Whose decision is it, anyway?

Pentecost 14 (Year A), Sunday, September 18, 2011


Jonah 3:10-4:11, Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Today’s first lesson comes from the book of Jonah, one of the most fun-to-read books of the Old Testament.  How many of you learned the story of Jonah and the Whale in Sunday School when you were a kid?  If your Sunday School lesson was anything like mine, it went something like this: Jonah didn’t want to do what God wanted him to do, so he ran away and God made a big fish eat him.  Jonah said he was sorry, God forgave him, the fish spat him up on the shore, and Jonah went on to do what God told him to do.  The moral of the story was to listen to God and do what God tells you.  It’s a good lesson.  How many of you think this when you hear it: “That Jonah is so stupid.  I’m glad I’m more faithful than that.  Of course God knows best.  Of course I would have gone to Nineveh to preach God’s Word, if God had sent me.”

Then we get to today’s lesson, the last chapter of the book and the end of the story.  In between the fish and our reading, Jonah had gone to Nineveh as God commanded him to, preached the shortest sermon ever (only one verse long!) and the people of Nineveh repented of their sins.  Now God sees their repentance and spares them … and Jonah gets mad at him for it!  Jonah quotes one of the Bible’s most frequent descriptions of God: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  Except that Jonah thinks that’s a bad thing: “This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning,” he says, fuming.  He doesn’t want God to be merciful.  He doesn’t want God to be forgiving.  How many of you, listening to this, are thinking to yourself: “That Jonah, he just doesn’t get it.  God is love!  God is about forgiveness!  It’s a good thing that the people of Nineveh repented and God forgave them.  I’m glad I understand God better than Jonah.”

It’s tempting to judge Jonah like that, but don’t be too hasty.  Jonah wants God to hate the people of Nineveh because he hates the people of Nineveh.  He doesn’t want God to save them because Jonah doesn’t believe they deserve to be saved.  Jonah wants to be the one to decide who gets God’s grace and who doesn’t.  And the truth is, we are a lot more like Jonah than we think.

Jonah had good reason to hate the people of Nineveh.  You see, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire.  And the Assyrians weren’t just your ordinary pagan empire in the ancient middle east.  In their heyday, they were the great power of the region, conquering most of the area and dominating those countries they didn’t directly rule.  In 721 BC, they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, deporting the ten tribes who lived there, and who were never seen again.  For the next century the Assyrians dominated the southern kingdom of Judah.  Nineveh wasn’t just any city.  Nineveh was the city that destroyed God’s people.  If any city deserved God’s wrath, it was Nineveh.  And yet Nineveh was the city God sent Jonah to preach to.

That puts kind of a different spin on the story, doesn’t it?  I have a suspicion that if we were in Jonah’s shoes, the majority of us would do the exact same thing Jonah did.  Would you want to bring God’s word to your enemies?  Would you want to be the person through whom God saved them?  I think that like Jonah, most of us would try and run away from God’s call, and like Jonah I think we’d be angry at God’s mercy.  God’s mercy is a wonderful thing—when it’s aimed at us.  We love that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love—when we or people we care about benefit from it.  But it’s a whole other story when God shows mercy to people we don’t like, people who aren’t like us, people we don’t think deserve God’s grace and love.  The whole question of the book of Jonah is this: who decides who receives God’s mercy?

That’s the question of today’s Gospel reading, too.  Should God be fair and just, or should God be merciful?  I know that my own gut reaction is to side with the laborers hired first.  They have a good point!  There is no way to make the landowner’s treatment of the laborers just.  Those who have worked longer deserve more compensation for their labors by any human judgment.  And yet God reckons things differently.  The landowner held to his agreement with the ones hired first: a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.  They are not shorted, but given a just reward for their labors, a living wage.  Yet he treats the other workers with mercy and grace, instead of with justice, and gives them more than they have earned.  When we identify with the laborers hired first, we are tempted to see that as a bad thing.  Because we like God’s grace and mercy when we receive it ourselves, but not so much when it is given to others.

But put yourselves in the shoes of the laborers hired last.  The “usual daily wage” was just that—the daily wage.  It was enough for the needs of that day.  It paid for one day’s food and shelter.  Imagine standing around in the marketplace, hoping for work, and knowing that you and your children will go hungry that night if no one chooses you to harvest their crops.  Imagine the despair growing as the day goes on and there is no work for you.  You will be hungry that night.  You will have to explain to your kids that there is nothing to eat.  You may be sleeping in the streets and hoping no one steals what few belongings you have.  And then—someone comes and offers you a job.  They don’t even say what they’ll pay you, but whatever it is, it’s better than nothing, so you take it.  And as you work you wonder: how hungry will I be tonight?  I only earned a little—I know it isn’t enough for a full meal, but at least it will be something.  And maybe, maybe the manager will be generous.  Maybe he’ll give me a little extra, maybe even enough for my children to eat a full meal, at least.

