September 20, 2020
Texts: Jonah 3:10 – 4:11; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-6
Listen to a true story. A woman came to her priest to make a confession. With great anguish she told how she had experienced some financial difficulty and became very desperate. Since she worked as a teller in a bank she was able to embezzle the money necessary to pay her debt. No one had noticed the crime, but her soul was troubled and she wanted to make things right.
The priest absolved the woman of her sin, but said that she must pay the money back. She began to put money back into the bank in small amounts. But the activity was noticed and bank officers questioned the woman. She admitted everything, hoping for mercy. The bank fired her, and brought charges. The priest testified on her behalf but she was convicted and sentenced.
The law is the law and no one can say that the woman was innocent. Nor was the bank at fault for firing the teller or prosecuting the crime. But, how differently this story might have ended if the woman had succeeded in repaying the money without being detected!
So. How differently would the story of Jonah have ended if, after preaching repentance to the people of Nineveh, he had just hiked back across the desert to his home at Geth-hepher in Galilee without a backward glance. Jonah would have done his duty, God’s honor would have been satisfied, and the Ninevites would have gone happily forward with their lives, covered in the grace of Israel’s God, whose name and power they now respected.
But Jonah stayed. He wanted to see the Assyrians pay for their wickedness. He hadn’t wanted to go there in the first place. He went the opposite direction, to the Mediterranean, on a ship bound for the farthest port west that he could go—Tarshish —probably on the coast of Spain.
But God sent the storm and the whale. Jonah prayed to God to get him out of the whale and God worked it out, with the result that Jonah got returned to his mission. He went off to Ninevah with a bad attitude and performed his job in the most minimal way possible. Then he wanted to stay and see someone else also paying the price for disobeying God.
Jonah had a front row seat when God went all merciful and accepted the Ninevites' sackcloth and sitting-in-ashes. Jonah was ticked off. He formed a prayer of protest and fired it off to God saying, my life is not worth living. Take me now! He sat in a booth on the edge of the city and waited for God’s answer.
But God was not taking life that day. Instead God set Jonah a lesson on salvation and gratitude. God made a shade bush grow for the angry prophet to save him from the sun. It died after one day though. Then it became hot and windy, so that even the booth that Jonah had made for himself was uncomfortable. Jonah said to God, take me now. I’m done.
But God wasn’t done. Should Jonah die in his state of utter self-righteousness? No, he could rise above it. Jonah’s unexpected lesson was to rise above his need for God to save through merit. To truly love God, is to accept that God regards all things as worthy of redemption.
As for the gospel today, how differently would this parable of vineyard workers have ended if the landowner had just summoned the workers in reverse order! If the early morning workers had been paid first, they never would have known that the ones who came last and worked for only an hour got the same wage! And everyone would have been happy.
This parable is about the reign of God. It’s about how God works as much as how godly people work. The whole parable was launched because the disciples had just finished wondering out loud what reward would be theirs for their labors with Jesus in the heat of the day.
Jesus said, in the reign of God (meaning both heaven revealed to us when our lives end, as well as what we see now whenever the principles of God’s reign are practiced) everyone who does God’s work is given the same reward. It does not matter whether you labor all your life for God, or you give your life to God in your last hour. It’s how God works.
It’s absolutely not fair. In the parable the workers begin to grumble about it. The vineyard owner singled out one all-day worker and explained: you agreed with me on one denarius. What’s the problem? The worker argued that some deserved more for working longer.
The agreement and sum of money are important here. The Jewish faith is a covenant faith with God. The denarius, which all the workers earned, is named from the Latin word deni which means a sum of ten.
The Jewish faith is a covenant faith with God. Keeping the Ten Commandments is Israel’s agreement with God. The number ten became a holy number for God’s people, Israel. A number signaling completion, perfection, and living under God’s reign.
Israel labored for God, keeping the commandments all day long. Other workers heard the call of Jesus and came to faith later, working with Christ - some enduring terrible persecution. Regardless of when they began to work or the conditions, all were equally rewarded for their labor in God’s vineyard, having completed their faithful work.
This was Jesus’s answer to the disciples about their faithful service. When Matthew told the story, the later workers were Gentiles and pagans who came to follow Jesus. God would reward them with exactly the same wages as everyone else. To come poor in spirit but to be made perfect and complete and to see the reign of God.
It’s a beautiful story. God’s reign comes through grace, not merit. But it reminds us that to see God’s reign on earth requires our willing labor. For now, the first cannot imagine being last. And for the last being first is an impossible dream. As Paul said to the Philippian Christians, it falls to people of good faith to rise above an attachment to systems of merit.
Like Jonah, we are called to a different ordering of things. To rise above ourselves and shift our prayers away from righteous demand toward deep gratitude. As we strive side by side to bring the good news of Jesus, God’s reign begins to be seen in our lives and in this world. So that the story we all dwell in ends differently, and better than we ever expected. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.