Jonah 3:10- 4:11; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
Hands down, the last line of the book of Jonah is one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible. Not only does it show God’s exasperation with Jonah, but it also shows that God has a sense of humor and cares about all of creation. God says, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” In short, “Who is going to love this city full of idiots and their animals if I don’t?”
But let’s back up from that verse for a few minutes and think about the rest of Jonah’s story. You may recall that Jonah, a Jew, was called by God to go to Nineveh, a city full of people who had persecuted the Jews. Jonah is called to go to Nineveh and preach repentance to them. God wants the people of Nineveh to have the abundant life that is only possible within the knowledge of God’s grace, so he sends Jonah.
Jonah does not want to go. Not only because he’s a little afraid of the people of Nineveh, but also because he doesn’t want them to receive God’s grace. He knows if he goes out there, the people will repent and God won’t destroy them and all will be well. And he can’t bear the thought of all that forgiveness and rejoicing, so he gets himself down to the docks, rents a boat and heads in the exact opposite direction.
Long story less long, God ends up asking Jonah if he doesn’t think the Ninevites might at least smell better than the belly of a whale. And the whale itself has a little indigestion and spits up Jonah back onto the beach. And Jonah gets up and goes to Nineveh, but he’s still not happy about it. However, he preaches convincingly enough that all of Nineveh, including the king and all the cattle, puts on sackcloth and ashes and repents.
And that brings us to today’s passage wherein Jonah has what my grandmother would have called a hissy fit about God’s grace. If this isn’t the most pitiful whine, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? 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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” In other words, “God, I knew this would happen. It’s not fair! You always forgive. Why did I need to come all the way out here? Do you know how the other Jews are going to feel when they hear that I came out to Nineveh to spread your message of love? You might as well kill me now.”
Then Jonah sits down to wait, hopeful that maybe God will change his mind back and go ahead and wipe Nineveh off the map. Then God provides a lovely tree for shade and then sends a worm to eat it, throwing poor Jonah into a tailspin and creating the time for God to say, “You care about a tree you didn’t make, and you want me to kill a city full of people who are my own creation.”
Sometimes I think we mostly think about the whale portion Jonah’s story because it is the part that bears the least resemblance to anything we recognize. When we look at the rest of the story, it’s almost painfully familiar. How often have you found yourself on a boat in the opposite direction of where God was calling you? When we say to ourselves, I don’t have the time, the energy, or the skills to do any kind of ministry right now… we’re setting ourselves up to experience the fishy smell of being in the belly of a whale of despair and sadness.
If God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing- then why do we need to do anything? Why do we have to discomfort ourselves, if God is going to be merciful anyway? If the last will be first and the first, last- why make the effort to be anywhere but the middle? If God so loves the whole world, why do we have to do anything?
Because not everyone knows.
Like the Ninevites, not everyone is familiar with God’s story of grace and love through all time. In the Anchorage bowl, there are 300,000 people (and also many animals!) who might know their right hand from their left, but many are hungry for the gospel message of hope and grace.
And we are called to bring it to them. We can sit around here and worry about what would happen if we did live into our gospel call. What could happen if we went out to Nineveh- preaching the gospel we have received? Some hungry people eat. Some naked people might have clothes. Some sick people might be healed. Some prisoners might be visited. Some outcasts might be welcomed.
And what would happen to us? We, like Jonah, sometimes need the lessons of grace more than the Ninevites. If we go out carrying the gospel, we will meet Jesus. In our encounters with one another and our neighbors beyond this family, we would encounter our Savior in all the places He promised to be. We would experience God’s widening mercy- increasing the boundaries of our experience, our faith and our understanding of mercy and justice.
The theme in the Jonah and Matthew readings today can almost be seen one of “fairness”. First Jonah and then the vineyard workers pout about the grace of God and the vineyard owner. It’s not fair for the Ninevites to be forgiven. It’s not fair the last workers hired to get paid the same amount. And those of us who are old enough to talk already have experienced, at some point, that life isn’t fair.
But grace isn’t about fairness. There is no greater reward for longer service within the kingdom. Within the kingdom of God, the same salvation goes to everyone. Christ is present to everyone in the bread and the wine, regardless of age, belief or personal habits. The Holy Spirit works through everyone, whether bidden or not, whether recognized or not.
And rather than making us pouty like Jonah or taken aback like the workers who expected more, this knowledge should comfort and relieve us. At some point, we all struggle with knowing our right hand from our left. We all resist from time to time the calls God whispers in our ears. We ignore the gospel commands and we hope someone else will do the work. Sometimes we want to be the workers who come in at five. Despite all this, we still receive the forgiveness, the mercy and the righteousness that God extends to all through Christ Jesus. No matter what we do, God’s grace is always at hand for all people, even for us.
God is gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. Grace is never fair, thanks be to God, because it extends even to us! Rather than fair, grace is amazing.