FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual loving kindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This confession is a common refrain throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It is prominent in our Lenten liturgies. It is good news-the good news-that God is gracious, merciful and loving. Comforting it is to know that God’s love is steadfast; that God’s mercy is infinite; and that God is slow to anger. Even God’s anger arises out of God’s passionate love for us.
But it seems as though some folks wish that God were not quite so loving. I remember well a dear woman, I will call her Marcia, from a church I served years ago saying to me, “Yes, pastor, God is loving.” But she was quick to point out that “God hates sin! You’re not saying that we can do whatever we want and God will just ignore it, are you? There comes a point where God will not tolerate sin anymore if we just keep doing it.” Marcia had a couple of good points. True enough, God does hate sin and God does punish it. But why is God so opposed to sin? According to Marcia, it is because God is righteous, because God cannot tolerate a violation of his holy law, because justice requires that every sin be punished. That, according to Marcia, was the reason for the cross. God punished our sin in Jesus. Through faith in Jesus, we escape the punishment we deserve. Of course, if we reject Jesus and refuse the pardon he offers, then God has no choice other than to punish us fully and fairly for our sin.
Marcia’s god was fair and presided over a universe that was fair as well. People get what they deserve, if not in this life then surely in the next. On the surface, that is very appealing. Why shouldn’t life be fair? Why shouldn’t we be rewarded for righteous behavior and punished for wickedness? How can God rule justly if he forgives willy-nilly and punishes only sporadically? Who will take sin seriously or try to be righteous if there are no rewards or punishments?
Marcia was not altogether wrong. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament speak of God’s wrath and God’s judgment. While that might offend our middle class protestant, slightly left of center, ever polite and ever white notions about properly progressive religion, it’s biblical. Marcia was altogether right about God hating sin. She was dead wrong, however, about God’s reason for hating it. God hates sin not because it violates his precious rules or upsets the moral balance of the universe, but because sin injures God’s creatures and ruins God’s creation. God punishes sin not to satisfy some abstract notion of perfect justice, but to curb our most self-destructive impulses. God’s judgment is gracious in that it saves us from ourselves. It is but another expression of God’s love, albeit tough love.
Our lessons for this week introduce us to a prophet and some day laborers whose belief in God and God’s justice are very much like Marcia’s. They believe that both God and life should be fair. Jonah is miffed at God for failing to punish the wicked city of Nineveh. The laborers in Jesus’ parable are angry at their boss for paying a full day’s wage to their co-workers who labored for only an hour. What they and we must learn is that God is far more concerned about mercy than fairness. So, too, divine justice is more about reconciliation than adjudicating disputes.
The book of Jonah differs from all the other prophetic books. Rather than containing the oracles of a prophet, this book tells the story of a prophet. It reads very much like a short story. It is also different in that the prophetic focus is not upon Israel, but upon Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s archenemy, Assyria. That is where the problem lies as far as the prophet is concerned. Jonah would far rather be declaring gleefully Assyria’s doom to his fellow Israelites than bringing a warning to the doomed nation. Assyria, after all, was responsible for the downfall and destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Southern Kingdom of Judah only narrowly escaped the same fate. Jonah, like the rest of Israel, wanted nothing more than to see God’s judgment fall with full force on this cruel empire. So Jonah does everything in his power to ensure the failure of his mission to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.
First, Jonah tries to run away from his commission. Rather than traveling to Nineveh, he gets on a boat heading in the opposite direction. God catches up with Jonah, however and sends a storm that threatens to swamp the ship. Everyone on the boat begins praying frantically to his god, except Jonah who is fast asleep in the hold. Jonah is not on speaking terms with his God. The sailors wake Jonah and implore him to pray to his God for rescue, but instead Jonah suggests that they throw him overboard. He would rather drown than prophesy to Nineveh. But Jonah’s attempt at suicide fails. God is not letting him off the hook that easily. God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah and there he remains, in the belly of the fish, for three days. After giving Jonah adequate time to reflect, the fish vomits Jonah up on shore. God repeats the original command: Go at once to Nineveh.
