Rev. Rainey Dankel | 9.20.20


Did you ever wonder what happened to Jonah after the whale rescued him from drowning? In today’s reading we see the rest of the story. The prophet Jonah had tried to escape from God’s command to go to Ninevah by sailing in a different direction. After his rescue during a storm, he goes to Ninevah, a foreign city, to tell the inhabitants that God was displeased with them and would bring disaster on them. When they hear the message and engage in repentance, God spares the city. Jonah is furious that God has shown mercy to these heathen people.

I once knew of a professor who began the first day of class by saying, “Some of you will fail this class. Justice demands it. And you will get justice here!”

What is God’s justice? Jonah is angry because God has not punished the people of Ninevah as he said he would. Today’s Psalmist says, “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness,” (Psalm 145:8). Are justice and mercy irreconcilable opposites? Today, as we mourn the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg at the beginning of the Jewish high holy days, I am thinking particularly about justice and compassion. May her memory be a blessing.

Our Gospel readings during this season come from Matthew, the Gospel writer most concerned to show the Jewishness of Jesus. Jesus speaks eloquently about the coming of God’s reign, telling stories about what he calls the “kingdom of heaven,” in which God’s love and forgiveness are revealed to all people. Jesus also warns that those who do not respond to this message will find themselves separated from God, isolated from forgiveness and mercy.

Today’s story is not so blunt about punishment, but it offers a somewhat confusing picture of how we are to live together. We read about a landowner who engages day laborers to harvest his grapes. He begins early in the morning, offering the “usual day’s wages,” and continues to hire workers all day. When the owner goes back to find more workers, they are said to be “idle,” better translated as “without work.” When asked, they say that no one has hired them. They are in the usual place for day laborers, and they seem willing to work when asked.

At the end of the day the owner pays all the workers the same amount. The laborers who had worked all day in the hot sun of Palestine are outraged that the workers who had worked less time were given the same amount. How could this be fair?

The landowner replies that he has paid them the usual day’s wage. And then he challenges their reaction as he says, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (The Greek says, literally, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”) The grumblers have been overtaken by jealousy, so perhaps not fully in possession of good sense. Despite receiving the agreed-upon amount, they now expect to be paid more. The owner replies that he has “done them no wrong,” or perhaps better translated, “I have treated you justly” or “righteously.” (See Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories of Jesus, p. 215.)

The dissatisfied workers are unhappy because they have compared themselves with other workers. Envy is poisoning them. They are angry because other who are “less deserving” have received the same wage. They believe they are entitled to more. Instead of being pleased that all the workers will be able to feed their families, they are turning against them.

Envy is poisonous. Think of the elder brother in the parable we call the “Prodigal Son.” He is consumed with jealous anger when his father celebrates the return of the younger brother who has been abroad spending his inheritance. “You never gave a party for me and my friends!” he grumbles to his father, who is begging him to join the celebration. In his anger, the elder son cannot share his father’s joy that his brother has returned safely.

In our own time, envy eats away at many of us. The French writer Simon Weil calls resentment the dominant emotion of our time. Some years ago the newspaper columnist Russell Baker called anger in America “a new national habit.” His words seem truer today than ever. We are divided along lines of race and class, those in both groups often complaining that those who are “undeserving” are getting more than they have earned. Each group believes that it should get its entitlements, but that others are not so deserving. Envy poisons our national life and saps the notion of the public good.

“Are you envious because I am generous?” Jesus says the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a generous landowner. Jesus is not necessarily preaching about economics, though we must take to heart his edgy message about providing for the wellbeing of all. He is talking about a community in which justice and mercy are mingled. He is talking about seeing ourselves as part of the public good, a system in which all benefit, all are treated justly, all are treated generously. It is a system based on trust.

