Last week, John preached from Matthew 18 challenging us with Jesus’ words about radical forgiveness. Forgiveness that requires us to release our offenders, and ourselves if need be, from our offenses 70 times 7 and even beyond.
This week, we pick up the same theme in our two stories. Due to its length, the Matthew 20 parable of the vineyard workers was not read, but is included in your bulletin. The parable expands upon the idea of radical forgiveness. The vineyard owner hires five different groups of laborers, five different times throughout the day beginning with the first group in the wee hours of dawn. He asks those idly in the city square, “Why are you standing around?”
“No one has hired us,” they reply. So he hires one group after another– at nine, noon, three, and at five o’clock. The owner made an agreement with the first group about what their day’s wages would be; the laborers work a long day faithfully keeping their end of the deal.
Surely as each new wave of workers arrived in the field, the assumption had to have been that each would be paid proportionally to the time they put it in the field.
When it came time to be paid, however, the five o’clock gang was remunerated equal to the earliest risers. Clearly, this was an unfair deal. And it was not good business. As Jesus’ parables were known to do, they confound the listener. They destabilize our assumptions and expectations about how the world is to operate.
The owner responds to their anger saying, “What have I cheated you out of? I kept my deal. You were paid fairly-the amount we agreed upon.” It’s my field. My money. My business. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” And here’s the stinger: “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
We return to this very poignant question in the Jonah story. A very apt connection.
When we hear the name Jonah, I imagine that most of us conjure the story of a guy and a whale. It is a short story-a theological tract-that has been shaking up its listeners for nearly 2500 years. It’s a popular children’s story to be sure-which is a little curious given that it’s a pretty frightening thought to be swallowed by a large fish and living in its belly for three days.
What is happening in this story?
Jonah, a prophet of God, is running from God’s call to deliver God’s message of repentance not to the Israelites, but to the very enemies of Israel, the Assyrians. And their capital was Nineveh.
God has the nerve to call Jonah to deliver a message to a nation whose actions and political practices were horrifying and gruesome. The Assyrians were notorious for making sport of torturing their enemies.
If we rolled into one package the worst of terrorist tactics with Nazi Germany, we’d get an idea of how the Assyrians were described in the biblical story. For this reason, we are sympathetic to how deeply rooted Jonah’s hatred is, and how repugnant it is for him to consider giving Israel’s long time enemies a chance to change their ways. My friend, Ramez, who is Lebanese said, “We Middle Easterners have long, long, long memories. Keeping a grudge is not a problem for us.” Keeping a grudge was not a problem for Jonah either.
Instead of obeying God’s request, Jonah takes the first boat out of town to sail to the city of Tarshish which would have been the furthest point in the opposite direction from Nineveh which was east of Palestine. Tarshish was in Spain.
No sooner than Jonah is on the boat and settled in, a wild storm kicks up that frightens even the most skilled sailors. Jonah knows that the storm is about him, and it was an unmistakable message that he is heading in the wrong direction from where God intended. Jonah openly– almost cavalierly– admits to the frightened sailors, “It’s about me. I am running away from my Lord. Pick me up and throw me overboard. That’ll cause the storm to quiet.” So after a bit of praying to the Hebrew God first, the sailors throw Jonah overboard. And the sea indeed ceases from its raging. The pagan sailors give thanks to Jonah’s God.
I want to say here, Jonah’s not running from God out of fear of what he’s called to do. He is running from his call because he knows his God well enough to foresee what’s going to happen.
Jonah knows his God is a God of second chances (and third and fourth and so on).
He knows his God is “merciful; slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; ready to relent from punishing. v2” Which by the way this description of God is said repeatedly throughout the Old Testament beginning with Moses. When and if you hear someone say that the God of the OT was judgmental, but the God of the NT is gracious, respectfully refer them to this text.
Therefore, Jonah knew in his gut that if the Ninevites repented, God WOULD forgive them!
And Jonah wants no part of that. Forgiveness?! Jonah wants them destroyed. He runs from God because his resentment toward his enemies overshadows his obedience to God.
This story speaks pointedly to our human resistance to forgive. Deep down we appreciate the scriptures that speak of an “eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.” Retributive justice is easy to imagine. Revenge and payback seem fair.
Goodness knows, that’s where I go when I’ve been hurt.
What we want to do –and what our nature inclines us to do is… to nurse our wounds. Like hitting the repeat button on the cd player, we like to play over and over the particular offense in our minds. To actually stir up the hurt inside. And in the swirling of our pain, we ignore the truth that we are all capable of committing the same wrongdoings, or at least ones like it.
