The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR20—Year A; Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
Hmmmm. I just need to look at you all for a minute. Drink you in. You are beautiful, and I missed you. I want to thank you for these past three months; they have been such a gift to me and my family. They have been extremely restful and renewing, playful and peaceful and slow. My learnings and reflections will come out over time, but for now, I just want to say “thank you.” And, a special thanks to the staff—Greg, Catherine, Ted, Pat, Sarah—Jeremy and the Vestry, the priests—Steve and Toby—and the multitude of others who stepped in in ways no one will ever know. I missed y’all, but I never once worried about you because I knew you were in good hands with one another. +++ So, great lessons today. Two great stories. First, Jonah. God wanted Jonah to go preach to Nineveh. Now, I have always thought of Nineveh as kind of an ancient Las Vegas, kind of a decadent, party city, but then I ran across some notes this week in the Common English Bible. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria located along the Tigris River; it would be in modern-day Iraq, and it was a brutal, brutal place. Get this, reliefs from the walls of the ancient palace at Nineveh display horrific battle scenes that portray the removal of arms and legs and the decapitation of conquered peoples, as well as the practice of thrusting a sharp stick up through their bodies. Sounds eerily contemporary, huh? So God wanted Jonah to preach to them to try to get them to repent and turn away from their violence, but Jonah didn’t want to do that because he had a hunch that they just might repent, and he also had a hunch that God was gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. So, Jonah, of course, obedient as he was, hightails it to Nineveh, right? Wrong! He flees for Tarshish in the exact opposite direction in the far western part of the Mediterranean Sea. There’s the whole storm thing, and the getting thrown overboard thing, and the being swallowed by the big fish thing, and the incredibly stinky sitting three days in the belly of the fish thing, ending with the fish vomiting Jonah up onto the dry land. At which point, Jonah decides maybe he will go to Nineveh after all. He goes, he preaches to the people of Nineveh to stop this brutality. And lo and behold, the king decrees a fast and proclaims, “Let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” And they did; they ceased their evil behavior. And Jonah, Jonah was displeased, thought this was utterly wrong—actually, the hebrew says that he was evil, he felt evil in response to this, and he didn’t just get angry, he burned with anger. He prayed for God to take his life; “for it is better for me to die than to live,” he said. No drama there. Jonah went out of the city and made a booth there, and he waited to see what would become of the city. God appoints a bush to come up over Jonah to give him shade; Jonah is happy, God appoints a worm to attack the bush so that it withers and sends a sultry east wind, the hottest kind of wind there is, so that the sun beat down on Jonah; Jonah asks a second time to die. And God is like, “Dude, is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” “Yes, angry enough to die.” “Whoa, let me get this right, Jonah. You have compassion for the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow…And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Hold Jonah in your head. Fast forward to the gospel for today. Jesus is trying to describe what the kingdom of heaven is like and he spins out this story. So, it’s like a landowner who went out early in the morning, like about 7:00AM, to hire laborers for his vineyard, day-laborers. He negotiates with them and agrees to pay them the usual daily wage, which was a denarius, which equates to somewhere between $20-$50 US. He goes out about 9:00 and sees some other day-laborers standing around the marketplace and tells them, “You go, too, and I will pay you whatever is right.” He does this again at noon and at 3:00. About 5:00, he goes out and sees others standing around the marketplace. “Why aren’t you working?” “Because no one has hired us.” “You go too into the vineyard.” 6:00 comes, and according to the law, you had to pay a day-laborer before sunset, so it’s time to settle up. He tells his manager to call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first. When those hired at 5:00 came, each of them received the usual daily wage. The manager pays out to those who came out at 3:00, noon, and 9:00. Now when the first come, what do you think they’re thinking? I mean what would be fair for them? That’s right, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And 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 borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Okay, that’s a whole lot of words—the three-word version of this is what? THAT’S NOT FAIR! But the landowner replied to them, “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 the same as 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.” And Jesus finishes with the oh-so-irritating “so the last will be first, and the first will be last.” +++ Oh, those of us who cut our teeth on fair wages, and equal pay for equal work, and what our work is worth, and well, the way our whole economy works, we hate this passage. It assaults our sense of fairness. Those poor day-laborers who started at 7:00, they worked harder and longer and they should get more, that’s only fair, but they got a fair wage. They got the usual daily wage for a usual day’s work. And before we go ballistic over unfair labor practices, we have to stop; Jesus isn’t teaching us the in’s and out’s of the labor market; Jesus is teaching us about the kingdom of heaven. He just happened to use an example that will turn our heads inside-out and upside-down so that we are forced to see just how radically different the kingdom of heaven is from the ways of our world. The story of Jonah is doing the same. We can laugh at the absurdity of Jonah throwing a temper tantrum about the bush dying and puzzle over the fact that Jonah is consumed with evil and burning with anger because the people of Nineveh actually repented and stopped the violence and God turned out to be as gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love as Jonah feared God might be. We can think him absurd, a caricature, until we drop down and really feel how we might respond to the notion that God might forgive a people who have been practicing decapitations. Oh, Jonah just got a whole lot more real. The evil that has possessed him, his burning with anger just got a whole lot more understandable. And the depths of God’s grace and mercy and love and forgiveness just got a whole lot more radical and unfathomable. Back to the laborers in the vineyard. What’s this story really about? Is it about fairness? No. What’s it about? It’s about resentment which destroys our capacity to feel joy and contentment and gratitude. It’s about a notion of scarcity that says if you get more, I have somehow gotten less. It’s about a belief that you have to earn your worth, which makes your sense of worth immensely insecure. And Jesus takes that whole system of earning your worth and scarcity and throws it out the window. God is insanely, lavishly generous. God’s kingdom is crazily abundant. There is no way to earn your worth in God’s kingdom; it is given, plainly, simply, freely given. It is foundational. It is our DNA. We are worthy because when God looks at us, all God can see reflected back is God. We are made in God’s image. We bear God’s breath. Our humanity is dripping with divinity. We only resent others when we have failed to grasp our worth, and theirs. And our resentment can turn deadly. Jonah can’t fathom that these violent, brutal people could be worthy of God’s love, compassion, and forgiveness. He would rather die than see them awaken to that love that enables them to leave their violent ways behind. In Jonah’s mind, they don’t deserve God’s love after all that they have done. And as they rebuild their world and their relationships, even embracing their kinship with the animal world, Jonah can’t join in. Jonah is angry about everything and taking it out on everything. I once read an article on forgiveness written by Curtis Almquist, one of the SSJE monks. He said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Resentment will kill us, and it destroys our capacity for connection. It festers and turns malignant, and in Jonah’s case, he becomes the very evil that he has abhorred. With all that is going on around us in the world, we need to sit with these stories and have them in our consciousness and ask some hard questions of ourselves. Who or what do we resent? How do we understand our worth and the worth of other human beings, even brutally violent human beings; how do we understand the worth of the rest of creation? Do we operate from a frame of scarcity or a trust in abundance? Would we rather keep score and stay in control or surrender to a generosity that is reckless and out of control? Are we Jonah, those 7:00AM grumbling laborers, are we the Ninevites, or are we those who came late in the day and were knocked off our feet by grace beyond our imagining? Or are we all of these? We can drink the poison if we choose—there’s plenty of support in our world to do just that, or we can give ourselves to a radically different way, the way of mercy and forgiveness and compassion, the way of steadfast love and generosity, the way of transformation that is birthed when you understand that your worth can neither be earned nor lost, but only embraced and lived. Maybe walking in this way we will discover that God’s kingdom really can come on earth just as it is in heaven. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC September 21, 2014