God’s grace and goodness is hard to see with our bad eyesight both to the truth of God’s love and the truth of our brokenness; but God can heal eyes.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25, year A
Texts: Matthew 20:1-15; Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Does my being good make your eyes sick?
That’s what the vineyard owner really asks. Jesus uses a common expression, and the translation, “Are you envious because I am generous?” is a fair interpretation. In that world, to have a diseased eye, an evil eye, a sick eye, was to be jealous or envious.
But stick with the colloquialism: it cuts to the heart of our problem with God. We simply don’t see as God sees. Maybe we don’t want to. Maybe we can’t. But our eyesight is diseased, clouded, and we don’t see God’s astonishing grace. We don’t see the truth about ourselves. We don’t see that God’s way is better than our way.
And so we don’t see a world that looks like the world God intends.
So what’s wrong with our eyesight, anyway?
Well, we can’t see this parable clearly.
First, we always reduce it to a moral tale about heaven after we die. How many times does this parable inspire the question, “You mean you could live your whole life however you wanted, and if on your deathbed you asked forgiveness, God would forgive?” The answer is, yes, of course. But that question itself exposes our eye disease.
Second, we’re pretty sure we’re the early workers in the day. We don’t often hear this with a sigh of relief, saying, “I feel like I got to this whole Christian life thing really late; I’m so grateful God’s love is fully for me.” We don’t see ourselves as latecomers to God’s work.
Third, whenever we hear this parable, we immediately criticize God’s economic sense. The first thing we think is, “fine – but what’s going to happen tomorrow? This guy’s not going to get anyone to work at six a.m., that’s for sure.” We can see all the problems such a way of doing things would have in the “real” world.
But this parable is about God’s realm now, about God’s justice today.
The parables envision life in God’s realm which exists here, now, wherever people follow God’s way. Heaven, where God’s realm also exists, can literally wait. Jesus has more important things for us to consider.
So we can’t dismiss this parable’s economic system. Maybe this is exactly how God means the world to work. What is right for this vineyard owner is that every worker gets a full day’s wage, every one of his workers’ tables gets food that night. Regardless of work hours. But, we protest, that just wouldn’t work.
Oh, yes? God says. Tell me, how well is your system working? Is everybody fed in your economic system? Everybody have a roof over their heads? Everyone have a job? Our system works well for those of us who, to borrow an old political barb, were born on third base and think we hit a triple. We were born in the richest country in the world, with an economy that’s pretty good for the middle class, even if we have worries. We’re pretty hard workers. But in the world economy, we’re definitely the folks that show up at 5 p.m and get all we want. Most of us have no comprehension of what it means to work harder than humanly possible to feed our family, to watch children suffer and die because we can’t provide. To work three shifts a day and still not have enough.
If we had healthy eyes, we’d see that for God, justice is when everybody eats tonight. When no child goes to bed aching with hunger. When all are satisfied by the world’s abundance. If we don’t see this as viable, that’s how diseased our eyes are.
We can’t see Jonah’s story clearly, either.
So here’s some context. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria. Assyria was no worse than other ancient world empires, but it was plenty wicked. It destroyed Israel, the northern kingdom, and subjugated Judah. Lots of innocent people were killed in Assyria’s wars, and Jonah’s people rightly hated them. So God asks Jonah to go into the heart of the beast, the capital city, and declare to them their sins.
You know what’s wrong with our eyesight? We don’t see that we’re Nineveh in this story, not Jonah.
Modern day Mosul, in Iraq, actually sits just across the river from where Jonah sat under his bush. After 9-11, in retaliation for the murder of nearly 3,000 innocent people in our country, we went to war with Iraq. There was and is no evidence they were responsible for 9-11. But because, like Assyria, we have serious military power, we killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Even if Iraq had planned 9-11, hundreds of thousands for 3,000 is hardly just retaliation. This region continues to be unstable, and many in the Middle East would say we are the great enemy of their people.
Imagine God found a Jonah in Iraq today, and said, “go into the heart of the beast.”
“Go to Washington, D.C., and declare to that wicked people that God is judging them for their sin. Call them to repent.” If Jonah could even get through immigration here, how do you think he’d be received? Would we Americans do what the Ninevites do, admit our sin, repent in dust and ashes, ask God’s forgiveness? What do you think?
Now we can understand ancient Jonah’s desire for God to crush Nineveh. Imagine modern Jonah coming here, remembering his burned out village, the dead children in the streets. The destroyed hospital. How would today’s Jonah react if God said, “You know, I’m going to forgive these people”?
The harsh truth that we are Nineveh is even harsher when we realize how blind we’ve been, you and I. For the past 16 years we’ve gone about our lives, doing our things, trying to be good, helping where we could, and never really owning up to what our country did. We are good people. But we go about our days as if none of this really happened, as if we’re not individually to blame. And Iraq is only one of our great sins.
But here’s our hope: If we are Nineveh, God’s words to Jonah about Nineveh are God’s words about us.
“Should I not be concerned about America, that great country, in which there are more than 324 million persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Our blindly ignoring our participating in what we have done to so many other peoples is like not knowing our right hand from our left. And, thank God, there are lots of animals here. And, thank God, God won’t give us up. Much to Jonah’s rightful dismay, God can’t stop loving.
But it is worth remembering that Nineveh repented. They sought new eyes to see the truth, and new lives to live the truth. The cross tells us that God’s love comes first, even before we repent. But how can we live with ourselves once we start to see the truth, if we don’t also turn back to God?
We need God to heal our eyes, so our lives can also be healed.
Heal our eyes to see that God’s love is for all people, all animals, all creation, and it has nothing to do with who deserves what.
Heal our eyes to see how quickly we assume we deserve God’s love and how easily we assume others don’t.
Heal our eyes to see that our economic system is unjust and wicked, and that we stay blind to this because as long as we benefit, we don’t have the energy to change it.
Heal our eyes to see the truth about our nation so we can work with each other to make this a nation that lives up to our ideals of justice for all.
Heal our eyes to see as God sees, unable to throw anyone away, not even us, always reaching out in love, even if it costs everything.
Heal our eyes to see the truth and repent, turn back, begin to live in God’s realm, God’s way.
It’s hard to argue that we see a better way.
Imagine a world where everyone earned a full day’s wage, no matter if they were male or female, no matter the color of their skin, no matter where on the planet they were born. Where no child ever went to bed crying for the pain in their stomach. Where all had homes to shelter in.
Imagine a world where there was no revenge, no retaliation, no destruction of enemies. Where the cycle of hatred and killing finally stopped, broken, no further steps. And reconciliation and love broke out between all peoples.
I’d really like to live in a world like that. I’d really like to see a world like that.
So would the Triune God. It’s what God’s realm on this earth is meant to be.
So, let us pray God give us eyes to see, and wills to do, that God’s realm would actually come among us.
In the name of Jesus. Amen