First Reading Jonah 3:10-4:11
Second Reading Philippians 1:21-30
Gospel Reading Matthew 20:1-16
Sermon: “It’s Not Fair! …No, It’s Grace”
The book of Jonah comes up rarely in our lectionary readings and so today I want to take a break from our pattern of following along with the readings from the stories of the Patriarchs and the Exodus to take a look at this wonderful and sharply pointed little book. It is written with satire and humor which hopefully helps us to sit and listen to its very serious point. What is that point? Well, Jonah himself says it in his angry and petulant prayer to God following the repentance of the city of Nineveh: Jonah 4:2 NIV
“… I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” There it is – God’s character is Jonah’s problem. The creator is loving, patient and gracious with all people but Jonah was wanting God to make an even better example out of them than Sodom and Gomorrah.
Before we write Jonah off as a vengeful hothead, it might be best to understand why Jonah (and the rest of the Israelites) hated the Ninevittes so much. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire. We know when Jonah lived from a reference in 2 Kings which speaks of this prophet “Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher” during reign of Jereboam the Second, king of the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 14:25 NIV). From the reference to king Jereboam, we know it was a time of restoration and relative security in Israel. They had managed to push back the marauding Assyrians for a time, but they were still bitter enemies. History tells us that the repentance of the Ninevites that Jonah’s mission produced was short and they returned to completely decimate the northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and so dispersed the population throughout the empire so that they disappear from history almost completely. Jonah was right, they were a terrible enemy.
The Prophet Nahum wrote about them years later when they came back to threaten the southern kingdom of Judah: Nahum 3:1-4,19 NIV  Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!  The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots!  Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses—  all because of the wanton lust of a prostitute, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft.  Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?” I tell you this so you can understand why it was that when the word of the Lord came to Jonah to go and warn Nineveh of impending destruction, Jonah went and hired a ship to take him across the Mediterranean Sea… in the opposite direction.
Jonah is not what we think of when we think of a model Prophet. He was bitter and disobedient and vengeful. But the story is not really about him – its about the loving, patient and grace-full God that called him. It never seemed to occur to Jonah’s thick head that he too was a recipient of Grace, stern Grace, but grace nevertheless. Even though he directly disobeyed God, God pursued him with persistent love. God reaches into his life and appoints a storm to harass the ship he was on, not allowing his rebellion to succeed. When Jonah is found out by the sailors and eventually tossed into the sea, God appoints a great fish to swallow Jonah. It didn’t cross Jonah’s mind that the fish was more obedient to God than he was. When the fish was told to vomit Jonah up on the beach, it did as it was told – no doubt feeling much better after getting rid of that sour, disobedient prophet!
The second time, God called, Jonah did at least go and deliver his message with, I suspect, hopeful, sadistic enthusiasm” “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” In an event far more astounding than Jonah being preserved in the belly of the great fish, everyone in Nineveh repented, fasting and donning sack cloth and ashes, from the King all the way down to the animals. They said. “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” And just as Jonah feared: When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:9-10).
Why did God relent? We call it grace. A good definition of grace is God’s unmerited favor. It’s why we have been given the gift of eternal fellowship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We did nothing to deserve it. God even intervened in our lives so that we could hear the call and respond the the invitation to faith in the first place. This is the gospel: not that God loves good, nice people, but that God loves sinners and has made it possible for all such to be reconciled to him.
Now God tries to answer Jonah’s complaint as he sits there, disappointed by the lack of celestial doom for this particular city of sinners. (Jonah 4:2-4 NIV) Jonah prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” No doubt Jonah responded with a bitter harrumph as he walked away. So his patient and loving God arranged another demonstration for this most reluctant prophet: We read the rest of the story from Jonah 4:5-11 NLT
 Then Jonah went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under as he waited to see what would happen to the city.  And the LORD God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there, and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah’s head, shading him from the sun. This eased his discomfort, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant.  But God also arranged for a worm! The next morning at dawn the worm ate through the stem of the plant so that it withered away.  And as the sun grew hot, God arranged for a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than living like this!” he exclaimed.  Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?” “Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”  Then the LORD said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly.  But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” Scripture doesn’t say, but I rather imagine that Israel was given many more years of grace itself before its destruction because of God’s grace to Nineveh. Jonah couldn’t see it, but he should have know that he served a God who does all things well.
Like so many people, Jonah not only thankfully received God’s acts of deliverance and Grace through the great fish and the plant, then he even seems to develop a sense of entitlement to them. However, when it comes to extending that same longing for God’s grace to others – particularly to an enemy, he seems unable to make the connection. We confess God’s mighty grace in our lives, but what about those who have either harmed or threatened us? Then it seems the only proper response we expect from God is quick and sure justice!
That’s the problem you see, Grace for me and justice done to you doesn’t describe our God. God is the God of all, not just Israel and not just the United States either. Jesus Christ died for the sins of the whole world, not just us. If you remember nothing else from this sermon, remember this: God does not belong to us, we belong to God!. Never forget that. The moment we value ourselves more highly some other group, we profane the grace of God and use his name in vain. Nevertheless, God is good and patient and a persistent teacher. God will occasionally appoint a fearsome storm and a great fish in our lives, or perhaps the gentler lesson of the plant and a worm to get our attention. Watch out for those pesky worms – sometimes they are from God! God insistently presses the question You feel sorry about the plant, Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great number of people? Our nervous laughter fills the awkward silence that our resentment generates. That’s when we realize the joke’s on us.
Matthew’s setting of the parable of “The Vineyard Workers”, or perhaps better titled “The Generous Land Owner” is also a story of extravagant grace that is not well received. Imagine yourself in that square, early in the morning. You are strong and ready to work hard all day in the sun and sure enough, here comes the landowner needing laborers that day – off you go to work for a fair days wage. But imagine now instead, if you would, that you were a different sort of person standing in that square. Perhaps you are not so strong and obvious. Perhaps you have been ill and are weak, or somewhat disabled and slow to get in line. Perhaps you don’t know the language very well and didn’t understand the call to come.
You see that first group go out and then a second and a third even. Perhaps you despair that anyone will hire you and are ready to go home empty handed and then at 5:00 in the afternoon here come that man yet again and now you few are the only ones left. What’s that? He wants you too! Yes, you’ll work for anything and you go out in great joy. When the day ends in only an hour, you are astounded at the grace given you – a full days wage! Your gratitude is only slightly dampened as you feel the resentful gaze of those hired early in the days as they too receive their pay – exactly what was originally promised. Dear Friends, It’s always 5:00 somewhere. Who are those who would have been left out; un-hired all day long? The old, the sick, the handicapped, ex-cons, felons, foreigners, enemies, undesirables of all sorts
and those folks need God’s grace more than anyone else. They are deemed worthy by God not only to work in the kingdom but to work along side of us.
These stories are for us. They are unapologetic about making us somewhat uncomfortable. They have been told and retold through out the centuries because we still need to hear of the radical, wonderful grace of our God who loves the unlovely, who humbles the proud and who is patient with those who refuse to listen the first time or the second or even the third. The very last straggling lamb in the back of the wilderness is his too. Can we want anything less?