Jewish Jesus would have known the teachings of his Scriptures that also emphasize such a system. In the book of 1 Samuel, David is rallying his troops and he says, “The share of the one who goes down into the battle shall be the same as the share of the one who stays by the baggage; they shall share alike,” (1 Samuel 30:21-25). In speaking about our parable, New Testament commentator Amy-Jill Levine cites the writing of the historian Philo who says that Moses praised his general Phineas and his troops for bringing back the spoils of war so that all who had stayed behind in the tents might have a share in the booty, (Levine, Short Stories of Jesus, p. 216).

The kingdom of heaven is a place where all in the community play their part and share in its bounty. All are dependent upon each other for the common good. There must be trust, particularly that those in positions of authority will use their power and resources for the welfare of all. There must be a spirit of cooperation among the members that they will receive a fair share in the wealth that is created. The foundation of such a system of mutual regard overcomes the natural tendencies of selfishness and greed that feed an unjust system.

Jesus’ stories about the kingdom of heaven point us to a God who is generous and forgiving. The righteousness of God is based on God’s mercy, not on our deserving. Earlier in the gospel of Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matthew 5:45.) God’s blessings are poured out on all. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can rely on our own merit to earn our rewards from God. And we are separating ourselves from our fellows when we judge them as undeserving of God’s grace.

We know that our only hope is in God’s mercy. The father of two sons welcomes the wayward one home with open arms and celebrates with a feast. The deeply mysterious love of our Heavenly Creator is a source of wonder and joy for all of God’s children. That is the good news that Jesus preaches. He describes a life with a generous and loving God whose mercy knows no measure. God’s love is indivisible. The part-day workers do not receive a fraction of the landowner’s generosity. They receive the same measure.

Once, perhaps in a moment of doubt or lack of confidence, I asked my late husband if he loved me as much as he had loved his first wife, to whom he had been married briefly while in graduate school. He wisely replied, “Love is absolute. I can’t make a comparison.” In addition to being a clever way to get off the hook, the reply is a beautiful statement of love. A love which is not measured out or compared. So, we trust is God’s love for us. If we are caught up in envious comparisons with others, if we look with malice on our brothers and sisters, if we cannot see beyond our own desires, we will miss the good news. Like the unhappy workers, we will reject the experience of God’s love for all of God’s children.

Let’s be real. Sometimes this is very hard to do. Accepting the fact that God loves all of us does not always seem like good news. We do terrible, unloving things to ourselves and to each other. We separate ourselves from God’s love over and over. There are terrible consequences from the evil we do. God does not love all the things we do, but God does not stop caring for us; God is always reaching out to us with mercy and forgiveness.

Will Campbell was a Southern preacher, author, and civil rights worker in the middle of the last century. When pressed by an atheist friend to sum up the Christian faith, he replied in one blunt message, “We are all bastards, and God loves us anyway.” During the height of the civil rights struggle in Alabama he was tested in that faith.

Jonathan Daniels was a white seminarian who was helping to register black voters in rural Alabama. As part of the usual harassment of such workers, he and several others were arrested and held for a few days in jail. When they were released, they went to nearby store, where the owner confronted them at the door and blasted Daniels with his shotgun.

When Will Campbell heard the news, he was furious at the senseless murder. He angrily began condemning “rednecks” as racists. It was then that his friend began to question him. “Now Brother Campbell, let’s see if your definition of the Christian faith can stand the test. You said that we are all bastards. Was that seminary student a bastard?” Campbell hesitated, and then said quietly, “Yes.” The friend continued, “Well then, is that storeowner a bastard?” Campbell thought that one was easier to answer. “Yes, that man is a bastard.” The friend came closer and stared intently at Campbell. “So, Jonathan Daniels was a bastard and that owner is a bastard. So tell me now, which one of those bastards do you think God loves the most?” (Thomas Connelly, Will Campbell and the Soul of the South, pp. 99-100).

God’s love for us is beyond our imagining. We rely on God’s generosity, not our deserving. This is the good news. Thanks be to God.