When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] 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.Jonah 3:10
Jonah, the famous Old Testament prophet who spent three days and nights in the belly of the fish, seems like a perfect person to hear from today. We’ve been in our own belly of the fish, you might say – worshiping in our homes these past six months. And now we are finally out, and back to in-person worship again. Not all of us, of course, and not in the way that we would like to be worshiping – with music and communion and handshakes and hugs – but at least we are starting to make our way out of the belly of this great and terrible fish known as COVID-19.
In our first reading today (Jonah 3:10-4:11), we hear about what happens to Jonah after he is out of the fish, and after he has done what God asked him to do, which is to warn the people of Nineveh that God is not happy with them. Jonah, you might remember, is the most reluctant prophet in the Bible. He only did what God asked him to do, after he got thrown into the sea, swallowed by a fish, and spit out on dry land. So why is Jonah so reluctant to do as God asks? It’s simple, really. He doesn’t like the people of Nineveh. He doesn’t want to warn them. He doesn’t want them to repent. He doesn’t want God to forgive them. But he knows that the God he worships is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And this is a problem Jonah. Because he really doesn’t want God to be gracious and merciful with those people. So, if he warns the people of Nineveh, he is concerned that they might actually repent, and then God would relent from punishing them.
I kind of imagine Jonah, after being spit out of that fish, going to Nineveh, and sharing this message hoping that no one would pay attention to them. But the people of Nineveh, unfortunately in Jonah’s eyes, do listen to him. They believed his message, and repented, from the king on down, in dramatic fashion. And God decided to forgive them, just as Jonah feared. And now Jonah is angry enough to die.
What Is Our Nineveh?
So, what does this have to do with us, you might ask? Now that we are out of the belly of our fish, in a manner of speaking? How are we like Jonah? What can we learn from him? Well, it seems to me that everyone, like Jonah, has their Nineveh. We all have a group of people that we don’t like very much. Especially these days, it seems to me, in our increasingly divided world.
And no matter what side of whatever issue you fall on, it seems these days that there are only two sides, and that neither side likes each other very much, or is willing to try to listen to each other. It is human nature, I suppose, in this fallen world, to find a group of people who are different from us, to dislike. But this is not healthy in the long run, or pleasing to God, and can take us down a very slippery road.
It reminds me of the story of two store-owners who had similar stores across the street from one another. They were intense rivals, and whatever one did, the other matched and tried to exceed. One night, an angel of the Lord came to the first store-owner and said: “The Lord has sent me to you with the promise that you may have one wish that, no matter how extravagant, will be granted to you. There is only one catch: whatever you receive, your rival will receive twofold. What is your wish?” And the store-owner, thinking of his rival, responded: “My wish is that you would strike me blind in one eye.” That is where our anger with another group of people can take us, if we’re not careful. It is where Jonah’s anger toward Nineveh took him. Angry enough to die.
When you think about it, Jonah himself turns out to be no better than the people of Nineveh. He is a great prophet, who does a great task, but then quickly becomes angry with God, focused on his own short-sightedness, rather than on God’s amazing love for all this world. Jonah is more like the people of Nineveh than he would ever admit. And so are we.
In a world that tries to divide groups into two, the story of Jonah reminds us that there is really only one group of people in this world, in God’s eyes. God’s mercy and compassion extend to all, equally. And even when a group strays from God’s teachings, God still cares about them. And so should we.
One of the things that I love about this story of Jonah is how God never gives up on Jonah. I love that God never gives up on Nineveh. But God also never gives up on Jonah. And the reason is the same: Because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God kept right on forgiving Jonah, and kept trying to help him catch God’s vision, and receive and share God’s mercy, despite Jonah’s hard-heartedness, and despite his hatred of the people of Nineveh. Isn’t that what God does for us?
To put it another way, the strange good news that we hear today, in this story of Jonah, but also in our gospel reading, is that the gospel is not fair. The good news of God’s love and God’s mercy are not fair. And we should be thankful for that. Because we are all in the same boat, when it comes to relationship with God. We are all sinners, who have fallen short of the glory of God. We all deserve God’s punishment, every one of us. But God is gracious and merciful, to all, without exception. Jonah. The people of Nineveh. You. Me. All this crazy, mixed up world. God’s love extends to all.
Today’s Gospel Reading
Today’s gospel reading (Matthew 20:1-16) offers another example of what God’s unfairness can look like, at least to us. It is a story that Jesus told the first disciples, to help them see that God is not really being unfair at all. God is just being gracious and merciful to all.
Just before today’s gospel reading, the disciples heard Jesus challenge the rich young ruler to sell all that he had, and give it to the poor, and follow Jesus in order to have eternal life. Well, the disciples thought, we’ve done that. “Look,” says Peter, “we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”
To answer this question, Jesus tells them the story of the laborers in the vineyard, the story that we just heard. It is a story about a vineyard owner who doesn’t seem to act very fairly toward his laborers. He gives the laborers hired at the end of the day the exact same wage as those hired at the beginning. Not very fair, right? But this vineyard owner is really just showing kindness. All the laborers need that money to provide for their families. Those hired last were just unlucky. They were willing to work all day, there just wasn’t anyone who hired them. Those hired at the beginning of the day expected to receive more, because they worked more. But, instead, they received exactly what they had agreed to, the usual daily wage.
The problem, of course, is that the owner of the vineyard is – you know – gracious and merciful, and abounding in steadfast love. This is not a problem at all, of course. It is good news. In fact, it is the best news of all. But it is seen as a problem whenever we focus on what we think other people deserve, rather than focus on what we truthfully deserve. We see it as a problem when we focus on how much other people don’t deserve God’s grace, rather than on how desperately we need God’s grace.
Like Jonah, we forget that God has rescued us from the belly of a fish – from sin, death, and the devil. Like the workers in the vineyard, we forget that God is paying us a full day’s wage, giving us the free gift of eternal life.
The problem with God turns out to be a problem with us. We’re not always sure that we want God to be gracious and merciful. At least not with “those” people. We forget that we are sometimes those people. All of us have found ourselves trapped in the belly of a fish, trapped in our own sin. All of us have shown up late to work in the vineyard of God’s kingdom; none of us deserve the full day’s wage of eternal life. Without God’s grace and mercy and steadfast love, we would all go hungry after God’s grace.
We all, at one time or another, have desperately needed our God to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. What God offers to the world, and what God calls on you and I to share with the world, is the good news that God has already offered to us.
And this is as good a time as ever to share it, don’t you think? In whatever way that we can, with whomever we can. To remind this beloved world that no one is beyond the grace and mercy and love of God. Thanks be to God. Amen