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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Totally Unfair

In both the Jonah and Matthew texts for today, God forgives and extends grace, offending our human sense of fairness and justice, choosing God’s own justice and mercy. We are blessed by that mercy.

Vicar Erik Doughty, Ordinary Time, Sunday 25, year A; texts: Jonah 3:10 - 4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Matthew 20:1-16

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

An ancient Facebook status:


or how about:


In September, our lectionary texts have first called us to forgive, then reminded us we are God’s servants commanded to forgive infinitely. Today God offends our sense of justice and fairness . . . and next week, God will annoy us by inviting all manner of (literally and figuratively) unwashed folk into community with us.

From Jonah’s point of view, God is a jerk! First God calls Jonah to go preach doom to Jonah’s enemies: Go to the capital city of your aggressive enemies, and tell them God’s gonna overthrow them in 40 days. This is not a fun assignment! And many of you know the story-- Jonah runs the OTHER way, away from God’s call-- and through the story, everyone but God’s prophet seems to recognize God at work. The sailors in the boat, they see God at work. The elements of nature obey God, including the Great Fish that swallows Jonah. Jonah finally does preach doom to the Ninevites, not mentioning God or repentance at all, and what happens? The Ninevites repent (including their cows!) and turn to God.

And then-- this is the part that really bugs Jonah -- God forgives Jonah’s enemies.

Jonah’s response is to pitch a fit while yelling a Psalm. He takes the last verse of today’s Psalm and rephrases it as a temper tantrum: “I knew you were going to do this. I knew you would forgive my enemies. I knew you were gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. That’s why I didn’t want to come do this job in the first place! ARGH! I wish I were dead!”

And God says, “Should you be angry about this?”

Jonah doesn’t even answer. He turns away and stomps out of the (forgiven) city of his enemies. If this were a cartoon, he’d have steam coming out his ears. And he makes himself a place to sit, and watches the city, hoping God will change God’s mind back to “DOOM” so Jonah can see his enemies obliterated.

But God has dealt with Ninevah with forgiveness. God’s already DONE with Ninevah. God’s problem now is with his crabby prophet who still doesn’t Get It.

So instead of messing around any further with Ninevah, God works on Jonah’s attitude. God makes a bush (or vine) grow up to give Jonah shade-- which makes Jonah happy. And overnight, God sends a worm to kill that plant. . . and then God sends a hot breeze. Again Jonah says, “I wish I were dead!”

(You notice, again, that we’re adding to the list of who’s obedient and thankful in working for and with God-- now, in addition to the wind and waves and pagan sailors and the great fish, we’ve added the enemy pagan people of Nineveh, their cows, the bush, the worm, and the sultry east wind. Who’s still resisting God’s call? That’s right, Jonah God’s prophet.)

So again God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry?” And again, even now, Jonah says, “Yes! I wish I were dead!”

And the final verses of the whole story of Jonah documents God trying to give Jonah perspective. “You’re concerned about a bush that you had nothing to do with. I, God, am concerned about all these people and animals that I do have something to do with!”

And we never hear Jonah’s response Maybe that is for the best, right?

Over to Matthew. It’s a different story but it pulls us into Jonah’s place, you see, as the crabby insider crying “it’s not fair!”

In the parable, the owner of the vineyard goes out and hires day laborers, and promises the first bunch of workers a denarius a day-- it was the usual daily wage for day laborers, but as in our time, the usual wage for day labor was pretty low.

He goes again, later, and hires another batch for “whatever is right.” And another batch of workers is hired even later in the day-- at that point the owner just tells them to go into the vineyard; there’s no discussion of pay at all.

But when time comes to pay them, this totally unfair vineyard owner pays the last-hired first, and pays them as though they worked the entire time! And eventually, the first-hired, the longest-working ones, get a denarius too. No overtime, no bonus.

So these workers gripe! They say, “We worked hard and they haven’t and you made them equal to us!”

But the totally unfair vineyard owner says, “It’s my vineyard; it’s my money; it’s my choice. Is it my generosity that makes you mad?”

And again, as with Jonah, we don’t hear the answer from the laborers.

But we do know the answer, don’t we? It’s our answer too. The answer is YES! Yes, we were pretty sure we wanted a fair and just God. Yes, we wanted a bonus for working longer hours. Yes, we’re pretty sure those other folks don’t deserve all they’re getting. Yes, if we’d known this was how it would all work out, we’d have stepped back and been in one of the later-hired groups! Yes, the vineyard-workers’ union rep is gonna hear about this, eh?

A reality we must face is that, whenever we come to work in the vineyard, there is always someone who comes in later than we do, yet receives the same grace that we do. Whenever we proclaim God’s powerful word to the world estranged from God, there are always those who repent and are forgiven, who join us in the pew and at communion, whose mere presence-- and whose forgiveness by God-- makes us want to throw a fit. When we live life in community, and that community is within God’s world, there are always times when we are the last ones to be on-board with God’s desire to love, forgive, and reconcile the world. Sometimes we’re Jonah and those long-working day laborers. We’d much rather have front-row seats to watch our enemies destroyed, more so than gathering with them at the altar. And we’d rather those folks who came in after we did, or who do a little less at church, got a little less than we did.

And some of us here have a different history where we were those folks in Nineveh, or the pagan sailors, or the workers called late. We know too well, now, that we were on a bad path, part of a community that had no care for God, or for whatever reason we were hostile to God. And we recognized God’s work in the world, or heard God’s call; and here we are; and a denarius in our hand and forgiveness by God has given us new life.

Well-- here we all are, together.

We are called to forgive one another-- in corporate confession and forgiveness; in the sharing of the peace; in the Lord’s prayer.

We are encouraged to strive side by side for the faith of the gospel, in sermon, hymns; liturgy.

We are entrusted to one another in community-- and this is what happens at the font, at the altar; in the prayers we share; and at confirmation, at weddings, at funerals, even (or maybe especially) at coffee hour.

We are sent from this place, weekly, to let God’s Word and God’s Holy Spirit work in our lives, so that we do more than help others around us-- we listen. We walk together. We truly become neighbors and we build the other up.

Wherever our heads and hearts are when we arrive here-- and whatever God’s creatures and God’s worlds are doing outdoors-- it IS God who calls us here. It is God who is true not to our sense of justice, but instead is true to God’s own sense of justice AND MERCY. It is God who, for the sake of Christ, is absolutely and totally unfair in giving us not the judgement we deserve, but the blessing and grace we have not earned. It is God who changes our status, you see, from “condemned” to “redeemed.” It is God who cares for us, and gives us to one another, that we may take that blessing and grace right out into daily life with us, for the sake of the world. Thanks be to our totally unfair God.

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