10When God saw what [the people of Ninevah 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.
4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He 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. 3And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5Then 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.
6The 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. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When 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.”
9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” and he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10Then 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. 11and should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from there left, and many animals?”
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
1”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 ;aid 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 0’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.’ When 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, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borle the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But 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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
Jonah is one of those stories that we talk about all the time when we're children, but never really revisit after that. Everybody remembers the story of the reluctant prophet who runs away from God's calling, and is swallowed by a large fish until he gets his head on straight. But that's just the first half of the story. Chapter 3 tells the story of how Jonah prophesies to Ninevah, that great city, still smelling of the inside of a fish, no doubt.
Ninevah, that great city, was the capital of Assyria, one of the most brutal empires to cross the Middle East. They were the ones who rolled through the Northern Kingdom of Israel and thoroughly destroyed it. Once Assyria finishes with Israel, there's no one left to return as a remnant, like there would be for Judah after Babylon.
The book of Jonah emerges from the remnant of Judah after they are given the opportunity to return to their homeland. Israel has already been destroyed for several generations by the time this book is written. Assyria is no longer the dominant empire in the region, but Ninevah, that great city, remains as a symbol for the enemies of Israel, wicked destroyers who are outside the covenant.
Ninevah is not just "outsiders," they are the enemy who would eradicate God's people given the chance.
And Jonah is called to prophesy to them. He doesn't run because of a lack of faith, but because he knows who God is, He tells us, "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." Jonah knows the God on whose behalf he speaks, and he longs for the destruction of that wicked city.
Those who heard the words of this particular section of scripture had seen the redemption of their people, they had lived through the end of exile, the restoration of Judah, they knew that the wages of sin is death, and that after the cataclysmic destruction of Israel and the destruction of babylon, that grace does follow in the preservation of a remnant.
Surely as God’s favor turned back to Judah, so God’s wrath would turn against her enemies? These are not good people like us, these are awful, sinful, violent people. They are the ones who hurt us, who threatened to destroy us.
"If they are in on the love of God, then Jonah wants out."
The people of Ninevah repented. they stopped ignoring God and mourned their sinfulness at the mere possibility that God would not destroy them. Jonah must have been quite a preacher to change the mind of a whole city while he still smelled like the inside of a great fish. “When God saw what they, 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.”
Jonah responds to God’s radical and far-reaching grace in the same way that many of us have, time and time again. He goes off to pout. God is not doing what he wants, instead of destroying his enemies, God had shown mercy to Jonah, who repented from inside the fish. God chooses to show the same mercy to the people of Ninevah, that great city. Jonah, who thought he had God in his pocket, even though he knew that God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” learns the hard way that God’s limitless grace doesn’t just belong to one reluctant prophet.
Truly, we rediscover how vast our Lord is in this minor prophet. “…the book of Jonah concerns a recurring and endlessly powerful resistance to reduce [God's] character, so large in mercy and comprehensive in compassion, to the local convenience of the insider community of Israel," or, for that matter, the Christian church. If we're going to accept God's grace, we must do so acknowledging God's freedom to give that grace to anyone, even "those people.”
The disquieting thing about Jonah, and our Matthew passage, is that if God is free to be gracious to Ninevah. The comforting thing is that if God is gracious even to Ninevah, if the vineyard owner is generous to those who worked the least, then surely God is also quick to forgive us. Even when we've worked all day, we must still rely on God's generosity, regardless of our own ability.
”For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard." Our parable this morning is not meant to be an instruction for how to run a successful business. If one followed this parable literally and paid workers the same irrespective of how long they worked, one would find very few workers who were willing to start first thing in the morning.
Even though it’s not a realistic guide to living, this parable is my favorite one anyway. It so full of different possibilities. One can look at why the workers didn't get hired at first. Perhaps they didn't look like the kind of who would be productive. Perhaps they weren't there first thing in the morning. Perhaps there was a good reason why they got passed over.
