God’s Justice

Sermon for Sunday, September 21st, 2014 || Proper 20, Year A ||  Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145: 1-8; Philippians 1: 21-30; Matthew 20: 1-16 ||  Dr. John Whiteside, Director of Music Ministries

I am going to preach, or try to preach, about two things today. And I warn you that today’s scripture lessons contain a trap – what my family refers to as a John trap – that is, something which is so intriguing and fascinating to me that I cannot but help to fall into it.

So the first thing I will preach about is the John trap: the book of Jonah. It is hands down my favorite Biblical story, because it has all the elements of a great story: the call from God, the running from that call, and then the learning that you can run, but you can’t hide. It has the turning, the repentance of the city of Nineveh. It has the big fish, and a sea voyage. And it has the most important thing of all: a man, named Jonah, who is in relationship with his God, and lives with it.

The second thing I will get to in the sermon is, of course, the Gospel – the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Be patient. I don’t know which one is coming first, but we’ll get there.

It is fascinating to me that the story of Jonah appears not just in our own Christian tradition, but also in many other, if not all, faith traditions. For Jews, Jonah is one of the twelve minor prophets of the Tanakh. Partly because of teshuva, or the ability to repent and be forgiven by God, the book of Jonah is read every year in its entirety on Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, the highest holy day of the Jewish calendar.

Jonah also appears in the Qur’an. In that book, Jonah, after he is cast out of the whale, is told by God to go into the land and prophecy. Muhammad himself makes reference to Jonah in his own sayings. There is even a temple in the archeological dig at Nineveh that is reputed to be Jonah’s tomb, and which is revered by Christian and Muslim alike – or rather there was a tomb: ISIS apparently destroyed it in July of this year along with a number of other Shia sites in northern Iraq they considered idolatrous.

Here is a brief recounting of the story of Jonah. You remember that Jonah is told by God to go to Nineveh, to prophecy to them against their wicked ways. Jonah instead flees from God, and goes off in a boat to Tarshish, which lies in the opposite direction from Nineveh. God causes a storm to come upon the waters, and Jonah finally admits that it is his fault that the seas are in an uproar, and so the crew casts him overboard. A big fish comes up, swallows Jonah, and for three days and nights Jonah prays inside the belly of the fish. Hearing his prayer, God causes Jonah to be deposited upon the shores of Nineveh and tells him, again, to go prophesy to the city. He does. The city repents, each and every one of them, including the King, sitting in ashes and wearing sackcloth to prove their repentance. God forgives the city, and Jonah stalks away, envious, and builds a shelter. God causes, in the night, a plant to grow that shelters Jonah from the sun. But the next day God sends a worm to destroy the plant, and Jonah, becoming angry that the plant is gone, tells God to take his life. God refuses, and says that just as Jonah liked the plant and what it did for him, so God was sorry for Nineveh, and because of his love he spared the city.

In the past few weeks, we have had some tough lessons. We have had lessons about conflict, and forgiveness, and as Margot pointed out so well last week the real lesson is not about either one of these, but rather about justice.

In the midst of this lesson is a key that, at least for me, helps to unlock all of the things we have heard over the last few weeks, and draws all these themes together under one umbrella. It is about justice.

Now we may find it hard to see how today’s Gospel talks about justice, for the lesson touches, in part, upon the envy and jealousy we feel as we see people getting something which we feel that they are not entitled to. Workers in the vineyard are paid the same amount of money to do a task for only a few moments when we have been doing it all day, in blistering heat, and we have earned it while they simply receive it. Why should they get the same as us? Did we not rise at dawn; did we not work hard all day? Did they not just show up, at the eleventh hour, and do almost nothing? Why are they paid the same as me? They have not earned it! That’s not fair! That’s not justice!

From the world’s point of view, that is the just way to look at it. People are paid according to their merit, which is measured by how hard they work, how much loyalty they show to their company, how many overtime hours they achieve.

Many people interpret this passage that the first really should be first, and that being a Christian puts you at the head of the line. That’s where righteous people belong, right? Others say that when this passage was written it was intended to show Jews that the Gentiles, non-Jews, though they were late to the party were still entitled to all the rights and benefits of the Kingdom, and that the moment of one’s arrival didn’t really matter.

According to this worldview – and this may be the biggest moral dilemma that faces our world right now – rich people are rich because they deserve to be – for God rewards such hard work with financial gain.

Then along comes this lesson. In today’s Gospel, the vineyard worker who enters the vineyard at 5:59 p.m., one minute before quitting time, receives the same wages that the worker receives who entered the vineyard at 5:59 a.m., one minute before work was to commence.

How would you feel if that happened to you?

We have a second story in the Bible that explores the same territory: The Prodigal Son. How did the Good Son feel when the second son, who squandered his father’s money on wine, women and song, is rewarded by the father who slays the fatted calf and orders a feast? Was not he more deserving than his brother? He had spent his lifetime in service to his father, only to see the “bad” son rewarded just because he came home.

Justice is not easy. It is difficult to see someone who has nothing, and who has done nothing, getting the same as you. Or to see those whom you thought would never get in to the kingdom getting preferential treatment. It puts justice into a different light, doesn’t it? Justice in this context does not mean, “Equal pay for equal work” it means, “Equal pay just for showing up,” and in fact it really just means “equal.” In the luncheon lines at the Cathedral Lunch Program, where I served on our previous church’s day almost every month, we served not just poor people, but even business persons and others who found themselves hungry and in need, for whatever reason. We turned no one away. We welcomed all.

In that world, justice is given not according to our efforts, but according to the love that God has for us. This is the key: this is the ingredient that weaves throughout the lessons of the past few weeks. God loves us, and so he offers us a chance to be in the Vineyard. The point is not that the first shall be last and the last first: perhaps the real point is that we’re all equal, and we’re all getting there together.

Jesus issues an invitation to all of us, and this invitation is repeated over and over again, as many times as we need to hear it: come to the vineyard. Come unto me all ye that travail. Come. Knock, and the door shall be open.

When we answer the call, it matters not when we do it: whether we hear it in our life’s childhood, or in our early adulthood, or even at the end of our lives, the point is that we answer the call, we enter the vineyard – and when we do, the whole kingdom of the faithful rejoices.

Show us the way O Lord, and make us welcome. Show us how to help each other as we enter the vineyard: help us to find each other’s hands, and to hold them. Help us to find your love in all the things that you offer to us, and as you show us your way make us certain of all your gifts to us, so that we may forever find your kingdom, both here on earth and as it is in heaven.  Amen.

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