Knowing that he can never escape from God, Jonah goes reluctantly to Nineveh and preaches the shortest and most uninformative sermon ever given by a prophet. The message? “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Jonah 3:4. That’s it. Jonah does not tell the people of Nineveh why they are being overthrown, who is going to overthrow them or whether there is anything they can do to prevent the overthrow. Yet this half-hearted and incomplete sermon brings about a remarkable effect. “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small put on sackcloth.” Jonah 3:5. Not only that, but “when the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” Jonah 3:6. Even the animals repented with fasting! Jonah 3:7-8. “Who knows?” remarked the king. “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” Jonah 3:9. God does indeed hear the penitent cries from the people of Nineveh and God changes his mind. God spares the city from destruction.
This is just what Jonah had feared and what he had done everything possible to prevent. “I knew it!” cries the exasperated prophet. “Is this not 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 were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah 4:2. Jonah knows his Torah well. This confession of God as merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 145:8 and Psalm 103:8. Indeed, it is with these very words that God reveals to Moses his innermost being. Exodus 34:6-7. But Jonah does not seem to want a God who is merciful and slow to anger. He wants a God that is fair. Assyria is guilty of unspeakable acts of war, oppression and cruelty. It is only fair that God visit upon Assyria what the empire has inflicted on Israel. An eleventh hour show of repentance should not be enough to win Nineveh a reprieve from justice.
God proves to be as patient and forgiving toward his stubborn prophet as he is toward the wicked city of Nineveh. God employs an object lesson. He causes a plant to grow up giving the sulking prophet shade. Then, a day later, God sends a worm causing the plant to wither and die. Now Jonah is livid. Bad enough that God should make a fool of him by calling off the judgment he had predicted. Now it appears that God means to give him sunstroke as well. Then God makes his point: “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. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Jonah 4:11. That is how the book ends-with God’s question. We never hear Jonah’s answer and perhaps that is intentional. The question is really directed at us. What sort of God do we worship? Is God chiefly concerned with abstract notions of justice, with punishing sin and rewarding good behavior? Or is God more concerned with the well-being of people? Does God hate sin because it offends against his precious laws? Or does God hate sin because it harms his creatures?
For numerous reasons, most scholars date this book in the post exilic period following 539 B.C.E. While the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by Assyria was a more distant memory, Judah’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians was a fresh and painful recollection. To be sure, Jeremiah and Ezekiel had explained these catastrophes as consequences of Israel’s breach of covenant faithfulness to God. But even so, Israel’s less than perfect obedience was surely light years closer to righteousness than the brutal and oppressive ways of Assyria and Babylonia. If Israel was justly punished for her sin, is it too much to expect that these empires also should face judgment?
The Book of Jonah shifts the focus of this discussion from fairness to mercy. God does not inflict judgment merely settle scores or maintain some sort of moral balance. God punishes in order to heal. Thus, whether God punishes sin or decides to refrain from punishment has nothing to do with fairness. It is finally a question of what will bring about a change of heart, healing and ways that are life giving. If repentance can be achieved without punishment, God abstains from exercising the rod-even if that seems unfair. Likewise, God will inflict whatever hardships are necessary to bring his people to the point of recognizing their self-destructive ways and their need for him-whether the punishment is commensurate with the crime or not. But God’s concern is always for the well-being of his people both within and outside of his covenant with Israel.
“All of this points in the direction of the fact that God’s will for his world is salvation and not destruction. He will do all within his power to see that salvation comes rather than destruction. God’s love and mercy always have priority over his anger (see Psalm 30:3). He wishes life for his creatures rather than death (see Ezekiel 18:23, 32). Fretheim, Terence E., The Message of Jonah, (c. 1977 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 130.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety.
Formally, this is a psalm of praise, probably from the period after the Babylonian Exile. God alone is acknowledged as “king” rather than any ruler of the Davidic line. Vs. 1. Professor Walter Brueggemann classifies this psalm as a “song of creation,” a subcategory of his “psalms of orientation,” namely, psalms that “express a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 25. Psalm 145 expresses Israel’s “joyous and grateful confidence in the Creator.” Id. at 28. There is no thematic development in this psalm. It is, as Brueggeman points out, “static in form, articulating what is enduringly true of the world.” Id. at 28-29. The range of praise stretches from the first person to the intergenerational “we” of the worshiping community.
“The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8.This refrain is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as pointed out in my observations concerning our first lesson, where we encounter it in the context of irony. Jonah 4:2 It is because God is so gracious and merciful that Israel felt free to address God in prayer, even-indeed, especially-when she knew that she had fallen short of her covenant obligations. Placed as it is in contrast to Jonah’s citation of this ancient confession, the psalm invites us to ponder what it means to have a God whose principle attributes are graciousness, mercy, and steadfast love. Such a divine disposition is comforting when applied to ourselves but, as the lesson from Jonah illustrates, not quite so palatable when applied to our enemies. Are we prepared to accept God’s graciousness and mercy extended toward Al Qaeda or to ISIS? Or does the very idea throw us into a Jonah snit?
To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
This Sunday’s reading comes from the Letter of Friendship Paul wrote while imprisoned. Paul is mindful that his imprisonment might well end with his being sentenced to death. Though hopeful that he will finally be released and allowed to continue his ministry, Paul does not fear death. For whether through his future ministry or through his faithful acceptance of death for the sake of the gospel, whether short or long, Paul’s life will bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:19-20. Paul prefers deliverance from prison to martyrdom, but this is not because he fears death. Indeed, he views death in Christ as “gain.” Vs. 21. Paul wishes to live that he may continue his ministry to the church in Philippi and to his other congregations. Vs. 25-26.
Paul urges the Philippian believers to let their manner of life “be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Vs. 27. To give content to this admonition, we need to read further both in Philippians and in the other letters of Paul. The church, as the Body of Christ, is to live a counter-cultural existence in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28. In the midst of the hierarchical and stratified culture of Rome, such a community constituted a subversive challenge. The church was, as Paul aptly pointed out, an “omen to them of their destruction.” Vs. 28. The church can therefore expect opposition. Faith in Jesus naturally entails “suffering” for his sake and participation with Paul in his own conflict with the empire. Vss. 29-30.
Paul’s sentiments and the struggles of his Philippian congregation are hard to grasp in a culture where the church fits neatly into the Americana landscape. Even as Christianity fades from popular culture and the church’s influence recedes, we do not face anything like persecution. Yes, I know about Fox’s reporting on the so-called “war on Christianity.” But if you really think that barring a crèche from the town square during the holiday season amounts to persecution, you need to talk to Christians in Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq. They will tell you what real persecution looks like. What we actually are experiencing is the beginning of marginalization. Given our substantial loss of membership, participation and support, we mainliners no longer represent a significant demographic group. We are fast becoming a minority. But then again, perhaps we always were a minority. Maybe the cultural support churches received in the past and the social expectation for church membership and participation characteristic of earlier times falsely inflated our numbers. It could be that, despite the loss of members, the church has more disciples today than ever before. I have no idea whether that is so or how one would go about finding out one way or the other. But I digress.
I believe that a careful reading of Paul’s letters in our present context compels a change of subject. Rather than trying to reverse membership loss to save our institutions, we need to be talking about becoming and making disciples. Rather than wracking our brains trying to figure out how to get people to go to church, we need to start talking about how we can better be the church. It’s high time that we become an “omen” once again.
The parable reflects the gritty realities of life in Palestine and, sadly, many places in our own country. Labor is cheap and it’s a buyer’s market. Men and women stand in groups at the market place in Galilean towns or in front of the Shoprite in Union City hoping to get work for the day. The work day in Palestine lasted from sunrise to sunset. The daily wage, a denarius, was set by rabbinic custom and tradition. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) P. 392. The requirement that payment be made at the end of the day is rooted in Torah. Deuteronomy 24:15. “Vineyard” is a frequent metaphor for Israel throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g., Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:8-9.
It is important to understand that this parable follows Jesus’ teaching concerning lifelong fidelity in marriage (Matthew 19:1-9); the call of some to forego marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:10-12); Jesus’ declaration that children, who the disciples found to be a distraction, are the proper heirs of the kingdom (Matthew 19:13-15); the story about the man whose riches prevented him from following Jesus in the way of the kingdom (Matthew 19:16-22); and Jesus’ words on the cost and rewards of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23-30). Matthew’s use of the vineyard here suggests that he is giving us a snapshot of what life in the kingdom looks like-if only we have eyes to see it.
