Jonah 3:10-4:11 | Matthew 20:1-16
I have this sort of love-hate relationship with the Jonah story. The problem with Jonah is that the moment you say the name, everyone with any sort of Sunday School background immediately pictures a whale. It’s like some sort of pavlovian response: Jonah – Whale. And probably not just the Sunday School crowd, either – it’s one of the bits of the Old Testament that made it into popular culture, even getting its own verse in “it ain’t necessarily so”.
Which is a shame, because it means that the whole point of the book of Jonah gets swallowed by the whale (sorry). Because the book of Jonah really has very little to do with a strange form of aquatic transportation. The book of Jonah revolves around the attitude of Jonah, the reluctant prophet.
Now lots of God’s prophets were reluctant to do the things that God sent them to do. Hardly surprising, since for the most part their job was to tell people that they were in the wrong, that they had offended God, that they needed to change. It wasn’t a safe or comfortable job, to be God’s prophet, to speak the truth to the powerful. They were often ostracised, frequently killed, almost never recognised.
But Jonah was an unusual prophet. A quick recap of his story; he heard the word of God telling him to go to preach repentance to Ninevah – a powerful pagan city, the enemy of the people of Israel and, at least according to the Biblical narrative, not a nice bunch. Jonah responds by heading off in the opposite direction. A long way in the opposite direction – I have a map…
God intervenes, with a storm and then the irritatingly attention-seeking whale, and Jonah ends up back on the coast and resigned to his fate. And when he finally, reluctantly, made it to Ninevah and preached to the people there, telling them of God’s anger and how God would destroy them, they did repent; they fasted, put on sackcloth and ashes, the works. Everything a prophet might hope for.
Except Jonah. Because Jonah’s reluctance didn’t arise from his fear of what might go wrong – his fear was what might go right…
When God saw what they 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.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. …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.
Jonah, the reluctant prophet, not because he feared what might happen to him, but because he knew that God would forgive, and didn’t want him to. Didn’t want this foreign city to be given another chance. Didn’t want God’s grace to extend to the enemy.
Jonah wanted to serve a God who was powerful, but tribal. He wanted to serve a God who would be for us, and against them. He wanted to serve a God whose response to atrocities committed against the people was one of anger and judgement. The sort of God that the stories of his history spoke of; the God of Moses, drowning the Egyptian army when they were in retreat, the God of Joshua, committing genocide against the people of Jericho.
But that wasn’t the sort of God Jonah had. His God was gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. And Jonah didn’t want that.
The workers in the vineyard, in Jesus’ parable, have a similar crisis. The ones who have worked all day, that is. They would have been quite happy to be paid the fair daily wage for their labour; that is what they agreed to, that is what they had earned.
What they can’t stand is the others – the latecomers, the slackers, getting as much as they did. They don’t really want more (I’m sure they’d have taken it if offered!); they want more than them. They want their reward to reflect their merit, their hard work; and the only way that they can see for the landowner to recognise what they have done is for there to be a difference in what they receive; a pay differential, to reflect the difference in value of work done, of contribution made.
But the latecomers are paid not on the basis of the work they have done, but on the basis of their need; the daily wage that would allow them to live and to support their families.
The parable offends – it offended the pharisees of the day, it offends many today – because it seems unjust. Our economy, the whole system of capitalism, depends upon steep variations in material wealth to act as an incentive; for those who contribute less; whatever the reason, at best we would grudgingly grant them some minimal pension – for to do more would be to encourage idleness.
Or worse – it would be treating them, the others, the same as us.
It’s a sad truth – bourne out again and again by psychology research – that seeing ourselves do better than others, especially others we see as less worthy, is more important to us than absolute outcomes. A person given $100, who sees other people given $50, is happier than a person given $200, who sees others given $500. We care more about where we stand in the pecking order than where we actually stand.
We’d rather have a larger share of a world devastated by climate change than a small share of a sustainable economy.
Jonah wanted a God who would play by the rules of the story he lived in: the story of tribes and nations at war with one another, in which the role of our God is to deliver us victory over our enemies. And our world is not immune from that story, of the God who is for us, and against them – whoever our ‘them’ might be.
And our world is not immune from the story of a God who plays by the rules of liberal democratic capitalism; the God who rewards us for our talents and efforts, praises over and above others because we have worked the full day in the vineyard.
But in our scriptures another story breaks into both of those. A story in which we are welcomed and valued by the unconditional love and grace of God which reaches out with generosity and without catches, conditions, or qualifiers.
That longs to forgive the people of Nineveh, that pays the worker in the vineyard what they need, not what some formula would say they have earned.
That welcomes us to this table, the table of Jesus Christ, trusting, as the words of the communion liturgy I grew up with put it, trusting not in any goodness of our own, but in God, whose nature is always to have mercy.
“Are you envious,” the landowner asked, “because I am generous?”. Of course we are. We are human. We don’t want to see God treat the others – the outsiders, the enemies of faith, the militant athiests and the followers of other Gods, the lazy and the apathetically agnostic – as well as God treats us, God’s people.
We want the God who favours us. But we don’t get that God. We get the God that is. Of grace and unconditional love.
And thank God for that.