And then comes the end of the day, and the manager calls everyone in to receive their wages.  And he hands you a full day’s wages: the same pay he would have given you if you had been hired first thing in the morning, far more than you earned.  It means that you and your family will be able to sleep safely in a warm place tonight.  It means that you and your family will have enough to eat.  It means life.  It means hope.

That is, after all, what God’s grace is all about: life and hope, even to people who haven’t earned it.  Even to people who only come late.  Even to people like the inhabitants of Nineveh who were so lost in their sin they didn’t even realize they were sinning until Jonah told them.  Let’s face it, no one has earned God’s grace.  The only reason the complaining laborers had a job—the only thing that separated them from the ones who came later—was because the landowner hired them early in the morning instead of late.  If the landowner had hired them later in the day, I bet they would have been singing a different tune.

No one has earned God’s love.  God loves us freely, unconditionally, whether or not we’ve earned it.  God wants us to follow his commands not because he’s waiting to punish us when we fail, but because he loves us and wants us to have good and whole lives.  Christ came that we might have life and have it abundantly.  This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about: the kind of life that can only come from God’s generous love.

It’s tempting to be like Jonah, and the laborers hired first.  It’s tempting to think that God’s love and mercy are things we can control.  It’s tempting to assume that God agrees with us about who deserves grace and mercy and who doesn’t.  One thing that devout Christians have done throughout the ages—usually with the best intentions—is try to figure out what the criteria are or should be for salvation.  Do you have to go to church regularly, and how often is regularly enough to count?  Do you have to do good works, and if so, how many?  Do you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?  Are some sins too great for forgiveness?  When you sin, do you have to do something to make up for it for God to forgive you?  Does being a member of one group mean that God loves you more than God loves members of another group?  Do you have to work the whole day to receive the reward, and what happens if you come late?

Too easily we forget the times when we ourselves have come late, when we have failed to follow Christ, when we have rejected Jesus.  Too easily we forget that we, too, need God’s unconditional love.  And we begrudge others what God has freely given us.  Thank God that God’s mercy is greater than ours, that God’s love is wider and deeper than we imagine.  May God help us to show that love and generosity to others.


4 thoughts on “Whose decision is it, anyway?

  1. Thank you for that. Judge not, that ye be not judged. But why should the owner of that vineyard be God? Could he not just be a rich man, messing with the heads of the workers who started first, or being nice on a whim, so he can be happy with himself, though he is nasty most of the time?

    In the Church of England, a “vicar” is the person who has the care of the parish, and cannot be easily dislodged; the assistant is the “curate”. Fascinating to see other uses.

    • It can be dangerous to lock the parables in too much–to be too tied to one explanation or allegory of them, such as landowner=God. However, in this case I feel fairly safe in the association of the landowner with God because Jesus, when introducing the parable, explicitly said that it was a kingdom parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like …” Also, consider the context. The end of chapter 19 is the rich young ruler who goes away unhappy with Jesus’ answer to his question, and then to the disciples questioning who can be saved (“for God, all things are possible”) and Peter asking specifically what reward they will have for doing (i.e. leaving everything to follow Jesus, unlike the rich young ruler). Jesus says they will inherit eternal life, but also that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, which further distances Jesus’ words from conventional ideas. Then comes the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, (Matthew 20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard…. “). The attitude of the laborers hired first is very similar to Peter’s attitude–we’re the ones who have done the hard work, what’s our reward? Also, the whole thrust of the parable lines up very nicely with a bunch of other parables and sayings of Jesus pointing out that the economy and judgment of God is NOT LIKE that of humans, and is indeed often directly counter to what humans would assume. This is also a theme of some passages and stories of the Old Testament, as well, particularly in the prophets but also in times like God choosing David (the runt of the family) and Ruth (a foreign widow), people who were at the bottom of the social totem pole.

      Bottom line, if the owner of the vineyard is just a rich man messing with the heads of his workers or being nice on a whim, why would Jesus explicitly say that the kingdom of heaven is like the landowner?

      “Vicar” is derived from the same word as “vicarious” and in the original usage meant “someone who ministers on behalf of someone else.” So, for example, one of the Pope’s official titles is “the Vicar of Christ” i.e. the one who ministers on behalf of Christ. The term has branched out and is used in a lot of different ways when people need an appropriately churchy title. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my denomination, the term is used for seminary students who serve a required one-year internship in a parish under the supervision of the parish’s pastor. You can’t call them a pastor–they aren’t, they’re not ordained or called to that church–but you need some kind of official and churchy title for them, and vicar it is. (Vicar is not a term one hears often in America, so we’re not likely to get mixed up with the Anglican usage of the term.) I have just graduated from seminary, but I don’t have a call yet (i.e. a church has not yet called me to be their pastor) and thus am not ordained; I am working in a congregation on a temporary contract until I can find a call. And, again, they needed a suitably churchy title, and they can’t call me pastor because I’m not ordained. So, I am a vicar once again.

    • On the other hand, it’s good to question common assumptions, even if only as an intellectual exercise. Sometimes the assumption is right. Sometimes it isn’t, and the only way you’ll ever know which is if you’re willing to ask questions like that.

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