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Jonah, pondering Nineveh
Jonah, pondering Nineveh
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Posted on Mon, Sep 22, 2014

Matthew 20:1-16

September 21, 2014

15th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 20:1-16 - “HOW MUCH DID IT COST?!”


The Laborers in the Vineyard

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.” 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’



A dear friend of mine who is now a wonderful pastor and has always been an amazing performer asked, “Is there a point where we begin to take delight (or at least refuge) in the other person's sin so that we don't have to look at ourselves? Justice? Yes. Casting stones? And repeatedly? I think Jesus had something to say about that. Something about looking in the mirror. I know mine is often cracked. How about yours?” Is this is the source of indignation we witness in the complaints of those who worked all day, yet received the same payment as those who worked only an hour or so? Payment. What is fair payment, and who is to judge fair payment? Is God fair? According to whose rules do you make this judgment? Can God change God’s mind if God so chooses? What does the Bible tell us?


Has anyone here ever read an entire book of the Bible? Not the whole Bible, just one book? It’s not difficult. Here is your homework; when you get home, pour yourself your favorite refreshing cup of whatever you like, and open your Bible to the book of Jonah and begin reading. Don’t stop until you have finished the ENTIRE book… It won’t take you more than one cup of coffee or juice because it is only four short chapters. But when you read it, read it as if it was a parable, maybe even a parable that Jesus was personally telling you. When we read a parable, we are to insert ourselves into the story and then see what the story is telling us. For example, when we listen to the story of the Good Samaritan, don’t always assume you the ‘good’ Samaritan or the guy who gets beaten up on the road. Take the guts to see yourself as the Levite, or priest who intentionally pass the injured man up… we do this all the time with the homeless here on the islands. Maybe you are the Samaritan’s donkey who simply obeys, but must carry this man… and he may be a heavy load. Maybe you are the Innkeeper. Can you really trust this Samaritan’s word? Will he really come back? Will he really pay me if I must take my own time and effort to take care of this guy the Samaritan just dumped on me? When have you been the priest, innkeeper, or donkey?


Now the story of Jonah goes right along with the parable of our Gospel text. The question the laborers and Jonah, the reluctant prophet, have with God is this… God is not fair! And the humans keep judging as humans do, and never allow God to be the God that of true mercy, grace and unconditional forgiveness.


God calls this guy Jonah to prophesy against the people of the great city of Nineveh. Nineveh is a large Assyrian city… Remember the Assyrians or Babylonians? They took Israel back into slavery. God’s intention is to save THESE people! They have been up to something wrong because God says to Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”


Rather than going to Nineveh as he is ordered, our reluctant prophet gets on a boat and goes in the opposite direction! Tarshish is in southern Spain and Nineveh is in Mesopotamia or northern Iraq!  Never forget, if God has a plan for you, there is no place you can hide. (I know this through experience…)


Once on the ship, God doesn't make it easy for them and sends a storm their way, but the scientific method of drawing lots, the sailors quickly determine that it is the cause of their sea trials is the disobedience of the reluctant prophet and they promptly throw him into the Mediterranean Ocean. The part I like is that the sailors actually apologized to God before tossing Jonah to what they were convinced was his watery grave. They were so nice.


Jonah is promptly swallowed by large FISH; The Bible says, FISH, not a whale… let it be! And Jonah is separated from the light of day for three days and three nights. Needless to say, Jonah confesses that he has gotten himself into this terrible spot because he was disobedient, finally he prays, 9But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” 10Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed/spat/vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.


Again God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesy against them, and as Jonah has learned his lesson, he goes in the right direction this time. There is a little bit of whining about how big the city is and it takes several days just to walk across it, but in the book of Jonah, he only proclaims one time, 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And guess what happened? The Bible says, “5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.”


That was just the people! The story continues, “6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” By sitting in ashes or spreading ashes on your body this was a sign of repentance and cleansing. It is a religious practice that is still practiced in many different cultures all over the world.


 7Then he (the king) had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.


This king sounds amazingly penitent and faithful! … or is he? I think the king is just clever, hedging his bets, and playing it safe. The Bible continues, 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’


And the Bible says, 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.


You would think Jonah would be ecstatic! The people believed the prophecy God gave him, and a city, not necessarily a faithful or even Jewish city, believed, repented and they were saved…


But Jonah was disappointed and angry! After all that Jonah had gone through, albeit due to his own disobedience, he wanted to see Nineveh burn and be reduced to nothing! Fire and Brimstone were on his mind! These people weren’t considered the Chosen People of God, let them burn! In a religious way, they were outsiders! They weren’t living according to the Law of Moses or the traditions of Israel! The only reason Jonah was sent to them was because GOD COMMANDED HIM TO GO. The story is about God being a merciful God to all creation, and the people of God are called to be merciful, welcoming and most of all forgiving.


Jonah was still angry and went off to pout. It was hot so he made a little tent. The tent had no roof for shade, so God gave him a tree for shade and protection. But on the next day, God sent a worm to destroy the tree to make the point that God is God, God does the saving, not the prophet, priest or even pastor. And shouldn't God be just as concerned with the people of Nineveh, the religious outsiders as with all of God’s people?


Should we still get angry with the person who only works for an hour but still gets paid for a full day’s work? What do we know about that persons’ situation, we received our wages, and who are we to judge? What good would it do for Jonah to get mad at the tree or worm when it was suddenly taken away?


Why do we choose to be angry and bitter, because we are afraid and insecure, at the cost of destroying our relationships with our family, neighbors, and community or even with our loving God?


Our fear can blind us to our task to receive grace so that we can share grace. Our anger and self-indignation (or righteous anger) can only make us unpleasant, and therefore no fun to be around. But God who is merciful and more than just, and certainly not fair according to human thinking, loves us even when we are dead in sin and promises to lift us up as Jesus was raised on the third day and bring us back to life as God’s Children, precious and holy. Amen  






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