|Today’s scripture readings:||Sermon audio:
“Are you envious because I am generous?” Or to put the question another way, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
That’s the question God asks Jonah twice in today’s first lesson. “Is it right for you to be angry?” Most of us remember the story of Jonah from our Sunday School years. God tells Jonah to go to the city of Ninevah to declare God’s judgment upon the people, to warn them that they are about to be destroyed as a result of their wickedness. God tells Jonah to go east to Ninevah; instead, Jonah hops on a boat and heads west, across the Mediterranean. But while he’s out at sea, a huge storm forms overhead, threatening to sink the ship. Jonah’s shipmates determine that he is responsible for the calamity that has befallen them, and they confront him. “This must be your fault!” they say. “What have you done, that God is so angry and determined to punish us? What are we to do now?” Jonah tells them, “I’m sorry. You’re right. It is my fault. Throw me overboard and I promise, the seas will be calm.” You get the sense Jonah hopes he will die, that he thinks dying at sea would be preferable to going to Ninevah with the message God has given him. So they toss him off the ship. And you remember what happens next. A whale swallows Jonah, saving his life—much to his chagrin. From inside the whale Jonah prays to God, and the whale spits Jonah up on the dry land.
And that’s where today’s reading picks up, when “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” God says to Jonah, “No, really. I’m not kidding. Get up. Go to Ninevah. Bring them the message I’ve sent you to deliver.” Realizing now that running away isn’t a viable option, Jonah goes, against his will. He comes sulking into town, trots just a few steps into the city, and with all the excitement of a boy forced by his parents to apologize to his snotty little brother, he says, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Only eight words. That’s his bold proclamation of God’s judgment. You can almost hear him rolling his eyes as he delivers the news.
And how do the Ninevites respond to Jonah’s half-hearted announcement of judgment? The entire city repents, begging for God’s forgiveness. God is pleased and decides to be merciful, sparing them the calamity Jonah had promised. Most prophets would be thrilled. It never happens this way, that a prophet declares God’s judgment and the people say, “You know what? You’re right! We have been terrible people. God, forgive us. We’ll do better.” But Jonah stumbles into town and says eight words and the entire city repents. He should be happy. But he’s not. He’s angry. “I knew it,” Jonah says. “I knew you were gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. I saw this coming from the very beginning. I knew you’d forgive these terrible Ninevites. Kill me now,” he says. “It’s better for me to die than to live.” And that’s when we hear the question at the heart of this story: “Is it right for you to be angry? Should I not be concerned about this city full of people—120,000 of them—who have gone astray and need to be brought back into line? Is it right for you to be angry?”
In a way, it is right for Jonah to be angry. Ninevah wasn’t just any city. It was the capital city of Assyria, Israel’s bitter enemy. Assyria was the empire that eventually obliterated the northern kingdom of Israel. And Ninevah was notorious for its depravity; it was sort of the Las Vegas of its time. It was exactly the kind of place that a faithful Israelite like Jonah would have loved to see go down in flames. And instead God has mercy. Is it right for Jonah to be angry? Maybe it is. Isn’t it right to be angry when cruel and violent people are let off the hook? Isn’t it right to be angry when we see mercy extended to people who don’t deserve it? Isn’t it right to be angry when grace overturns our common-sense assumptions about justice?
It’s those same basic beliefs about justice that Jesus challenges in the parable of the generous landowner in today’s Gospel reading. At the end of the day, as the wages are doled out, the workers discover that all of them are being paid exactly the same amount. It doesn’t matter whether they were hired early in the morning or just before quitting time. Everyone receives a full day’s wage. Those who had been hired at daybreak and had labored in the vineyard all day are furious. And then comes the landowner’s reply: “Are you envious because I am generous?” Or to borrow the question from the Jonah story, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
You probably should be angry. The landowner in this parable acts unjustly, and we are hard-wired to resist injustice. The biblical prophets teach us to speak out when we see people treated unfairly. And isn’t it true that the workers in this parable who slaved all day in the vineyard are treated unfairly?
Immediately after telling this parable, in the verses that come right after today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going to Jerusalem, and that he’ll be handed over to the authorities and killed. It’s almost like he knew that the story he had just told about the workers in the vineyard was so upsetting that it would lead to his death. He knew full well that his message about God’s mercy was deeply offensive.
This message about God’s mercy is still deeply offensive. We desperately want to live in a world where people get what they deserve. We hate it when we get the speeding ticket seconds after some other guy went screaming by us on the freeway. We hate it when someone else on our team gets the promotion even though we did all the work. We hate it when our own children are passed over for admission to a prestigious college in favor of someone we believe is less worthy.
It’s crazy, isn’t it, that maybe the most offensive message in the Bible is the message that God is generous? Just let that sink in for a moment. We resent the idea that God could be so gracious, that God’s love could extend even to the unlovable. It’s no accident that Jesus tells this parable and follows it immediately with a prediction of his own death. He knows that what he has said upends our most basic human assumptions about justice and leaves all of us outraged. Jesus was put to death because he dared to say God’s love transcends the limits we are determined to put on it.
We like the concept of grace. We love undeserved grace when we are the recipients of it, but we so often resent it when it’s given to those who don’t deserve it. The lesson today is that God’s grace extends to all. The kingdom of God is for everyone. Every last person is welcome. The only people turned away are the ones who can’t accept God’s expansive acceptance. The Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon says that “bookkeeping is the only punishable offense in the kingdom of heaven.” We’re so quick to keep score, tallying all the ways others fall short. And we don’t always let ourselves off the hook; we beat ourselves up, as well, all too aware of our own shortcomings. But this “bookkeeping” closes us off from God’s grace. We’ve had it drilled into our heads that people get what they deserve. Listen sometime to the way our politicians talk about issues, and see how often their arguments boil down to a debate about who deserves what. But when it comes to God’s grace, it’s not a question of who deserves what. It’s a gift freely and generously given to all.
This message about God’s grace is deeply offensive until we realize that sometimes we are the Ninevites who have been spared God’s wrath, or that we are the workers who showed up at the last minute and still got a full day’s wage. Sometimes we are the ones who are unworthy yet somehow still receive mercy. God’s grace extends even to us. It’s that grace we’ve experienced when we don’t deserve it that unlocks our own capacity to be gracious toward others who don’t deserve it, to forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable. And it’s our own experience of a God who is generous in doling out grace that empowers our own generosity.
In a moment you’ll hear about our plans for this year’s stewardship campaign, when we invite you to consider you financial pledge to the church for the year ahead. You’ll be invited to consider how a large gift of generosity from one of our members might ignite your own generosity and increase our capacity to be part of God’s mission here in St. Paul and beyond. We love because God first loved us, and we give because God first gave to us. Our generosity is sparked by God’s generosity.
That’s really what it boils down to. God is generous with grace, extending it to all; extending it even to those who don’t deserve it; extending it even to you and me. Is it right for us to be angry?
Eugene Boring, “Matthew” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).
Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
Thomas G. Long, Matthew, in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997.)
Debie Thomas, “A Troubling Generosity,” on Journey with Jesus, September 17, 2017, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1500-a-troubling-generosity.