The hiring of the first laborers at dawn for a day’s wage is hardly unusual. It would not be unusual either to hire additional laborers later in the day if, for example, the rainy season were drawing near with its potential for cooler weather and even frost. Hiring workers an hour before sunset simply is not credible. Yet that appears to be the point. The owner of the vineyard is not looking at this venture from a purely business like, self-interested perspective. He is looking to the needs of the laborers. At an hour from quitting time, he discovers that there are still laborers standing idle in the marketplace. It seems odd that the owner of the vineyard would ask these unemployed laborers why they are idle. Isn’t that like asking an unemployed factory worker why he isn’t at work? The answer seems obvious, yet the owner seeks an answer from these unfortunate individuals just the same. When the would-be laborers tell him that they are idle because they have not been hired, the owner promptly hires them and sends them out.
While it might seem strange that the owner of the vineyard should pay the last workers before the first, this order of events is critical to the parable. Had the first hired been the first paid, they would each have taken their denarius and gone home contented. As the owner later points out, they received the benefit of their bargain. They are taking home a living wage for a day’s work. Their wages seem disagreeable to them only because they have witnessed payment of the same amount made to those hired last. For this reason only their wages look small and miserly. In reality, the first hired are offended not so much by their own pay as by the owner’s generous treatment of those workers that, in their view, had not earned it. This is the “Jonah” complaint in an economic context.
The owner’s strange management of labor in his vineyard is in fact how the kingdom of heaven operates. Fruitful labor for a living wage is available for all who seek it. To put it into the language of the Lord’s Prayer, daily bread is provided for all. The problem is that people want more than daily bread. That is why it is so hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:23-26. They want and expect more than daily bread. For the rich, a heavenly kingdom where all have enough to see them through each day-and no more-would be a hellish existence. So who is included among these “rich”? Who are the laborers who feel cheated? All of us, I suppose, who have more than what we need to live on today and remain unsatisfied. I believe one reason that the specter of socialism is bandied about to such great effect by political leaders has to do with our deep sense of entitlement to the fruits of our labor. I am entitled to the value of my labor (which always seems undervalued by my employer!) and nobody is entitled to anything that has not been earned. Though public assistance is hardly a significant piece of our tax burden, we still seem hell bent on cutting it because there is something deep inside us that cannot abide a person getting what they have not “earned.”
We are also uncomfortable with this parable because it challenges the gospel of wealth that permeates our culture. America is the land of opportunity, we believe, where anyone with enough determination and grit can get rich. In fact, the gap between rich and poor is growing in our land as it is globally. Those folks who are working two or three minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet would find it hard to believe that they are not working hard enough. But the problem is not merely that the American dream isn’t working. The larger problem is that, even if it did work, our lives would still be running amuck. Pursuit of wealth is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It selfishly demands more than God promises and winds up settling for much less. It rests on the false assumption that the world is a shrinking pie and my well-being depends on grabbing the biggest piece and guarding it jealously.
The parable of the vineyard, in addition to exposing our selfish, thankless and proud imaginings, also points to an alternative economics. It testifies to the possibility of an economy that maximizes human well-being rather than financial gain; gives priority to the needs of all rather than the luxuries of the few; harvests the fruits of the earth rather than exploiting and poisoning them.
Before leaving this parable, I want to share an additional take on it from Professor Stanley Hauerwas: “It is particularly important for Gentile Christians to remember that as heirs of the promise to Israel we are the last hired. The decisive commentary on Jesus’ parable of the vineyard is Paul’s understanding of God’s faithfulness to Israel developed in Romans 9-11. Paul writes to the Gentile Christians to insist that God’s promise to Israel remains in effect. Israel has stumbled on the stumbling block that is Jesus, but it has done so that salvation may come to the Gentiles (11:11-12). Accordingly, no account of the church, of those last hired, can ever be intelligible without the story of Israel, and those who are the inheritors of that story, the Jews.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brozos Press) p. 176.