Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Generally speaking, this sounds like good news to me. It is the point of the wonderful call-and-response we learned from the African American church: “God is good! All the time! All the time! God is good!” That is a powerful word of consolation in the midst of struggle.
The truth is, however, that sometimes we don’t appreciate God’s goodness. As I mentioned last week, I have a short list of people and situations on which I wish God would rain down a little torment and retribution. I realize that is an awful thing to admit, but it is true. There are times and places when I wish God was a God of consequences and not grace. And I know I’m not alone.
In both our OT reading from the very short story of Jonah and the parable Jesus tells in Gospel reading, we have examples of other people like me–people who aren’t at all grateful that God is good all the time, who think God’s mercy 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 probably remember Jonah–that grumpy preacher who was called by God to preach to the people of Nineveh, calling them to repent. He really didn’t want to go. He disliked the idea of spending any time with the Assyrians who lived in the city of Nineveh. For Jonah and the other people of Israel at the time, Nineveh was the ultimate symbol of sin and evil. Imagine the tension between the two groups like other ancient tribal rivalries—the Hatfields and the McCoys or the Sunis and Shiites, or the PLO and the modern state of Israel. The distrust runs deep and thick.
Jonah was so offended that God wanted him to preach to those terrible Assyrians that he took a boat going in the exact opposite direction, toward Tarshish. On their way Jonah and his sailing companions run into a storm; the other sailors get mad at Jonah for not praying to his god to spare them. He shares with them that he’s not on speaking terms with his God right now because God asked him to do something hard and he refused.
The other sailors—convinced that if they could just get rid of this heretic the universe would smile on them again—pitch him overboard. That’s what you get for not doing God’s will, right? Unfaithfulness should be met with punishment. But that is not the end of the story. Because, as you recall, God is good. All the time. And all the time. God is good.
When he is cast overboard, Jonah begs God to spare his life, not because he deserves it, but because God is merciful. And, proving Jonah’s point, God directs a big fish swallow up the prophet, and then to swim over to the beach by Nineveh and vomit Jonah up (I’m not kidding–the Hebrew verb really is the word for vomit). Not a pretty way to be saved, but still, Jonah’s new shot at life is a reminder that God is good. All the time. And all the time, God is good.
Since God spared him, and since he’s there now anyway, Jonah unleashes fire and brimstone preaching on the Ninevites, just as he’d been instructed. He tells them to turn from their evil ways or they will be destroyed just as Sodom and Gomorrah were once destroyed. 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 saw how 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.
Jonah should have been enormously proud. He 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 was to refrain from bringing down the destruction Jonah foretold. Instead, God forgave them. And the whole 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 whose lives were being transformed? 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 are so sure is rightfully theirs. And then it’s not funny; it’s awful.
Jonah’s frustration is like that experienced by the workers in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew. Those who spent all day working in the field were lined up, waiting to be paid. They saw the slackers who’d only spent an hour or so working getting a full day’s wage. “What a great boss!” they must have thought. “He generously gives to those poor people who haven’t done anything to deserve it.” What they expected, of course, is that they would be compensated extra, since they’d toiled much longer. But when it was their turn, they, too were paid a day’s wage.
Like Jonah, they pout about the injustice of it all. The owner of the vineyard tells them to check their privilege, asking, “Why are you angry? Didn’t everyone get paid exactly what they’d been promised when they were hired?” The quantity and quality of the work was never discussed. No one was cheated. The boss was being generous, not unjust. Because God is good. All the time. And all the time, God is good.
Matthew doesn’t tell us what the workers do next. We don’t know whether they recognize how blessed they were to be paid at all, or if they continue to gripe. Did they realize that if they’d done a good enough job to begin with, maybe the land owner wouldn’t have had to keep hiring on more helpers? Did they offer to work for that landowner again the next day or not? If they did, how many hours did they labor in the field? We never hear.
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. And it’s comedy gold.
God sees his difficult prophet sitting in the hot sun, staring out at the city he’d hoped to watch burned to a crisp, and God calls forth a bush 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. It’s 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 waves to the big fish to the worm to the sun? Everyone and everything does what God asks–except Jonah.
At the death of the shade bush, Jonah throws a tantrum. “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 die than have to put up with anything else from you!”
Somehow God manages to keep from laughing at him and instead, uses this as 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! Imagine how I feel about the 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 to mirror aspects of my own character. I loved every one of 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 that’s on purpose. Because if the story doesn’t end for Jonah or for the bitter workers when they resent God’s goodness, then it doesn’t have to end for us there either.
There is always hope that God’s curmudgeonly workers will find a way to delight in God’s goodness bestowed on all creation–even if that goodness is showered on people we think don’t merit it. There’s always a chance that the wayward, wandering people of God might end up doing exactly what God wants done, 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, it’s not too late for us to repent and try again to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves enough to be humble and grateful. Come to the table, my friends; God always sets a place for each one of us. Come and be reconnected to the rest of the family of God. Here you will always find a welcome, always receive another chance (and then another and another and another) to embrace the Good News that God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good. Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider