15 Pentecost Proper 20: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Ps 145:1-8; Ph 1:21-30; Mt 20:1-16
A sermon preached at St. John’s Montgomery, AL on September 21, 2014.
My sister used to pout, a lot. When she was feeling especially put upon, she would sing, nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms; long, thin, slimy ones; short, fat, juicy ones; itsy, bitsy, fuzzy, wuzzy worms. My sister and Jonah, you and I, we all have something in common”we don’t like it when we don’t get our way. That is part of the charm of the story of Jonah who, as a grown man and a prophet of Israel, doesn’t get his way and is forced to do God’s bidding, pouts, even though the outcome of his efforts is successful.
Most of us think we know the story of Jonah and the whale. There is a guy named Jonah, a whale swallows him, the whale gets indigestion and spits him out after three days”or something like that. It’s a good story but there is more to it than the appetites of giant sea creatures.
Jonah, an Israelite and a prophet, is called by God to go to Nineveh and preach to them their need for repentance because their wickedness has come up before [God]. Instead, Jonah runs away from his call, jumps on a boat, a great storm comes, the sailors throw him overboard at Jonah’s insistence, and a great fish swallows him. After three days of sitting in the belly of the great fish, he prays to God for deliverance (mind you, he put himself in this position), and God causes the great fish to spew him out upon the dry land. God does not, however, remove his original call from Jonah”he is still to go to Nineveh and deliver a message of repentance.
So, Jonah goes. He walks through the city for three days telling people to repent. The king hears about it, believes the message and has everyone, including animals, put on sackcloth, sit in a pile of ashes, and fast. The Lord relents, changes his mind about the calamities that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
The Ninevites and the Israelites were enemies. The Ninevites had attacked the Israelites and tried to conquer them on various occasions. They could be compared to our modern day ISIS. God has sent Jonah to save them. Of course Jonah is ticked. What could be worse than having to go and rescue your worst enemy? God should really be giving Jonah some slack and let him pout in peace. He’ll get over it, eventually. But no, God adds insult to injury…pours a little salt into that open wound. He lets Jonah think its ok to go pout. Even provides him with a little shelter. And then, he sends the smallest of creatures to attack the bush and it withers and Jonah continues to sit through the heat of the day, wanting to die. This is pouting to the extreme.
Jonah was a proud man and he believed in an ordered world in which Israel’s enemies would not be counted amongst the elect on the day of reckoning. Jonah’s reluctance to go and warn the Ninevites is wrapped up in his anger toward them”he had a deep suspicion that they would listen to his message of repentance and that God who is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness would change his mind and not destroy the very people Jonah believes deserve destruction. And Jonah is right.
Nineveh is saved, Jonah’s mission is successful, and his response is to sit outside the wall and pout and whine, wishing he would just die. Human nature. When we have been wronged, whether real or not, we pout and our conviction is strengthened that the world is unfair.
The guys in the vineyard felt the same way. They had been treated unfairly. I mean think about it, they had gotten up early that morning and raced to the marketplace, barely kissing their wives on the cheek as they rushed out the door. They knew the old saying, The early bird gets the worm. They had the great Protestant work ethic, those who work hard will be rewarded. And they were willing to work hard, to do what it takes to be successful. They had dreams and ambitions that they believed in. These guys were not slackers. They were hard working, family guys doing whatever they had to do make a living.
So, they get to the marketplace early and jockey for a good position, because they want to be right up front when the farm managers start making rounds. Its harvest time, so they know there will be plenty of work. But, on this particular day, it is the landowner not the manager who comes to the marketplace early in the morning. Why is he picking up the workers? What happened to his manager? Could he be looking for a new one?
Now, there is even more interest in looking strong and healthy–the owner has come to select the workers, and the workers are not sure what this means, but they do not want to be passed over. Many are selected to go to the landowner’s fields that morning. But apparently they are not enough, as the landowner will return four more times to the marketplace that day.
We hear this story two thousand years later and are not suspicious of it, but Jesus’s audience would have thought these details strange and it would have begun perk up their interest in the story as they realized that Jesus was throwing in some subtle plot twists. It seems like a description of a normal workday, but some of the details are odd.
We know the last guys hired are only going to work an hour. They have been hired at 5pm, quittin’ time is at 6. This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. And there’s something else”the first guys hired contracted a wage before they jumped in the back of the truck: albeit, it was a verbal contract, but at least they knew how much they were going to get paid. All these subsequent hires are not contracted for a wage, they are told only that they will be paid whatever is right.
At the end of the story, evening has come, people have to get paid and get home. The owner of the vineyard, which in the original Greek would have been more closely translated Lord of the vineyard, tells the manager to pay the guys, but start with the last ones.
Now, notice something here: If the earliest guys to work had been paid first, they might not have noticed what everyone else got, because they would have received their denarii and started toward home. But the Lord of the vineyard ensures that they will see what everyone gets. They are all standing around waiting; of course they are going to notice the denarii handed to each of those fellows who only worked one hour. So, when they step up to be paid, they expect to receive more. But they don’t get more. They get what they contracted for. And they are not happy.
But have they been harmed? They think so. Everyone listening to this story in 1st century Judea would probably agree. I bet some of you would agree as well. But what is so wrong? Is the harm imagined by those first workers real?
They got what they were told they would get. But we can also understand where they are coming from. Jesus has twisted a common experience into a teaching. He has told a disturbing story that threatens the hearer’s secure mythological world. You know that world, the world of assumptions by which we live. The outcome of his story has ruffled our feathers. Not only do the workers grumble against the Lord of the Vineyard, but we do too.
We grumble every time someone gets what we thought we should have gotten–that promotion at work, more Christmas presents under the tree, an A on the test when you know they didn’t study as hard as you. We put in our time and we grumble when we don’t feel properly rewarded. And that is what this parable is really about. Our understanding of what is fair vs. what is just.
There is a difference between fairness and justice. The question of fairness is really based upon self-interest. When we insist upon our rights without regard to needs of others, we become narcissistic. How can God reward us when we insist upon making ourselves “Number One?”
The question of justice, however, is based upon the needs of others. When we focus upon the needs of others, even if they encroach upon our rights, we sacrifice ourselves for the Kingdom, just as Jesus did. Our ministry becomes more transparent. Our leadership really leads others to Christ.
The vineyard owner responds to the criticism of fairness by asking the workers, the ones he had given a job to that morning, whether he is allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him? But, in essence, what Jesus is really asking is can God give grace on God’s terms? Jesus is warning us that when grace is calculated and expected it is no longer grace.
Just as Jonah discovered, just as the workers discovered, just as we discover, every human claim shatters on the grace and mercy of God.
The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.