But hallelujah God is not like humans; God is bigger than us.
And hallelujah God sets the standard. God raises the bar. God’s nature is merciful, slow to anger, and ready to forgive, and forget. God is our plumb line.
God forgives Jonah’s disobedience.
While Jonah is going over the edge of the boat into the dark waters, God extends an olive branch in the form of a gigantic sea creature. After Jonah’s three day retreat in the belly of the fish, he is spit out because “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.”
“Let me ask you again, Jonah.”
This time, Jonah agrees to go to Nineveh, to the very city and people he despises.
Clearly it’s easier said than done to have compassion for one’s enemy. And when I say enemy, I mean it in the singular or plural: the person or people or nation you find hard to forgive. But God models for us the antidote to hatred for one’s enemies is to have compassion for them.
Now it requires us to imagine honestly, or more challenging yet, to enter into the other’s suffering. And if we do, we will be changed. Through compassion our desire for vengeance will be transformed.
We cannot honestly allow ourselves to see life through our offender’s eyes, or to walk in her moccasins, or feel what they feel, without the iciness in our hearts beginning to melt. It’s just true. It’s just the way we’re wired.
God feels compassion toward us too. Extending compassion and forgiveness to ourselves just might be the most difficult challenge of all.
You see, God’s ultimate desire for creation is not retribution. God’s ultimate desire for creation is for relationship. Not retribution, but relationship.
It is we who keep ourselves separated from each other and from God.
And when we hold tightly to our pain and resentment, and refuse to feel compassion toward our enemy or ourselves, we become shackled by it and the separation grows.
Jonah’s first choice was not to allow God to give the Ninevites even one chance to be forgiven. God planned to bring judgment upon the Nineveh, if they did not turn from their horrific ways, and Jonah thought, “Good. They deserve it!”
Here it’s God who is trying to evoke Jonah’s compassion: “There are one hundred and twenty thousand persons, and many animals in Nineveh. Persons who don’t know their right hand from their left.” In other words, a people who are lost.
Remember Jesus’ words while hanging from the cross: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”? God’s compassion is for people who are ignorant and trapped in their own stupidity.
So Jonah gets only part way into this huge city, and delivers a sermon that consists of five Hebrew words. Eight words in English: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
And the people of Nineveh believe God, proclaim a fast, and everyone, even the king himself, puts on sackcloth and ashes; sackcloth is even put on the animals. The king calls for a complete overhaul of their violent and oppressive systems.
Talk about a leader choosing humility, admitting his mistakes, and making reparations for his actions!
That was it. The Ninevites repented, and God changed God’s mind and relented from the calamity he had planned. (Five words: how about THAT for effective preaching?) But instead of rejoicing in God’s graciousness, Jonah accuses God: “I knew you’d do that! I knew it! Isn’t that what I said you’d do while I was back in my hometown?! It’s just like you to forgive.”
God replies: What’s it to you? What right do you have to be angry?
Remember what the vineyard owner said to the angry workers: what’s it to you? Not your business. My business. It’s not about you! “Or are you envious of my generosity?”
With his unresolved anger and self-righteousness, Jonah leaves the city and sits pouting under a booth. Having more pity on himself than for the 120,000 people just saved.
Putting all piety aside, shall we ask ourselves: Do we at times prefer divine judgment rather than God’s grace for our enemies?
Could it be that it is we who want retribution, not God? It’s ironic since we say we are disturbed by an image of a judging God, yet somewhere down deep it is WE who cannot let go of that image.
Maybe we do take pleasure in knowing that some folks eventually will get their come-uppence, get their just deserts. Like young children, our nature desires fairness. If he hits me, I’ll hit him back. If she hurts me, I’ll hurt her back.
But God says, that’s not how it goes. I was gracious to Nineveh; I was gracious to Jonah, and I am gracious to each of you. Therefore, you must be gracious to each other.
Who is your Nineveh?
Who are you running from hanging white-knuckled to your anger?
The prophet Micah asks, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgressions…? God does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency.”
The story of Jonah subverts our puny human understanding of divine justice, and enlarges it by asking, Can Love be unjust?
This is the radical nature of God who is at the same time just and merciful. Mercy is not getting what we deserve. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve. Compassion is God sticking with us even when we’re at our worse.
It’s not fair! It’s not easy. But in God way, it is JUST.
And if we are genuinely honest with ourselves, it’s exceedingly good news for all of us.
Thanks be to God.