One can look at why the landowner kept hiring new workers. Maybe he called them in to work because the harvest was so great he needed every available hand, even throughout the day, snowballing production into a record profit. Maybe he wanted to encourage the later workers to be more prepared the next day, giving a hand-up to those who needed gainful employment. Maybe those who came later in the day would be willing to work harder than those who started the day.
One cast reinterpret this parable based on the different ways to cast the various characters.
One reading would be that God is the landowner, and we are the workers, and Jesus is the overseer who pays us all with our salvation at the end of the day.
Another reading might say Christ is the landowner, and those who don't know the gospel are the workers, and the church is the overseer who is taught to serve the last first.
But Jesus begins the passage with ”For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard." If the landowner is not God, but rather God's kingdom, that changes things. Suddenly we have a kingdom that pursues us throughout the day, giving us the chance to work in the vineyard. Even those who have started the day negotiating for a fair wage and overlooking the opportunity for joy that the work offers. As one commentator noted, ”The bargainers are working for a denarius; the latecomers are working for the landowner, for God. Both get what they're working for.” The kingdom of heaven is a place of generous joyous giving, if we're jealous it saps the joy.
But even so, the payment schedule still gives us pause. “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” Why does the landowner give such specific instructions for making those who have worked the longest watch the others get paid? The whole conflict would have been avoided if the landowner had paid them in the order they began work. Surely God is trying to teach them something by paying them last. And wouldn't it have been just as generous to pay the people who deserve a full days wage even more?
I grew up in the church, a minister's son. I've been attending regularly my whole life! I've been serving others as long as I can remember! I won't begrudge the landowner's generosity, but I could stand to receive some of it, instead of just watching others enjoy their gracious pay. We're all good people here at this church, right? We read our bibles, tithe regularly, and feed the hungry.
But then, wrapped up in our self-righteousness, we begin to recognize the faces of those who were called at the end of the day. I remember when I told someone who asked me for money that I didn't have any cash, even though I had just broken a twenty dollar bill at the grocery store so I could tip my bartender that night. I remember the years at college when I didn't go to church because I "didn't find a church home," when really I didn't make much of an effort. Perhaps we remember that we were on vacation one week when we normally tithe, but when we got back we didn't put twice as much as usual to make up for it. Perhaps we remember that we skipped over the hard parts when we were reading the bible, and just read our favorite stories over and over. Perhaps we remember when instead of feeding the hungry, we went back for seconds just so none of our food would go to waste.
We begin to recognize the faces of those who were called at the end of the day, and where we expected to find "those people," we see ourselves. We may think of ourselves as good people, but sainthood isn't about meeting everyone's expectations, it's about trusting God's grace and allowing ourselves to be transformed by it.
At the end of the day, at least in the kingdom of heaven, we are all given our daily wage, whether we negotiated it at the beginning or receive it as a gift. The only difference is in how much work we are able to do, because there's no indication that the landowner is concerned with the harvest or his own profit. Instead he shows concern for those who have not been given the opportunity to work, continually invite people in even if they don’t measure up to the standards we set, but cannot even meet ourselves. But we are invited to work not because we are qualified or at the top of the field, we are invited to join the work of the kingdom because God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
But we’re still working on learning how to be grateful vineyard workers, especially when the way God shows generosity makes it easier to see to given to others rather than in our own lives. ”The vineyard owner claims the right to pay his workers not on the basis of their merits but on the basis of his own compassion. Why should such generosity be condemned as injustice?” The kingdom of heaven is a place where our expectations are turned on their heads, where grace is extended bother to Jonah and to Ninevah, and to those who labor at any time of the day. If we try and keep track of the numbers, the scores of debts and debtors, the equations don’t come out the way we expect. So we join Jonah in the wilderness, or the early workers in their complaint. Ultimately though, our accounting doesn’t make the difference, God’s generosity defines reality.
We rely of God's mercy whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not.