"You Want Some Cheese with That Whine?" Message, September 18, 2011, Pentecost 14
When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God had a change of heart about the calamity that God had said God would bring upon them; and did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to God and said, “O God! Is not this 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 are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O God, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And God said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Holy One, our God, appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And Jonah said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then God said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour 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 and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Jesus said, “For the realm of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, 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.’ 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? 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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Sermon “Want Some Cheese With That Whine?”
Will you pray with me? God of justice and love, open our hearts to all your people. Give us grace to see others as you do, worthy of your blessing and healing; equally your children with us. May we see with your eyes, the eyes of love and comfort and caring. In the name of your child Jesus the Christ, amen.
As many of you know, I grew up with four sisters, and we usually got along pretty well—still do. But there were sometimes difficulties, of course—with five siblings, it would have been a miracle otherwise! One issue, hard as it may be to believe for those of you who grew up in the 80s and 90s, was ear piercing. In the late 60s and early 70s, “nice girls” didn’t often get their ears pierced. So I remember that my older sisters had to wait until they were in university to get their ears pierced. By the time my sister and I were asking to have our ears pierced (and this was before any other kind of piercing was mainstream!), it was considered OK, if a bit wild, for teenage girls to have their ears pierced, So I had mine pierced when I was 14. My mom, who believed that the doctor should do such things, figured she might as well take my younger sister in at the same time to get hers done--she was 11. Well, there was a bit of family ruckus, as you can imagine. My older sisters thought it unfair that we younger ones got to have our ears pierced earlier than they had; on the other hand, I thought it was unfair that my younger sister got to have them done at the same time I did.
It’s one of the most common whines of childhood, isn’t it? “That’s not fair!” And I don’t know about you, but my mother’s response often was, “Life is not fair.”
But life is about more than fairness—it’s also about justice. And there’s a difference between what is fair and what is just. It might make sense to think the two belong together but they simply don’t. Sometimes there is fairness in justice and sometimes there is not. There’s a saying the Canadian Mental Health Association uses that I like: “To treat every one the same you must treat some people differently.” In order for everyone to get the level of care they need, some people get more attention—because they need it—than others. In the end, everyone has been given the care they most need—which is justice—even though some have gotten more care than others—which is not “fair.”
It’s somehow a human trait, though, to see only what we have received—or not—and make that the measure of fairness. We feel we deserve whatever grace has been given us but we are often—if not usually—unhappy to see it given to others. As a scholar put it, "It is simply a fact that people regularly understand and appreciate God's strange calculus of grace as applied to themselves but fear and resent seeing it applied to others." Those workers in the vineyard resented the latecomers earning as much as they did and Jonah resented the Ninevites their repentance.
Jonah was, in fact, that whining kid we all carry in some part of ourselves, tucked back in some corner of our minds or hearts. Now, this section of the book of Jonah may be surprising to you—it’s not what we think of when we think of Jonah. We’re coming in at the end of Jonah’s story in this reading. We have all heard the fist part of the story, I think—God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach repentance to them, and he refuses. Jonah goes in the exact opposite direction, in fact, heading to Tarshish, and God sends a storm, which threatens to sink the boat, so the sailors, at Jonah’s suggestion, throw him overboard. He’s swallowed by a “leviathan,” generally understood to be a whale, which dumps him, after three days, on the shore near Nineveh. So Jonah gives in and goes to Nineveh, preaching repentance. And, as he had predicted, the Ninevites listen and repent.
This annoys—angers, actually—Jonah. And this is where the part of the story we read today comes in. He’s angry because—get this—the people listened to him and repented, and so they will not be destroyed.
Does this make any sense to you? Why in the world would it make Jonah angry to know some people repented, especially since he was the one telling them to do so?
Well, here’s a bit more information. Nineveh was understood to be a cesspool of evil, the worst possible place to be—wicked and dastardly, everything awful you can think of. Jonah is disgusted by the people of Nineveh, and feels they are too evil to ever repent and be saved from destruction. He doesn’t want to go there—we are not told why. Maybe he felt they were too corrupt, too set in the ways of wickedness, that they would never repent, that he would be wasting his time going there. Or maybe he had more faith—he knew that they would repent and change their ways—and then he would be responsible for them, he would have to accept them. He would have to overlook, or accept, their past, and be cordial to them and share fellowship with them---he would have to see them as equals. And he did not want to do that. And so Jonah loved the plant that God sent more than he loved the Ninevites; and he was angry unto death that they had actually repented, were wearing sackcloth and ashes, and were mourning their sins. Jonah had been successful and yet he regretted it. He did not want them to repent and be saved—did not want them to have the same reward that he had. Jonah resented the grace they were given.
Sounds like those workers in the vineyard that Jesus tells us about in the reading from Matthew, doesn’t it? The ones who had worked all day got the same pay as the ones who only worked an hour or two. The Ninevites, who had just repented, got the same reward as Jonah, who had been faithful to God all his life. And so Jonah was stamping his foot, crying, “That’s not fair!”
But God is not about what is fair. God is about justice. God’s justice gives grace to all, to everyone, whether we humans think the recipients deserve it or not.
And my friends, this should be reassuring to us, not a source of frustration or resentment. Because if God gives grace to others—whose faults we can clearly see, even if we think God can’t see those faults, or chooses to ignore them—then surely God will give grace to us. We know our own faults, even if we don’t like to admit them. If God gives grace to all people, then we are included in that all.
It’s tough to realise people who have hurt us or others, people we think of as irredeemable, being loved by God just as much as God loves us. People who tell us we are less than, people who reject us, people who hurt the ones we love—and yet, God loves them, gives them grace as much as God gives us grace.
If we can learn to see this, too, as a gift, then we will be much closer to God’s realm, to what should be. Every one of God’s children gets what she or he needs—not what she or he deserves—including us. That, my friends, is grace. That is God’s gracious love for each of us.
In all God’s many names, amen.