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A Heart for Grace

Proper 20A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?”  Jonah’s answer, of course, is yes!  God’s little object lesson using a weed, a worm, and the wind did nothing to dispel Jonah’s bitterness. What made him so upset?

You remember the story, God said to Jonah, “Go at once to Ninevah, that great city…” (Jonah 1:2) and prophesy to it. It is a shocking mission. Ninevah (which is the modern city of Mosul in northern Iraq), was home to the enemy.  It was the capital city of Assyria, Israel’s traditional enemy and eventual conqueror.  With a population of 120,000 people, some classical accounts say that it was the largest city in the world in those days. Its pagan sinfulness was legendary, as was its cruelty:  The people of Ninevah were known to scorch their enemies alive to decorate their walls and pyramids with their skin (Jacques Ellul, The Judgment of Jonah, 1971, p. 26).

The Ninevites were bad.  Their policy of forced slavery and intermarriage were intended to annihilate the Jewish people. So when God told Jonah to go to Ninevah, he can’t believe his ears and he tries to run away.  He booked a trip to Tarshish –which is completely in the opposite direction, and about as far away from Ninevah as any person in the ancient world could get.

An interesting side note is Jonah comes up in our lectionary only twice every three years. But this week in addition to being read by Christians at worship across our city and around the world, it is also read in worship by Jews everywhere for the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur.  God offers Jonah forgiveness by which he may be purified and cleansed from all his sins before God. But notice, in typically Hebraic fashion, God doesn’t rebuke Jonah for his anger.  Instead, he playfully attempts to broaden Jonah’s horizons, so that Jonah will see the Ninevites as God sees them.

Jonah’s plan to run away from God is met with disaster.  No one is beyond the reach of God’s hand. He is thrown into the sea, gets tangled in weeds as he is about to drown, at the last moment is swallowed by a great fish and, finally, three days later, vomited out upon the sandy shore.  He doesn’t even have time to wipe himself off when he hears God repeat the command, ‘Get up, and go to Nineveh!’ (Jonah 3:2).

The only thing more preposterous than this big fish story is what happens next. When he finally arrives at Ninevah Jonah’s half-hearted preaching has amazing results.  The evil Assyrian king and all the people repent.  Even the animals repent!  They repent in the same way an observant Jewish person would –only much much better.

And rather than being overjoyed, Jonah complained bitterly: “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).  God’s equal-opportunity mercy disgusted Jonah.

Disgust and rejection at God’s mercy could be the thread that binds our readings together. Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to an owner of a vineyard who hired day-laborers to take in the harvest.  Some worked twelve hours, some worked nine, others worked for six hours; while others only worked for three; and some for only one hour!  And yet, he paid them all the same, beginning with the last ones hired to the first. Then, to add insult to injury the landowner insisted on paying the workers in reverse order, thereby making sure that the first workers saw what the last received.  Wouldn’t it be easier to pay the all-day laborers first, sending them home before they could see what their “less deserving” counterparts received.  But no, the landowner wanted them to see what kind of vineyard he ran.  He wanted them to experience radical generosity.  He wanted them to surrender their envy and join the party.

Again scripture confronts our righteous indignation with question Is it right for you to be angry?” Are you envious because God is generous?   Whatever else it may be, the Kingdom of Heaven is not a meritocracy. God plays by different rules. Jesus’ way opens us to a life of grace and not merit, status reversal instead of status reverence, underserved generosity rather than pay for services rendered.

The parable of the generous land-owner offers a concrete example of living out Jesus’ Sermon the Mount. In the immortal words of Jimmy Buffet, it’s always five o’clock somewhere.  But rather than the start of cocktail hour, these words are a call to action and mercy for all those standing idle and at the margins at the marketplaces looking for useful work to do to support themselves and their families.

The story of Jonah teaches us that no matter our past behavior, God’s benevolence and mercy awaits us if we only repent full-heartedly and God’s grace covers all people, everywhere, no matter their religion or place of origin. The story stops short of telling us which way he turned in case Jonah’s heart is in some way our own heart.  In case in some way we also are more severe than God, begrudging the forgiveness God so freely extends.

The story of the miracle of the big fish and the miracle of Ninevah’s repentance ends just before crossing the threshold of the last and greatest miracle as the unloving barriers in our own hearts give way to the persevering compassion of God.

Do we have a right to be angry?  Are you envious because I am generous?  God leaves us to decide.

Writer Mary Gordon, in her book Reading Jesus, calls this “an impossible question, calling for an impossible honesty.”  Because yes, she writes: “I am envious because you are generous.  I am envious because my work has not been rewarded.  I am envious because someone got away with something.  Envy has eaten out my heart.”

We can appreciate Gordon’s candor, because really, if these scriptures don’t offend us at least a little bit, then we’re not paying attention.  After all, we know how the world is supposed to work.  Time is money, and fair is fair.  Equal pay for equal work is fair.  Equal pay for unequal work is NOT fair. But alas, God is not fair.  And God is not on our side but at everyone’s side.

Maybe, if God’s generosity offends us so much, it’s because we don’t have eyes to see where we actually stand in the line of God’s overflowing grace and kindness. (Debbie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, September 17, 2017)

God has given us the profound gift of unending love and mercy. Even now, little by little, and all at once, God is working to fashion a heart in all of us to match.  By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit is kindling in us a new humanity.  It’s not the old rat-race humanity.  It’s the new humanity we have through our baptism into Christ Jesus.  It is a humanity not rooted in fairness, but in grace. “O God, who gave yourself to us in Jesus Christ your Son, teach us to give ourselves each day until life’s work is done.” (ELW # 695)

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