the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost readings and Sermon

Jonah 3:10-4:11
3:10 When God saw what the Ninevehites 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.

4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

4:2 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.

4:3 And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

4:4 And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

4:5 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.

4:6 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.

4:7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.

4:8 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.”

4:9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

4:10 Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.

4:11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Matthew 20:1-16

20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

20:2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

20:3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;

20:4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

20:5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

20:6 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?’

20:7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

20:8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’

20:9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

20:10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.

20:11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,

20:12 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.’

20:13 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?

20:14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.

20:15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

20:16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the+Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

What might the Lord be saying to us, in the stress & fatigue of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the forests of the Pacific coast of the continent burn, making our air toxic & unbreathable, while the south east & other parts of the world experience exceptional hurricanes & resulting  overwhelming floods, while alarmingly larger & larger pieces of the polar ice caps & glaciers rapidly erode & melt, while large cities near us & around the world erupt in protest & violence, on this Lord’s Day as we listen afresh to the sacred story in today’s appointed scripture readings?

Perhaps you are acquainted with the associative psychological test, “salt is to pepper, as…, or, eggs are to bacon, as…, or, Ginger Rogers is to Fred Astaire, as…, Jonah is to…(fill in the blank)? If you responded “the whale”, you get it! (or if you responded, “great fish” even more biblically accurate!). The point is, that in our shared imagination Jonah is indelibly twinned with “the whale”. This combo image was so deepy embedded in the religious imagination of the earliest christian community that it is amongst the most popular images found in the burial chambers of these our ancient sisters & brothers. Before any other image, Jonah & the great fish symbolized the Resurrection. As it also does in Matthew’s gospel (12:39 & 16:4). 

But today’s first, hebrew scripture, from the book of the prophet Jonah, doesn’t even mention the great fish, it comes later in the story, & in fact explains the point of the story, the reason why Jonah ended up in a fish at all(!), namely that Jonah was a resistant prophet. When called to speak forth the Divine Word he fled. Jonah ran away, as fast as he could, in the opposite direction. Being swallowed by the great fish (& spewed up on the shores of Nineveh) was God’s unrelenting detour back into prophetic mission. Jonah couldn’t swallow, couldn’t stomach, what God wanted him to forth-tell. Namely that despised Ninevehites might be redeemable;  twas beyond Jonah’s conceiving! This is where today’s reading picks up. (The abhorred Ninevehites had indeed repented.) Jonah is annoyed, & in an “I told you so!” diatribe castagates God for being so characteristically God’s own most authentic self – “you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah is so miserable that he’d druther be dead than live in such a reality, so deeply entrenched are his contrary convictions. For too long Assyria-Nineveh had dominated her neighbours, now it was pay back time! Jonah harbour’s a grudge. This reading brings relavance to our understanding of today’s Matthean gospel.

We have skipped ahead in Matthew more than a chapter since last week’s reading but the themes remain consistent. Jesus the teacher is trying to reach us with parables describing what God’s alternative kingdom is like again. And as is so often the case it is all about the scope. The point of this story is that God is so evangelically radically inclusive that even those beyond our believing redeemable are! Even inconceiveably prositutes! and even collaborators, those profitting off the oppression of the community: ie. tax collectors. Even per Jonah, foreign alien adversaries, Ninevehites. God is “near to all who turn & call upon Him.” (Ps 145:18a.

The focal point upon which today’s parable turns is 20:15. I prefer the older translation “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” The word translated envious or jealous (or cheated) is πονηρός (ponēros) in the greek text. It is a word Matthew has used before, (13:19 & 38) ὁ πονηρός, the evil one, the devil. This is a spiritual hint about the source of such (envy, jealousy,) grudge-holding. I prefer the translation “begrudge”, it is an old word, developing from the same sources as grouch. A grudge is something one harbours. Or, one holds a grudge. Both suggest this unresolved nugget of anger is something we welcome, make room for, accommodate or cling to. Rather than release & reform, we prefer to nurture grudges. Begrudging is being trapped in the repeating cycle of deeply rooted inability to forgive. Because we can’t, won’t, forgive, one lives begrudgingly, looking for opportunity to get even.

