We all, I think, know the story of Jonah. On some level we all remember the dramatic tale: the prophet of God in the belly of a whale. It’s kid stuff. But, do you remember why Jonah was in the belly of that whale? He was in the belly of the whale because some sailors threw him off a ship during a storm, and the whale swallowed him up, to save him from death. But why was he thrown into the sea by the sailors? Because it was revealed to the sailors, during the storm, that Jonah was running away from God, away from God’s call, and that caused the storm to happen! What was God’s call to Jonah, maybe, is your next question?
Well, that question is answered by our reading this morning from the book of Jonah. God says to Jonah: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh?” Nineveh was a bad town. A bad town outside the bounds of Israel. Foreigners lived there, unclean people.
Prophets, generally, in the Hebrew Bible, were sent to Israel. Sent to the in-crowd, to God’s people, to get them to change their ways. It is a very special call to Jonah, you see, that had him going over borders. So why would Jonah run? Why would Jonah do such a thing?
The answer also comes in our reading. We heard: “When God saw what [Nineveh] 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.” Jonah was asked to go to Nineveh, the bad town, and tell them to change. Now, was Jonah scared they would kill him? Was he worried about his own well-being? No! He wasn’t. He braved a dangerous storm and a deadly sea-monster in order to get away!
Jonah says it clear as day himself: “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled…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.”
Jonah didn’t want to go because he knew God would forgive the bad town! He wants God’s mercy only to apply to him and his own people. And we want God’s mercy to apply only to us and our own people.
And today’s Gospel from Matthew drives the point home like a railroad spike: God is not fair. God does not measure with our measures. And it really ticks us off. You can labor your whole life being good, saying your prayers, following the straight and narrow, and finish strong and in God. Or, in the words of the Gospel story: you can start working in the vineyard at the break of day and then get paid the wage you were promised.
But look here, now. You can also get called from the marketplace at the end of the day. And you can only work an hour or so in the vineyard and God pays the same. How could that be? It’s not fair. [Parable of the pensioners.] There’s no two ways about it.
But as Jesus says: Is God not allowed to do what God chooses with what belongs to God? So the last will be first and the first will be last.
It’s not a meritocracy with God. God turns everything we measure our lives by, upside down. It’s no wonder they killed Jesus, of course. It’s no wonder: they’d kill him again. Numbers don’t matter to God. Econometrics don’t matter to God. Good looks, good marriages, hard work or little work, Instagram and Facebook likes, strength, paychecks. Not important. At all.
It’s not fair. It’s the one deep truth that Jesus teaches us. You know what comes next in chapter 20 of Matthew? Jesus and his pals go to Jerusalem, the big city, and Jesus says he will be handed over, humiliated and killed. Jesus says he will be a loser and a failure. Nailed to a cross, like Rome would only do to rebels and dogs. All his friends, except some woman named Mary Magdalene, will desert him. His mission, in our terms, failed and failed fabulously. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell.
But as you know by now, God isn’t fair. As Jonah grumbled to God: “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.” I think undergoing the anger Jonah feels, the vineyard workers feel, is important. It’s part of our transformation. I don’t know if the grace of God can make sense to us without getting to that frustration first. It hasn’t gotten through to us unless we get angry about how upside down it is.
God pushes this point with Jonah. As Jonah sits and grumbles with his arms folded in the desert. A bush grows up over his head. It gives him shade and cools him. But then it dies, as bushes do. And Jonah gets cranky again. God says to him, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”
And Jonah said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”
Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons…”
So many folks, myself included, like to ask the question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” With Jonah we say: “Why did my bush go away?” Life is not fair, we say.
But you’ve got to ask yourself a different question. It’s the same question that God asks Jonah, And the same Jesus poses to us: “Why do good things happen to bad people?” No matter how good you might be in your own eyes, we are always late to the vineyard. No matter how much you think of yourself and your achievements, you certainly didn’t give birth to yourself, nor did you create this world we are all given to enjoy.
And on the other hand, no matter how bad you think you are (or someone else is), unredeemable, lost, boring, ugly or forsaken—It’s still the same: God doesn’t play by our rules. God doesn’t repay like we repay. We will all be given the same wage at the end of the day. The bliss of Jesus is here for us all, free and generously given.
Jesus looks like the greatest of failures in the history of all religions. God’s own Son, God in the flesh. Jesus does no smiting, no conquering, no flashes and bangs. But he made himself last and fragile. Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead.
But God doesn’t play by the rules: what looks like the last becomes the first. On the third day Jesus rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. Jesus teaches us in his very own flesh the mind of God: the higher you try to climb, then the farther you slip down. But the sooner you give yourself to the fall, the higher you fall up.
The last will be first, and the first will be last. It’s the upside down mind of God. It’s the heart of God which forgives each and every last one, and abounds in steadfast love.