16th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson

Today’s scripture readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16

Today is the first day of Sunday School so it’s appropriate that we hear today a Bible story many of the grown-ups will remember from our Sunday School years. God tells Jonah to go to the city of Ninevah to declare God’s judgment upon the people, to warn them that they are about to be destroyed on account of their wickedness. God tells Jonah to go east to Ninevah and instead, Jonah hops on a boat and heads west, across the Mediterranean. But while he’s out at sea, a huge storm forms overhead, threatening to sink the ship. Jonah’s shipmates determine that he is responsible for the calamity that has befallen them, and they confront him. “This must be your fault! What have you done, that God is so angry and determined to punish us? What are we to do now?” Jonah tells them, “I’m sorry. You’re right. It is my fault. Just throw me overboard and I promise, the seas will be calm.” It’s like Jonah hopes he will die, that he thinks dying at sea would be preferable to going to Ninevah with the message God has given him. So they toss him off the ship. Then comes the part all of us remember: A whale swallows Jonah, saving his life. From inside the whale Jonah prays to God, and the whale spits Jonah up on the dry land.

And that’s where today’s reading picks up, when “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” God says to Jonah, “No, really. I’m not kidding. Get up. Go to Ninevah. Bring them the message I’m sending you to deliver.” He knows now that running away isn’t a viable option, so he goes, against his will. He comes sulking into town, trots just a few steps into the city, and preaches the most half-hearted sermon ever. He says, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Only eight words. That’s his bold proclamation of God’s judgment.

And how do the Ninevites respond? The entire city repents, begging for God’s forgiveness. God is pleased and decides to be merciful, sparing them the calamity Jonah had promised. Most prophets would be thrilled. It actually worked! The people got the message and repented! He should be happy. But he’s not. He’s angry. “I knew it,” Jonah says. “I knew you were gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Kill me now,” he says. “It’s better for me to die than to live.” And that’s when we hear the question at the heart of this story: “Is it right for you to be angry? Should I not be concerned about this city full of people—120,000 of them—who have gone astray and need to be turned around? Is it right for you to be angry?”

You can understand why Jonah would be angry. Ninevah wasn’t just any city. It was the capital city of Assyria, Israel’s bitter enemy. Assyria was the empire that eventually obliterated the northern kingdom of Israel. And Ninevah was notorious for its depravity. It was exactly the kind of place that a faithful Israelite like Jonah would have loved to see go down in flames. And instead God has mercy. Is it right for Jonah to be angry? Maybe it is. Isn’t it right to be angry when cruel and violent people are let off the hook? Isn’t it right to be angry when we see mercy extended to people who don’t deserve it?

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It’s a similar sort of dynamic in today’s Gospel reading. At the end of the day, as the wages are doled out, the workers discover that all of them are being paid exactly the same amount. It doesn’t matter whether they were hired early in the morning or just before quitting time. Everyone receives a full day’s wage. Those who had been hired at daybreak and had labored in the vineyard all day are furious. And then comes the landowner’s reply: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

This message about God’s grace—this undeserved gift given by a generous God—is deeply offensive to our human sensibilities. We desperately want to live in a world where people get what they deserve. It’s wild, isn’t it, that maybe the most offensive message in the Bible is the message that God is generous? We resent the idea that God could be so gracious, that God’s love could extend even to those we deem unworthy. It’s no accident that Jesus tells this parable and then, in the verses that come immediately after this passage, he predicts his own death. He knows that what he has said upends our most basic human assumptions about justice and leaves all of us outraged. Jesus was put to death because he dared to say God’s love transcends the limits we are determined to put on it. We like the concept of grace. We love undeserved mercy when we are the recipients of it, but we so often resent it when it’s given to those who don’t deserve it. The lesson today is that God’s grace extends to all. The kingdom of God is for everyone. Every last person is welcome.

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Did you notice what Matthew writes about that last batch of workers hired to work in the field—the ones who were still standing around at 5 o’clock in the evening when the landowner goes into town? The landowner asks them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” and they reply, “Because nobody has hired us.” It doesn’t say that they were lazy, that they were just waiting around for their welfare checks and SNAP benefits to come through. They were standing around because nobody had hired them. At a time when millions and millions of Americans are unemployed as a result of a pandemic and the economy is still in shambles, this gets me thinking: Maybe these people standing around idle in the evening are restaurant waitstaff, hotel cleaners, parking attendants, security guards, custodians, actors, retail workers, airline employees. The people standing around at 5:00 p.m. are people who can’t get jobs. Even at this late hour the landowner says to them, “Come with me. I’ve got a job for you.” Not only that, but the landowner provides a full day’s wage—not a fortune, but enough for them to get by until tomorrow. Some of us are fortunate enough to have been working since morning, and we’ll get our full day’s wage, too. Is it right for us to be angry?

This message about God’s grace is deeply offensive until we realize that sometimes we are the Ninevites who have been spared God’s wrath, that we are the ones who had been standing around until evening and only worked a few hours but still got a full day’s wage. Sometimes we are the ones the world deems unworthy yet somehow still receive mercy. God’s grace extends even to us. It’s that grace we’ve experienced when we don’t deserve it that unlocks our own capacity to be gracious toward others who we are sure don’t deserve it, to forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable.

And it’s our own experience of a God who is generous in doling out grace that empowers our own generosity. This week we are also launching our fall stewardship campaign as we begin asking you to consider your financial pledge for the year ahead. Many of you received a stewardship packet in the mail this week, but if you are new to Gloria Dei or otherwise did not get a packet in the mail, we would be happy to send one to you—please just contact the church office. Receiving your pledges will be especially important this year, as we find ourselves in uncharted waters with the economic uncertainty of this time. In the year ahead, some may need to decrease their pledges or pause their giving, and others of us will need to step forward in new ways, so Gloria Dei can continue—and expand—its mission in this strange time of pandemic. Today as we begin considering our pledges for 2021, we do so mindful that we love because God first loved us, and we give because God first gave to us. Our generosity is sparked by God’s extravagant generosity.

That’s really what it boils down to. God is generous with grace, extending it to all; extending it even to those who don’t deserve it; extending it even to you and me. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Resources consulted:

Thomas G. Long, Matthew, in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997.)

Debie Thomas, “A Troubling Generosity,” on Journey with Jesus, September 17, 2017, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1500-a-troubling-generosity.

WorkingPreacher.org, “Brainwave 743: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Ordinary 25A),” published September 12, 2020, accessed September 17, 2020, https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1296.