September 18, 2011, 14th Sunday after Pentecost

SEPTEMBER 18, 2011
MATTHEW 20:1-16;
PSALM: 145:1-8
JONAH 3:10-4:11

On the first opportunity that I get to be with you, I am tempted to keep the sermon upbeat. I could focus on the last verse of our Psalm and expound upon the glory of God with the Psalmist’s words: “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.” (145:8) and I could use Jonah’s words: “…you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (4:2)

Or…I could take it a step further and see the story of Jonah as a call for us to emulate God’s willingness to forgive, and see Jesus’ parable as a summons to be generous people even as God is.

But in order to take the Old Testament and Gospel texts seriously, I need to go deeper. What both texts focus upon is not the praise of God nor setting standards for moral behavior. What both texts focus upon is how difficult it is for humans to accept God’s forgiving and generous nature. Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to be forgiven. The first laborers didn’t want the later laborers to be paid the same wage. The first laborers grumbled. Jonah was angry to the point of wanting to die.

It is not easy to be truly forgiving. Jonah and the Jewish people had reasons for hating the Ninevites. They had invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel and carried off the whole population. Those ten tribes were never heard from again. At least once, they lay siege to Jerusalem itself and extracted a heavy tribute to leave them alone. The prophet Nahum described them as endlessly cruel and everyone who heard of their destruction would clap their hands. (Nahum 3:19)

Does this sound familiar, as we reflected back upon 9/11 this past week or so. There were the images of people in the Middle East clapping at the news of the attack on the US. There was the outrage that drove our country to war. And then there was the response to the news that Osama Bin Laden had been found and killed. We may not identify with those reactions, but honestly, I found it harder to object to such reactions. There was a certain rightness about them. There was a sense of justice to it all I think we need to be honest with ourselves about how we feel about certain people. Are there people, like sex offenders, whom we so fear that we would just as soon see them locked up permanently? Are there people who have so wronged us personally that we would love to see them get their “just desserts?” Are there people that while we don’t sense that we are angry with them anymore, we really do not want to see them again. We have put them behind us and we want to move on.

Now imagine God coming to you and saying: “I have forgiven these people. They shall not receive their just desserts. I want you to welcome them back into your life, this community and this church.”

Who would you find it difficult to welcome and forgive?

We can talk about being a “Welcoming Church.” But the real test of welcoming is the willingness to forgive face to face. We can offer the peace to one another each Sunday, but the real test of the offer of peace comes when the person whose hand we take has done a real wrong to us and we are forgiving them.

It is not easy to be truly generous either. Why did the first laborer’s in Jesus’ parable object to the landowner’s pay practice? It violated a very basic standard of justice: equal pay for equal work. We still struggle to meet this standard today.

There is a group of people in my wife’s former church that will not be happy with hearing this passage this morning. They have already made it clear, quite vehemently, that they think the landowner was unjust. They get angry about it.

How about you? Have you ever experienced being paid less than someone else for the same work? Have you ever watched someone else receive more recognition for accomplishing the same thing you have? Do you have a sibling that you always felt your parents liked best?

The landowner’s defense is that the first laborers had agreed to their pay prior to starting work. Historians tell us that they were paid the standard wage for a laborer for a day’s work. The wages of the first laborers were just, in and of themselves.

What they objected to was generosity. Generosity of which they were not the recipients. They were filled with envy. Have you every envied what another has received and you have not?

It is one thing to be the recipient of generosity. It takes a gracious spirit to give generously to another. It takes real humility to watch as others fair better in life and accept this with grace.

Have you ever felt that life is not fair? How can life be fair when people practice unequal generosity? How can we have a just legal system when some people are forgiven? How can God be both just and forgiving? How can God be fair and generous at the same time?

What we are being told by these passages is that God’s justice and righteousness include forgiveness and generosity. And what may be most difficult for us is that it is God who determines ultimately the extent of the forgiveness and generosity. God will not wait for us to be ready to forgive and will not be generous on our terms. God will decide and God’s ways are not our ways; they defy our ability to make them into a predictable system of justice and fair play.

I think the only way to make sense of this is to change our perspective. We need to rethink who we are. We need to see ourselves not as Jonah but as the Ninevites. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as basically good people who are better than those who deserve their just desserts and instead see ourselves as people who have been forgiven much. We need to not see ourselves as the first laborers, but as the last. We need to stop thinking that we deserve the good we have received and instead think of it as God’s generous undeserved gift.

That way, when we see others forgiven, we can rejoice that they have come to know God’s forgiveness as we have. And when we see others fairing better than ourselves, we can recall the times we have been the recipients of God’s generosity.