Jonah 3:1-4:11 | Matthew 20:1-16
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again – 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 the punchline of the book of Jonah has nothing to do with any strange form of aquatic transportation. The book of Jonah revolves instead around the attitude of 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.
And Jonah, called to preach repentance to the people of Ninevah – the enemies of God and of Israel – might have had good reason to fear that this was not a safe assignment. But his reluctance, it seems, stemmed from an entirely different concern.
Jonah was, at least, effective: 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. And it was then that Jonah’s worst fears were realised:
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.
Didn’t want the sort of God that he had.
Jonah wanted to serve a God who was powerful, but still 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 who would go to war to punish anyone who dared execute one of ‘us’, especially if they had the nerve to post the video on social media… 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 he had. And he knew it. And he didn’t like it.
He got the God he didn’t want.
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, the dole bludgers, 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.
The parable offends – it offended the pharisees of the day, it offends many today – because it seems unjust. And, according to our economic system of assumptions, it is unjust. Equal pay for equal work is a rallying cry for justice in our economy; but unequal pay for unequal work is the dark form of that same justice. Our economy depends upon this sort of logic: 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. It would be like paying those who do ony one hour’s work as much as those who worked the whole of the day. And if there is not enough money to pay those at the top, or in the middle, more, then to maintain the differentials we must instead make life harder for those at the bottom.
It’s a sad truth – bourne out 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. We would rather receive $5 and them get $2, than receive $6 if they get $10.
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 we are not immune from that story. But perhaps we also want to worship a God who plays by the rules of our story: the story of liberal democratic capitalism; the story in which we are rewarded for our talents and efforts, praised over and above others because we have worked the full day in the vineyard.
But breaking into both these stories comes another: a story that is reflected in the two great sacraments that we celebrate today.
A story in which we baptise baby Ava, not because of anything that she has done, nor anything her parents have done in the past or promised to do in the future: a story in which we baptise because God’s love is unconditional, prevenient, reaching out to us with generosity and without rules or catches, conditions or qualifiers.
And a story in which we come to this table, the meal of Jesus Christ, trusting, as the old words said it, 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 us, God’s people. As well as we who have worked for God’s kingdom in the heat of the day.
But in the end, we too do not get the God we want.
We get the God that is.
And thank God for that.