God’s grace and love are yours, and are for all: when they shape you and form your life, you will rejoice that no one is excluded.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lect. 25 A
Texts: Philippians 1:21-30; Jonah 3:10 – 4:11; Matthew 20:1-16
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Aren’t these two beautiful miracle stories today?
An entire city, notorious for its wickedness, repents and turns from its evil. Everyone confesses, and pledges a new life. And God – who was angered and saddened by their sinfulness – joyfully forgives them and relents from punishing.
A vineyard owner, desperate to get the harvest in, goes down to the local workforce center multiple times in the day. At the end of the day, this owner generously pays everyone a full day’s wage. Everyone feeds their families that night, all the children’s bellies are full.
These unexpected outcomes are miraculous. Or maybe “miracle” wasn’t the first word that came to your mind.
Maybe you kind of agreed with Jonah, considered sharing his seat outside the city.
Wicked people should be punished, we sometimes think. It’s not uncommon for us to see some horrible behavior and maybe wish Dante was right about the circles of hell.
Notice, however, before you fully commit and sit down, what Jonah really wanted. This wasn’t about hell. Nineveh’s threatened punishment was utter destruction here and now. Sodom and Gomorrah level. Except, unlike Abraham, who negotiated with God to avert destruction, Jonah wants to see it burn.
Now, Nineveh might have been wicked, but it was also the capital of Israel’s greatest enemy. Enemy capitals are commonly stereotyped as all evil and wicked. Even if Nineveh was worse than your average city, surely, just as Abraham pleaded about Sodom and Gomorrah, some in Nineveh must have been righteous. Loved their children. And, as God points out to Jonah, there were a whole lot of animals.
So, if you want to sit down and pout with Jonah that God forgives people who don’t deserve it, remember Jonah wants genocide.
OK, you say. Forget Jonah. Can I just agree with the hard workers who got ripped off?
Fair enough. They’re not calling for genocide. They’re grumpy that slackers who showed up at 5 in the afternoon got a full day’s wage.
But before you join their picket line, notice a few things. Jesus’ story doesn’t cast any judgement on the latecomers, or give a reason why they weren’t hired earlier. Maybe this landowner had poor strategic planning skills, only picking up a group at first, then throughout the day realizing more and more were needed. The workers might have been waiting all day for a job.
And second, the owner was fair and generous to the first ones. As a temp worker back then, there were likely plenty of employers who’d cheat you out of a day’s pay for a day’s work. You’re subject to the whims of the employer, with no Department of Labor to protect your rights.
And last, these are all hungry people. Day laborers have no confidence they can feed their family from day to day, they depend on getting hired each day. The owner simply gave the latecomers miraculous, compassionate, generous grace. He made sure they’d all survive the night. Everyone got what they needed, including the complainers. So, if you want to join the complainers, why?
Matthew’s community struggled with how to live in God’s grace.
The teachings of Jesus we’ve heard in the past few weeks, the process of reconciliation, the parable of the unforgiving slave, and today’s parable of the workers, are only in Matthew. It seems Matthew needed his community to hear Jesus’ thoughts on a critical problem they had with God’s grace.
The last two weeks the problem was, if you’re forgiven completely by God, why is it so hard to offer the same love and forgiveness to others? Today it’s even more baffling: if God chooses to offer complete and utter love and grace to all, why would you be angry? This time it isn’t whether you forgive, Jesus says. Now it’s whether you resent God forgiving someone else.
You could see this parable as talking only about life-after-death. If you do, and agree with the first workers, you’re saying some people don’t deserve to go to heaven. Why? What’s at stake in it for you?
But there’s also a risk of resenting God’s grace for all people still living in this world. There’s a way to read the parable for this time, right now. That God’s love and generosity and abundance are for all who are living, so all are safe and secure and full, whether or not you think they deserve it. And if you think they don’t, again, why?
Jesus leaves the question open: are you envious because I’m generous? Do you not like God’s new math?
That’s really the issue, isn’t it? God doesn’t count the way you and I do. God sees all God’s children as worthy of love and grace,not wanting to lose even one. Even if they’re wicked, God dreams they’ll turn and become people who love and make a difference. God’s absolutely against having an accounting department to track who deserves how much of what. Everything to everyone. It’s God’s simple math.
And it’s Gospel math. If the good news that the Triune and Holy God who made all things became human, lived and loved and taught and healed and died and rose from the dead, all to bring you and me and all things back into God’s love and life is true – and we live and die trusting that it is – then there is no accounting. Jonah doesn’t have to pay for his rebellion and desertion. You don’t have to pay for your failure to live and love as Christ calls you, or for any sins, great or small.
And no one – no one – gets less or more love from God depending on when they started following faithfully. Everything to everyone. And if that’s hard for you, Paul would like a word.
Paul wouldn’t comprehend the complainers in Jesus’ parable.
How anyone could rejoice in God’s unconditional, transforming love and want anyone else to be deprived of that. In this world or in the next.
So he urges his beloved Philippians, “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Paul lived and proclaimed a life in Christ in all his letters, where, living in Christ’s Spirit, love and peacemaking and forgiveness and generosity and goodness and self-control and all these blessed things shape everything about you, inform and fill everything about you.
Until you’re so happy that you’re loved by God you can’t imagine anyone else not knowing that they are. Until, with the Spirit’s grace, you delight in God’s generosity rather than resent it. Until God’s love infuses your heart and life and becomes the shape of your heart and life. And you live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ: no accounting, full generosity, love to all.
Now that’s a miracle worth praying for.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen