15th Sunday after Trinity
Jonah 3.10-4.11; Psalm 145.1-8; Philippians 1.21-end; Matthew 20.1-16
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 our Lord. Amen.
JESUS and the disciples have crossed back into Judaea from Galilee, encountering en route a party of Pharisees who challenge Jesus about the law of Moses on divorce, and a rich young man who longs to be a disciple. He is left to consider the proposal that Jesus offers him: that he sell all his belongings, give the proceeds to the poor, and become a follower.
Peter is filled with dismay at this scene, and is surely speaking for all the Twelve when he reminds Jesus that they have given up everything to travel with him, and yet they are refused any assurance about what later reward might await them. Jesus promises that the Twelve will “sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel”, but also warns that, in the new order, expectations about who will be first and who will be last will be overturned (Matthew 19).
The parable of the labourers in the vineyard seems at first sight a perplexing expansion of Jesus’s response. It is often used to commend the wisdom of making our own relationships with God as fruitful as possible, without begrudging a share in God’s Kingdom to others who have not persisted so long.
There is another way to read it, however. On the first two occasions that the owner of the vineyard goes out to hire labourers, he is businesslike in discussing terms (Matthew 20.1-2, 5). On the third occasion, money is not even mentioned.
That does not allow us to assume that the same arrangement would have been made. It would have been ridiculous to offer a full day’s wage for the last hour of the day. In any case, the last group of men are not in a position to negotiate: they are the labourers that nobody wanted, and they had no hope of work at all that day. In that sense, they would have been very easily exploitable.
Yet, instead of using them to do the final heavy tasks at a low rate, the landowner gives them the dignity of payment equal to that of the men who have put in many more hours. This is a tangible sign of value.
I am reminded of what the Superior of a religious community who had reordered their church told a group of visitors about the beautiful new wooden seating. It was carved, he said, by serious offenders in the local prison. The community had asked them to do this work because they were “the least regarded in society”. Now they have a permanent significance in the life of prayer on which the community is founded.
What Jesus was telling Peter and his colleagues was not just that hierarchy in the Kingdom was unlike hierarchy in human society. He was reassuring them that, even if the world despised them for being silly enough to give up material security to follow a dynamic teacher who claimed no influence with any ruling power or religious authority, their service was recognised and valued by God. In realising that, they were being asked to be equally generous in their view of others who were coming later to the unpredictable life of discipleship.
Jonah is also asked to be generous, but the teller of his story uses the vehicle of comedy to show how grudgingly he comes to his senses. The whole narrative has been brilliantly and wittily deconstructed by the literary critic Terry Eagleton (”J. L. Austin and the book of Jonah”, in The Book and the Text, edited by Regina Schwarz, Blackwell, 1990).
Jonah has avoided the prophetic task, it turns out, because he knew that God would not carry out the fierce sentence that he had asked Jonah to carry to the sinful city of Nineveh (Jonah 4.1-2). After his adventures in trying to reach Tarshish instead, he finds himself again commanded to go to Nineveh with the message of impending destruction (Jonah 3.1-5). God accepts the city’s repentance, and relents. Jonah is aggrieved, because he has been made to look foolish.
As Jonah retreats to see what will happen to the city, God challenges him to consider whether his anger is just. A playful chain of events ensues, certainly intended to amuse an audience (Jonah 4.6-8).
But play is an effective weapon of seriousness. Here, it is God’s means of putting matters in proportion. If Jonah can be infuriated because a shady plant has withered and interfered with his personal comfort, should not the fate of thousands of people be of greater concern to God (Jonah 4.9-11)? This act of love and forgiveness illuminates what it means for God to be God. Psalm 145 stands as its poetic celebration (vv. 8-9):
The Lord is gracious and merciful,
long-suffering and of great goodness.
The Lord is loving to everyone,
and his mercy is over all his creatures.