Nineveh was the capital city of Israel’s greatest enemy, the Assyrians. Jonah, as a prophet of Yahweh, was sent to Nineveh to proclaim to them a coming destruction because of their evil ways. Upon hearing Jonah’s message the residents of Nineveh repent with fasting (even their animals fast!) When God saw their genuine repentance God changed his mind about the calamity he was about to bring upon them. Jonah was mad! “O LORD! Is this not 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.”
Ironically, Jonah’s description of God is a welcome one. Who wouldn’t want a God who is slow to anger and who abounds in steadfast love. The problem for Jonah is that God’s mercy and love are wild and free. Jonah appreciates God’s love and mercy except when in their freedom they extend to Jonah’s enemies. That is the rub for Jonah; how can God forgive them! Jonah’s attitude is present in some way in all of us, for there are people that we are certain only deserve God’s wrath.
When Nineveh was given a second chance Jonah went into angry hysterics and asked for God to give him death. God responded with a question, “It is right for you to be angry?” The question is an important one. And it is not the last time we will see it.
Jonah traveled out of the city and sat down in the hot sun to sulk. God caused a bush to grow over Jonah and provide him shade. Jonah was happy about the bush. The next morning, however, God sent a worm that attacked the bush and killed it. Jonah was left to bake in the hot sun. Despondent once again, Jonah cried out, “It is better for me to die than to live.” God responded with the same question he asked of Jonah concerning the forgiveness of Nineveh, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” (I told you we would see it again)
The judgment and mercy of God are God’s to give. God gives and God takes away. The story of the bush illustrates how great can be our hate for our enemies: Jonah is upset because a bush receives God’s judgment and perishes, but Jonah is not upset that a whole city of 120,000 people would have suffered if not for God’s mercy (along with all their fasting animals).
Jonah is asked to look upon the city of Nineveh in the same way God looks upon it. This is a difficult task for Jonah, and a difficult task for us. We are thankful for God’s mercy, but we are also people of a vengeful spirit, and we desire God’s judgment on our enemies. When we are the recipients of God’s mercy we readily welcome it, but when we see mercy given to those we despise we question its appropriateness. We, like Jonah, can have more compassion for a desert plant then we can for our fellow misguided humans.
Psalm 145:1-8 ends with a powerful verse extolling the mercies of God, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This is a beautiful description of God’s attitude toward God’s often self-destructive creation. The fact that it is given as liturgy for worship in the context of our Jonah passage makes it even more dramatic (note the similarities in Psalm 145:8 and Jonah 4:2). The same celebration we offer for God’s goodness to us (vs. 7) is the same celebration demanded of God’s goodness to our enemies.
When Paul says that God has “graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” something inside of us leaps for joy while at the same time something inside us questions Paul’s sanity. How is suffering a privilege? For Paul, writing from jail, any discomfort experienced while giving testimony of Christ is a gift that links us with the one who suffered and died so that we all might live.
When Paul writes to the saints in Philippi he is uncertain about his future. He does not know if he will live or if he will die as a result of his imprisonment. His language is frank and honest (almost ‘matter of fact’) about life and death. Paul, in his great faith, has reasoned that “living is Christ, and dying is gain.’ While most of us cling to life, even in the most desperate situations, Paul confesses, “I do not know which [life or death] I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” This radical reframing of life and death allows Paul to experience suffering (a suffering that could possibly lead to death) as a mystical union with Christ the Lord. Death can no longer threaten Paul, for in death Paul experiences Christ’s suffering, and in Paul’s departing, Paul goes to be with his Lord.
Is God’s grace fair? That is the burning question of the parable of the vineyard. How can God give the same pay for unequal amounts of work? In the parable day laborers are hired at different times in the day to work in the vineyard. The ones that are hired in the early morning agree to work for the normal daily wage. Those who are hired to work later in the day make no such arrangements. When it is time for the workers to collect their pay at the end of the day the ones hired later in the day are paid first. They each receive the normal daily wage leading those hired early in the morning to believe they will receive more. However, when it comes time to pay the workers who worked the whole day long the owner of the vineyard gives them the same wage he gave the latecomers. Even though this was the agreed upon wage the day-long laborers begin to grumble. The daily wage was fine, until the vineyard owner decided to be generous, then the daily wage was no longer enough. Those who worked all day needed to be rewarded beyond those who didn’t. They needed affirmation of their specialness–they needed to stand apart.
We operate with similar desires for affirmation. Those of us who do our best to seek God and do God’s will feel we should be rewarded handsomely above others. We want to stand out, to be our father’s favorite. We have a terrible case of sibling rivalry. The vineyard owner’s final question is a probing look at our petty jealousies, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
The parable of the vineyard tells us something important about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is given by God’s initiative. It is not given as a result of our hard work, or our meritorious effort. God’s graciousness extends to whom it will. Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. That is the kingdom in all its glory. Can we accept it?
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the nature of God’s grace and mercy. We are not in control of it. Our worship proclaims the wildness of God’s grace, and the freedom of God’s mercy. We rejoice that “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” At the same time we acknowledge that God may choose to show mercy to those we despise. So be it. God is God, and we owe everything to God. At the same time there is still reward for the life lived following in the footsteps of Christ. For when we share in the life and death of Christ, as did Paul, we are joined with Christ in a special way that gives a unique quality and joy to our daily existence.