Sermon for Pentecost 16

September 20, 2020 – Year A

Jonah 3:10-4:11 & Matthew 20:1-16

There are lots of questions connected to the times in which we find ourselves. I find myself asking a lot of why questions. Why this pandemic? Why now? Why is it taking so long to fix? Why is this happening to us? Why is this happening to me?

Today’s scripture passages elicit similarly unanswerable why questions.

In today’s passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear from the “prophet” Jonah. Jonah is a quirky story, and quirky among the prophetic books. Rather than recall the prophet’s oracles, we are told the story of his great and tumultuous journey. Through this journey, we are invited to reflect on our own. God calls Jonah to travel to a town which he does not want to visit to perform a mission in which he wants no part. God wants Jonah to travel to a far-off city full of people he doesn’t even like in order to save them. Jonah objects at every turn. God refuses — repeatedly — to capitulate to Jonah’s demands. Brimming with frustration, Jonah finally has an epic temper tantrum! He plops down in the desert outside the city and demands God take his life.

Jonah got stuck on the “why” questions — why him? Why did God care so much about Nineveh? They weren’t even a part of God’s chosen people! Why not send someone else — anybody else!? Why not send someone actually dedicated to the mission?

In spite of Jonah’s vociferous objections, the Divine power gave not as humans expected but as God willed.

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Today’s gospel contains a story troubling to ancient and contemporary audiences alike. On the surface it appears to be about fairness — or, more accurately, a lack of it.

When hiring day laborers, both Scriptural mandate and cultural tradition expected the landowner would pay the workers at the end of the day. This required the workers have some degree of trust in the landowner. Like contemporary day laborers, they barely made a subsistence wage. The modius was a Roman measure for dry goods. One modius of wheat cost two denarii — about two days’ work for such laborers — yet was only enough to feed one adult for a single week. If work could not be found or if the landowner failed to sustain his side of the bargain, the worker and his family would go hungry — or worse. Jesus’ audience knew first-hand the consequences if this trust were broken. By the time the end of the story — and the day — arrives and payment is delved out, both we and Jesus’ original hearers expect those who worked longer would be paid more. It is, after all, only fair. That those who worked the longest are paid last and equally to those who began at the end of the day only adds to our consternation! Jesus sets up the story with Himself as the landowner. Why aren’t those who worked harder paid more? Why is His decision so unjust — and so unfair?

Though it appears the story of Jonah is about repentance and the parable of the generous landowner is about unfairness, both are really about something far more important: grace. The divine economy was and is and will always be drastically different from the human one. Like the workers in the vineyard and the people of Nineveh, grace is given to all in equal measure, insiders and outsiders alike. Why is not for us to decide or even justify. Like God’s love, God’s grace abounds for all, regardless of the world’s measure of their deserving.

It is okay if the why questions are present in our lives. Like those we face related to this pandemic, and like those faced by Jonah and the day laborers, many of them will prove unanswerable. It’s okay to ask these why questions — but let us not become trapped by them. Let us instead give thanks for God’s grace, undeserved, given in love to each of us.

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