Today, we hear some of the most fabulous stories in scripture. The first is one of my favorites – the complete and utter temper tantrum of Jonah. Jonah, the “anti-prophet”[i] who runs from God’s call so vigorously he risks an entire boat’s crew, and is swallowed and regurgitated by a large fish before doing what God tells him to do. He finally goes to Nineveh, preaching the shortest, most reluctant sermon ever, and when the people repent and God relents from punishment, Jonah loses his mind. Maybe Jonah hoped that Nineveh, home of the Assyrians who have battled and ruined the Northern empire of Israel, would finally get what they deserve. Instead they get God’s mercy and grace. Jonah is angry because he loathes the very nature of God – the God who is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Jonah only wants that kind of God for himself – not for his people’s mortal enemies. Jonah is angry. In his tempter-tantrum-throwing words, “Angry enough to die!”
The characters in Matthew are not much different. After laboring in the fields all day, as various workers are brought in from the marketplace, even up until the last hour, the day laborers are distributed their pay. When the landowner gives those who worked an hour the same as those who worked all day – even though technically, the longest working laborers received exactly what the landowner promised – a living wage that can feed their families – the longest working laborers cannot see and praise the landowner’s generosity toward others. No, they grumble – a pastime of God’s people from the beginning of time.[ii] Everyone wants a gracious God – until that grace is extended in ways that violate our precarious notions of justice. The problem, as once scholar submits, is “Justice and grace cannot be reconciled with one another.” And yet, “they are both part of the character of God.”[iii]
Now I would love to stand here with you today and patronize these characters. But those kinds of sentiments let us off all too easily. If we have not acknowledged our own Jonah-like temper tantrums or our grumbled against God’s gracious mercy in the last six months, we are not paying attention. Everything about our nation’s conversations right now are about justice, mercy, and grace: conversations about race and privilege; anger at foreign countries where not only a pandemic originated, but where economic policies are cutting us off at the ankles; an election that has us so polarized we no longer see the humanity in our political enemies; an economy where the rich are either getting richer or are tending to their own, especially when related to the education of their children, while the poor are simply praying to keep their jobs and their homes where their kids are struggling to learn; where the death of an iconic judicial leader has us not just grieving, but taking up arms about the process of electing the next Supreme Court Justice before we’ve even uttered the words, “Rest in Peace.” The list goes on and on, and I am sure at some point in the last six months we have all been “angry enough to die.”
I understand our emotions are raw right now. Lord knows, I think every person in my household burst into tears about something this week. Even the notion of singing the psalmist’s words today feels impossible when we think of “the other.” But we have to remember when we say, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,”[iv] those words are for us too. As much as Jonah runs, deceives, puts others in danger, resists God, half-heartedly does his work, stomps away from God, shows his anger, God keeps pursuing him. Over and over, despite Jonah’s not deserving, God is gracious with him, full of mercy and steadfast love. And despite the longest laborers’ grumbling, God provides them with their daily needs. In God’s question to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” are a host of modern-day questions, articulated by a scholar. She asks, “Could it be any more obvious that we — all of us, every single one of us — are wholly dependent on each other for our survival and well-being? That the future of Creation itself depends on human beings recognizing our fundamental interconnectedness, and acting in concert for the good of all? That what’s “fair” for me isn’t good enough if it leaves you in the darkness to die? That my sense of “justice” is not just if it mocks the tender, weeping heart of God? That the vineyards of this world thrive only when everyone — everyone — has a place of dignity and purpose within them? That the time for all selfish and stingy notions of fairness is over?”[v]
I know today’s lessons are hard. But when we allow ourselves to be fully consumed by God’s grace, mercy, and abundantly steadfast love, our hearts soften a bit – maybe just a tiny sliver. That sliver is God’s gift to you this week – the gift that will enable us all to see we are all in this together. God needs me, you, us, and them – however you are defining “them” this week. God is not asking us to roll over and stop fighting for justice. But God is inviting us to remember each other’s humanity while doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. Today’s lessons remind us we can – we can see with the eyes of God’s grace, mercy, and love because we have experienced that same grace, mercy, and love. When we start seeing with God’s eyes, we will be empowered to find a way forward despite ourselves. Thanks be to God.
[i] C. Davis Hankins, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 75.
[ii] Kathryn D. Blanchard, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 94.
[iii] Lewis R. Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 97.
[iv] Psalm 145.8
[v] Debie Thomas, “On Fairness,” September 13, 2020, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?fbclid=IwAR1uTVaenGNYgJX-mpph8V_97k_S-kIWEbuuSMwkzJKLohX0XbYvuveEk9k on September 17, 2020.