In last Sunday’s Hebrew scripture a grossly ill-used-by-his-brethren & lied to Joseph responds, “But Joseph said to his brethren, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?” (Genesis 50:19) Forgiving, not blindly, even while recognizing “Even though you intended to do harm to me, (God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as He is doing today.) so have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” (50:20.21). Joseph (humbly) recognizes there is but a single Judge (Who is, as Jonah described, “ready to relent from punishing…you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”4:2). Joseph has sufficient faith even to believe that God is accomplishing God’s Divine plan through the painful rough experiences he’s been through & that this same Deity is still active “today”!

Forgiving is letting God be God. Forgiving is acknowledging that there is but one worthy Judge, & it isn’t me or you. Since all the rest of us are in that other category, not Judge, but the judged, it is in our best interest that the Judge be “ready to relent from punishing, a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”(4:2). That God is so eagerly inclined to forgive those beyond our conceiving eligibly forgivable is good news for us! If God can forgive our enemy oppressors, Ninevehites (exposes the Divine character), if God can  generously forgive what we think the-least-forgivable, like whores, collaborators, exploiters (tax-collectors), it is good news, because it means there is no one outside the scope of the Divine embrace. Even such as you or me! God is “near to all who turn & call upon Him.” (Ps 145:18a).

If God the Judge can unbegrudgingly forgive even those who murder his beloved (21:33-39) God can forgive the likes of such as us.

A brief peripheral aside here, but one strikingly indicative of everything else going on in today’s reading. Most asked theological question by children; “will my dog (cat, pet) go to heaven?” I was much disappointed once hearing an ordained colleague answer this question in a children’s interactive homily. The priest’s answer was “yes!” but then gave no authority to back up her response. It was simply “yes” because authority-figure assures so. I was hoping for so much more! The sacred tradition is full of so much more persuasion! (Only recently we heard Jesus relent & acknowledge that even pet dogs are fed at the banquet 15:26,27). And here in today’s first reading: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons, and also many animals?” (4:11). The Divine concern extends beyond just humans! This God is just as concerned about beasts! To my ear this is reminiscent of 5000 sated, plus women, plus children, plus abundant scrap leftovers… this reign of God is all about extravagance, abundance, generosity (20:15). (& plus, plus, plus…this God is botanically concerned too! 4:6-10). The scope of this God’s embrace is all inclusive! Good news! Good news for such as us!

This good news comes with invitation! God is still active even in our unfair bitter hard life experiences today witnesses Joseph. And by & through these God is accomplishing the Divine purpose, way beyond our micro vision. And the invitation is even extended to those who presume to exclude others. Those who think they belong at the front of the line.  Those who think they are deserving of more. Those who presume themselves better than those irredeemable others. We people of privilege are invited too.

A familiar, much beloved, (Easter) Paschal sermon by saint John Chrysostom eloquently reflects upon the content of today’s gospel;

“If any be devout and love God, let such enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any be a wise servant, let such rejoicing enter into the joy of our Lord. If any have laboured long in fasting, let such now receive recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let such today receive just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let such with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let such have no misgivings; because such shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let such draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let such, also, be not alarmed at their tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; He gives rest unto those who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto those who have wrought from the first hour.

And God shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one God gives, and upon the other God bestows gifts. And God both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honours the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honour the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.”

John Chrysostom’s proclamation confirms this is an Easter story! Just like those early Christian siblings confessed by their marking their dead with the sign of Jonah, another Resurrection story!

Why do we begrudge God being Godself? What is it about God’s graciousness that we find so astoundingly unbelievable? Why do we prefer as manifest in the current dominating leadership model doubling down in death dealing denial? These Resurrection stories invite us privileged turn from our self excluding presumptions & choose life, choose generosity, choose forgiveness.

In the Name of the Father, and of the+Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

the Reverend Brian Heinrich