The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
20 September 2020
Jonah 3: 10-end of 4
When God saw what they 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.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish 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.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour 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 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Philippians 1: 21-end
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
God, who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit upon your Church
in the burning fire of your love:
grant that your people may be fervent
in the fellowship of the gospel
that, always abiding in you,
they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Matthew 20: 1-16
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
What a wonderful set of readings! The CW lectionary has really done us proud this week. Jonah, Paul and Jesus, each with his different attitude. In fact, we can label them: The Wrong Attitude (Jonah), The Right Attitude (Paul) and finally God's Attitude.
My grandchildren call me Grumpy. Well, they have a point, but I've got nothing on Jonah. Mind you, in his situation a lot of people would have been grumpy. Consider: God speaks to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh and tell the people there how wicked they are. Now, Nineveh is a vast metropolis; it takes three days to walk across it. Imagine standing up in a place like that and shouting 'You're all wicked bad and God is displeased with you'. So Jonah runs away, and most of us would probably have done the same.
However, he runs away by sea, and God sends an awful storm, and the sailors wonder whose fault the storm might be, and Jonah confesses and they chuck him overboard. That ends the storm, but leaves Jonah in a worse state then ever. God, however, being merciful, provides a large fish which swallows the prophet (whole, luckily). And in the belly of the fish, Jonah repents. The fish sicks him up on shore, and Jonah is off to Nineveh.
Once there, he does as he was told, and goes about the streets shouting 'In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed'. And to his amazement, the people listen! They all fast, and put on sackcloth, and give up bad behaviour and pray, and God forgives them, so poor old Jonah has to go round again and tell the people they're forgiven. That's when he gets grumpy. God could have forgiven the people in the first place, and saved him a whole lot of bother. He might as well be dead.
God, I think, is amused at Jonah. So he plays the little trick with the bush to show him what really matters. Jonah, of course, gets even grumpier. And God points out that a bush is less important then all the people of a great city. Jonah's is the Wrong Attitude.
Paul, too, often wishes he was dead. 'living is Christ and dying is gain'. just like Jonah, he has a choice. Death and Heaven on the one hand, service to God's people on the other. And, being Paul, he makes the Right Choice because he has the Right Attitude.
Consider Paul. He was a small man, quite old – well, he was 60, which was quite old in those days – very tired, bald, slightly stooped, plainly in pain. He didn't often complain, but when he did, he did it loud and clear, the way he did everything; and then he'd stop, look at himself and laugh. If God sent him pain, there must be a reason. And after all, it was only pain. probably slightly better than being swallowed by a fish. Death might have been preferable, but he had a job to do. And once he had set his hand to the plough, he never looked back. There was never any compromise in him. That experience on the road to Damascus never faded. He had seen the Lord, the Christ who was crucified and who was alive again. He never called it a vision, or a dream or a wonderful illusion; he had seen the Lord, and his job was to preach the Gospel to all nations. Which he did. He financed his travels by work as an itinerant tentmaker. He must have been a pretty good tentmaker, because he was able to boast that he was not a burden on the Church. And then he would tell himself off for boasting. But his boast was truth. Every ounce of his being, every breath he took, was directed to the cause with which he was charged.
The Right Attitude.
And what of God's attitude? Well, there's a clue in Jonah: God is merciful. And so we move on to the the parable of the labourers. There are, in fact, two lessons in this one, so bear with me a moment while I deal with the first.
The story is a message to the people of Israel, some of whom had complained that it wasn't fair that the Gentiles should benefit from God's mercy when the Jews had been keeping his commandments for thousands of years. Why give the same benefits to these johnny-come-latelies? The answer is one of my favourite sentences in the Bible, though I prefer a briefer version: Are you jealous because I am kind?
Secondly, I know that many people (including a Shop steward of my acquaintance) sympathise strongly with the labourers who have done twelve hours' work and get the same pay as those who have only done one. But that's the Wrong Attitude. They arranged for a day's pay and they got a day's pay. No injustice had been done to them. They had no right to be jealous, but they were. It's a very human response. But God's Attitude is different. No doubt the late labourers had families to keep, just like the early ones. They had turned out and waited desperately in the hot sun in hope of work. And God, like a good Socialist, gives to each according to his needs.
So how does this apply to the rest of us? I think we should keep that lovely question in mind for whenever we see others luckier than ourselves. We may be less well off than some, more sickly than some, tangled up in the world's upheavals more than some; but ask yourself God's question:
Are you jealous because I am kind?