HOMILY FOR THE FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145: 1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
Who knows better, we, or God? Most of the time, we think we know better than God- we don´t admit it, but we are put out when things do not go our way. But do we know better than God? We usually do not inquire of God about whether our presuppositions or intended course of action is correct, do we? We just go ahead and do what is convenient to us, and expect God to assent. We have expectations as to how God’s Providence works, and about what God owes us, or about how he should treat us. We also think that God should be bound by our expectations and reasoning. This is presumptuous, but also deeply human. That human presumption is the core of two of today’s Bible readings.
God tells Jonah to go and preach repentance to the Assyrians in Nineveh. Jonah rebels and flees to the coast. No way is he going to go to Nineveh to preach repentance to the Assyrians. The Assyrians are the mortal enemies of Israel. They have conquered the Northern Kingdom, and taken its people into exile, scattering them throughout their empire.
Do you know where Nineveh is? It’s in Northern Iraq, adjacent to Mosul, the second city of Iraq. A few months ago it fell into the hands of Jihadists from ISIL. Among their other atrocities, guess what they did? They blew-up the tomb of the prophet Jonah. Jonah is an honored prophet in Islam, and as such his tomb was revered. For the ISIL, however, the tomb invited idolatry and stood in the way of the “pure” Islam they want. Remember when the Taliban blew up the giant statues of Buddha in the north of Afghanistan. These too were destroyed because they invited idolatry. In Saudi Arabia all the old houses in Mecca have been torn down, lest their antiquity encourage a veneration which is also judged to be idolatrous. We are dumbstruck by this iconoclasm, but we have forgotten the smashing of images, altars and stained glass windows, the destruction of the tomb of Saint Thomas à Beckett at Canterbury and of the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham which marked the emergence of the Anglican Church in England. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer had these shrine destructions carried out, because they distracted from true faith in Christ.
The Jonah of today’s reading boards a ship to evade God’s command, but a great storm comes up. Jonah tells the crew he is to blame for he has angered God, and asks to be thrown overboard, which he is. God spares Jonah from death when he is cast overboard. He is swallowed by a great fish, or a whale. When after three days he is vomited onto the shore, he is ready to listen to God, but he is not happy. He obeys God’s command and goes to Nineveh; the Ninevites listen to his message and turn from their evil ways. God also changes his mind about destroying Nineveh. “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry”. Poor Jonah, God has put him in a position where he has to warn his mortal foes of God’s impending judgment. More galling yet, they heed his warning-Jonah wants to die, he is so angry. All of his comfortable assumptions about God and God’s relations with the Assyrians have been stood on their head.
Jonah goes out of the city and makes a booth for himself. Why is he dwelling in a booth? We need to refer to Leviticus 23: 39. There the command is given through Moses for Jews to dwell for a week in booths, in remembrance of the provisional dwellings they had during their trek out of Egypt. It is also the time of the early autumn harvest of fruits and vegetables. Jonah sits in his booth, and God makes a bush spring up in a day and shade Jonah. Does Jonah bless God for this? Or does he consider it his due? Jonah is very happy with the bush, but the next day a worm attacks the bush at dawn and it withers. When the sun comes up, God also sends a hot east wind. Jonah grows faint and wants to die.
God asks him; “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah answers him; “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. 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?’”.
Jonah has expectations and makes assumptions concerning God- the people Jonah hates should be hated by God. That they are not makes him angry enough to die. When God’s providence causes a bush to grow and give shade to Jonah, he considers it his due- does he thanks God for the bush? When a worm destroys the bush Jonah again becomes angry enough to die, but as God points out to him, he neither planted the bush nor cared for it-it grew through God’s providence, and likewise perished. Jonah did not plant it, or fertilize it, or water it, or care for it-it was a gift from God, a manifestation of his sovereign power which he here uses to teach Jonah a lesson. It is this same sovereign power as Lord of all that causes God to be concerned for Nineveh, for its many inhabitants and all their possessions. They exist by his will. They repent from their evil, and God responds by not visiting catastrophe on them.
What Jonah thinks and what Jonah wants is not necessarily part of God’s plan. The Lord’s providence extends to non-believers, even to the enemies of his chosen people. He is not only the God of Israel, of the Hebrew people-he is the sovereign Lord of all peoples and cares for all of them. He is the Lord of our enemies as well as of our kin, friends and countrymen. Shouldn’t it give us pause when we find ourselves inclined to deal drastically with those we fear and hate, or to regard them as less than human?
The clash of human expectations with God’s ways is also deftly dramatized in Jesus’ parable concerning the kingdom of heaven where God is the landowner and we all are the workers in his vineyard. The landowner is a fair person-he agrees to pay his employees the standard daily wage. He doesn’t haggle or try to drive down their wages. They will be paid the standard wage for a day’s labor in Jesus’ time, which is one denarius, and the day laborers agree to it- it will be a 12 hour day for them. They know it.
The landowner comes by again at 9 a.m. to the square, and finds people available to work. “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right”. No one thinks to ask: “But what is right? Perhaps it is ¾ of a daily wage, seeing as a quarter day has gone by and we are using human logic. Now the landowner goes out again at noon and at three o’clock and hires new groups of laborers. Finally, at about five o’clock he finds another group and asks them: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They reply; “Because no one has hired us”. He hires them too, although there is perhaps only an hour left in the workday.
Evening falls and the day is over-the landowner commands that the workers be paid in the reverse order of their arrival at work- the last first and the first last. This is done and when the first hired see that their wages are no more than those of the last hired, they are angry and they grumble. It seems unfair to them that they should have worked twelve hours under a hot sun and yet received only the standard daily wage. How does this strike you? If you had put in a grueling day’s work and found at the end of the day that recent arrivals, who worked only an hour when the heat of the day was over, had been paid the same as you, wouldn’t you think an injustice had been done?
Again we come back to the message that God gives Jonah which is basically this- “I am the Lord and I do what I want with what is mine- I care about Nineveh even if you, Jonah, don’t”. In the same way God the landowner tells the disgruntled workers: “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 what 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?”
If the reward for working in the kingdom of God is salvation, can some be more saved than others? Is there three denarius salvation, two denarius salvation and standard ordinary common-place one denarius salvation? Is there twelve hour’s work salvation, nine hour’s work salvation, six hour’s work salvation, three hour’s work salvation and one hour’s work salvation? Let’s not be silly: of course not! If you work in the Lord’s vineyard, you do so of your own free will. Are you entitled to more than others because the labor you agreed to is more than that of others? No, again-you agreed to it, didn’t you?
Why you might ask is the landowner hiring so many people? God invites all of us who are willing and able to come and work for his kingdom. He is not running an exclusive franchise. Some of those workers who come to work will not be found or called by God until late in the day, but when he finds them he hires them. If the landowner is a believer in full employment, the Lord God is a believer in salvation for as many as are willing to work for it and for the kingdom of God. If someone came to God late does he deserve less than the person who has always walked with God? Isn´t walking with God its own reward? And isn’t it true that those who would lead must be as slaves to those they seek to lead? And isn’t it true that God favors the weak, the humble, the oppressed over the strong, the proud and the mighty? So why should we be surprised when the last are first, and the first are last? A final consideration: some will be first and some will be last, but will any be left behind? Of all the workers in the vineyard, does anyone go unpaid? No one does, because that is how God is.
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