15th Sunday after Pentecost, year A, 2014 (preached Sept. 21, 2014)
first reading: Jonah 3:10-4:11
second reading: Philippians 1:21-30
gospel reading: Matthew 20:1-16
I gave birth to three people and have lived with them for almost 15, 11 and 8 years now. I have lived with my husband for almost 20 years, and I’ve been alive for almost 49. So I have a LOT of experience with whining, sulking and grumbling. I have a LOT of experience with classic temper tantrums.
And I have found that most of the sulking, whining, grumbling and tantrums start with the feeling of being wronged. Something’s not right with the expected order. Something is not fair.
As a parent, there are times when I’ve watched a tantrum play out and feel real sympathy for my children as they struggle to learn one of life’s painful lessons. Other times as I watch a tantrum play out I think, “Get over it already. You can’t always get what you want.”
But when it’s you having the tantrum, when it’s you sulking and grumbling about fairness, it’s hard to tell if those around you should be sympathetic or annoyed. We’re almost always convinced of the rightness of our cause and don’t want to be told we’re wrong or to “get over it.”
But today we have two examples of God telling us precisely that – “Get over it.”
Why God chose Jonah to be a prophet I’ll never understand. He didn’t want to preach to the people of Ninevah. God had to swallow him up and spit him out before he would go. Then afterwards, when the people repented and God forgave them, Jonah had a classic temper tantrum. Not the kicking and screaming toddler kind, but the ranting and raving, sulking and pouting, “just let me die” drama queen kind.
When those happen in my house I have very little patience. When I’m the one having that kind of tantrum, it’s hard to see reason.
Truth be told, sometimes in life, we can’t see reason. Sometimes decisions and events are just the prerogative of folks higher up. Sometimes those decisions can affect us in very traumatic ways – but other times those decisions don’t affect us at all, they just offend our sense of fairness.
THIS is the kind of tantrum Jonah has, and God has little patience with it. This is also the kind of tantrum the laborers in our gospel reading have. And again, God has little patience with it.
God decides to forgive the people of Ninevah. The landowner decides to give ALL the workers the same wage.
Neither of these decisions has any negative consequence for anyone. Nothing bad will happen to Jonah as a result of Ninevah being spared. Nothing bad will happen to the workers who labored all day in the field – they’ll get paid what they were promised, which is a GOOD thing.
Yet the people bitterly complain and throw their adult-type temper tantrums because it’s not FAIR.
They’re angry because people they don’t like or don’t think deserve anything earthly or heavenly are getting rewarded. Jonah feels like he’s better than the Ninevites, the all-day workers think they’re better than the late-comers. God basically says, “Enough! It’s none of your business!”
Have you ever said or heard the statement, “My house, my rules?” God says to Jonah, “My city, my rules. If you can be concerned about a BUSH, why can’t I be concerned about THOUSANDS of people?” Jesus has the landowner say, “My vineyard, my rules. It’s my money, I’ve paid you what I promised, why should you be angry because I’m generous?”
We often get angry when we perceive an inconsistency in the rules of fairness. But God’s fairness, God’s math if you will, isn’t about: “Good deeds – bad deeds = the possibility of salvation.” God’s math is “Sin + grace = salvation.”
Ninevah was a bad place with bad people and when they repented God wiped that slate clean. The landowner’s agreement was for the workers to be paid a full wage at the end of the day, no matter when they started. No matter when we come to faith, whether at 5 or 95 – our reward, our GIFT of heaven is the same.
When we really think about it, thank GOD. Really, thank God that God doesn’t play by our human rules of fairness.
Thanks be to God for generosity, for grace, for mercy, for loving us when we don’t deserve it, for forgiving us when we don’t deserve it. Thanks be to God for wiping OUR slate clean through Holy Baptism and giving us a new start each day, and an eternal new start when our time on earth is done. Thanks be to God for the self-sacrificing, most unfair act of all in the gift of Jesus, who offered himself for our sinful selves.
When I have snapped at my husband, or yelled at my children, when I’ve disappointed someone here at church, when I haven’t stepped up to the plate at my kids’ schools, when I haven’t called my mother in a week – – I am SO thankful God doesn’t play by our rules. When I cut someone off in traffic, when I’m short with the customer service representative on the phone, when I envy those who appear more successful, wealthy or powerful than me – I am so thankful that God doesn’t play by our rules.
In truth, when we tantrum over unfairness, it’s usually because we perceive OTHERS, those people, them, as having received special treatment – like the Ninevites or the late-coming laborers in the vineyard.
What we often FAIL to see is that WE are the Ninevites, WE are the late-comers. We are the ones receiving the special treatment. WE are THEM.
In every moment, you and I are in need of God’s UNFAIRNESS. Every moment you and I are in need of God’s cleansing grace and mercy.
Thank you God for putting up with our temper tantrums, and for being so unfair – with the Ninevites, the late-comers, and with us.