on purpose, they had hurt others. They had benefitted unfairly from other people’s hard work. They had grasped for more more more when all around them were others who didn’t have enough. They served their own desires and needs instead of trusting in God. Those horrible Ninevites acknowledged to God and to one another that they had sinned, and that they deserved to be punished.
What about that? Jonah is the ONLY prophet in the entire Bible who ever succeeded in doing what he was called to do. Not even JESUS was able to get an entire city to repent, but Jonah was so freaking good at it, that not only did the people of Nineveh repent, but even the animals did! And God’s response? He did not bring the destruction Jonah had foretold but instead forgave them. And the city of Nineveh saw that God is good. All the time. All the time, God is good.
But did Jonah rejoice? Did he celebrate his outstanding preaching or the pardon of his sisters and brothers who had transformed their lives? Nope. Jonah got really mad and went off to the desert to pout. Which is kind of funny until we imagine OUR worst enemies escaping the punishment we imagine is rightfully theirs.
Jonah’s frustration is like that experienced by the hard workers in today’s Gospel lesson. Those who had spent all day working in the field were waiting to be paid, and watching the slackers who’d only spent an hour working getting a full day’s wage. So they expect to be compensated extra, as they’d toiled for much longer. But they, too, are paid a day’s wage. And they pout. When the owner of the vineyard asks why they are angry, as he had paid everyone exactly what they’d been promised. The quantity and quality of the work was not discussed—the point was that the boss was being generous, not unjust.
Matthew doesn’t tell us what those workers do next. Whether they start to see how blessed they are to be paid at all, or if they continue to gripe. We don’t know if they work for that landowner again the next day or not, or for how many hours. But we do get a peek at grumpy Jonah after Nineveh learns that God is good all the time and all the time, God is good.
God sees his difficult prophet sitting in the hot sun, and calls forth a bush to grow up to shade him. Initially, Jonah is thrilled with the bush. But the next day, God commands a worm to chew on the plant till it withers and dies. A literal example of “here today, gone tomorrow.” Do you see how all of creation is invited to be involved in fulfilling God’s dream in this story, from the worm to the sun? Everyone does what God asks–except Jonah.
At the death of this bush, Jonah really loses his mind. “Oh God, the only good thing in my whole life was that plant, and now you’ve taken even that away from me! I would rather be dead than have to put up with anything else!” Somehow God manages to keep from spanking him and instead, uses this teaching moment: “Jonah. Now, come on. You didn’t do a single thing to produce that bush. You didn’t even know about it until yesterday. This whole tantrum is just ridiculous. Think about that whole big city of Nineveh. I made all those people in my own image. I breathed life into every body, and endowed each one with special gifts and talents that mirror my own character. I loved them into life. I cried when they abandoned me and my ways. I ran after them when they avoided me. Can’t you see why I had mercy on them? Isn’t it possible for you to be just a little bit happy that I have shown grace when I could have shown justice? Can’t you even rejoice a tiny bit that I spared all those animals?”
And that’s where the book of Jonah ends. We don’t know what Jonah said or did next. Did he apologize to God for resenting God’s goodness? Did he go back into Nineveh and join the party? Did he offer to be with them in turning over a new leaf? How did he answer the next time God called him to do a job? We are left hanging, much as we are after the parable of the workers in the vineyard–I think on purpose. Because if the story doesn’t end for Jonah or the bitter workers, we are reminded that it doesn’t end for us either.
There is always the hope that God’s curmudgeonly workers find a way to delight in God’s goodness–even if that goodness is showered on people we think don’t merit it. And there’s always a chance that the wayward, wandering people of God might end up doing exactly what God has asked us to do, despite our lack of cooperation along the way. And there’s always the possibility that we will not resist the truth that God so loves the world that God entered it in the person of Jesus, not to condemn the world but to save it. Since our story isn’t over, there is always another opportunity for us to embrace the Good News that God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good. Thanks be to God!