Jonah, Jesus, and Grace

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“We’re all stories in the end, eh? Make it a good one.” -The Doctor

I love stories and those with the imagination to tell them, for stories often convey deep and lasting truth in ways that couldn’t be communicated in any other way. Because stories approach the truth obliquely, I’m often left remembering and pondering and wondering long after they have reached their conclusions.  There are certain books and movies that I enjoy reading or watching repeatedly. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve read the Harry Potter series (especially Deathly Hallows) or watched Star Trek IV, or certain Doctor Who episodes. The new Wonder Woman movie will probably wind up on my repeat list, too. But it’s not because I believe that there is a parallel wizarding world, or that time travel is possible, or that superheroes with fantastical powers walk among us. Those parts of the stories are just window dressing on the truth, and if you are distracted by the curtains, you will miss the main point.

This week’s lectionary readings contain two stories that I see as using different window dressings to communicate the reality of God’s grace. The first story is from Jonah and as I wrote last year, isn’t primarily about a big fish.  God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and warn them if they don’t change their ways, they will be destroyed. Jonah doesn’t want to do this, and takes some convincing to go, but eventually does what God asks. The people take his warnings seriously, which makes him mad because he wanted to see them destroyed. That’s where today’s reading picks up the story:

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.  But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.  When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

The second story is one Jesus tells his disciples, but if taken at face value it is difficult to understand and makes little sense.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.  So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.  ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I can certainly understand why the day laborers who worked twelve hours would be resentful of the ones who only worked one. And wouldn’t the landowner be setting a bad precedent for next year’s harvest hires? Isn’t this kind of treatment akin to (gasp!) socialism? What exactly was Jesus trying to tell us?

The traditional interpretation of the story is that it’s about heaven: the one who makes a deathbed confession winds up in the same afterlife as someone who has been a faithful follower since childhood. I don’t disagree with that thinking, but I think there must be something more to the story. Jesus talked about “the kingdom of heaven” quite a lot, often using stories and metaphors. In most of these instances, it was pretty clear that he wasn’t talking about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by; he was talking about something that was immanently present. So how does this story fit in with all the other stories Jesus told about the kingdom of heaven? And how is it similar to the Jonah story?

If you take away the draperies from the stories of Jonah and the laborers in the vineyard, you can see God’s grace through the window. The truth of the Jonah story is that God’s love is for everyone, even those who we think must be God’s enemies because they are our enemies. The truth of the laborers in the vineyard story is that God’s love isn’t something we can earn. It doesn’t depend on us, but on God. In both stories God’s faithful servants aren’t particularly portrayed positively. They whine that God is unfair and they are not appreciated for their efforts. They expect God to think and behave like human beings usually do: quid pro quo, tit for tat, and you shouldn’t get something for nothing. Sometimes, God’s most faithful servants are the least aware of God’s grace. Like the proud Pharisee in another story Jesus tells, they think that God’s grace is something they earn through good behavior. But it doesn’t work that way, and following that line of reasoning leads you farther away, not nearer, to God. God’s grace is for Jonah and the Ninevites, for the early and late workers in the vineyard, and for Pharisee and publican alike. And it’s only when you realize that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s grace that you can begin to really experience it. Or as Jesus put it, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

God’s love, demonstrated through God’s grace, is beyond rational comprehension and stretches to infinity and beyond. And that’s good news to me!

 

 

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Nahum: The Wrath of God Revealed

The Lord is good,
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
8 but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end of Nineveh;
he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

The short book of Nahum describes what Jonah was hoping would happen to Nineveh: No mention or chance of repentance is given: an angry God is completely fed up and completely destroys them. God’s wrathful vengeance obliterates them, and is described in detail worthy of an imaginative Hollywood thriller movie.

It’s interesting to read Jonah and Nahum side by side, for they present quite different understandings of God. In Jonah, love wins. God won’t give up until he has brought his most recalcitrant and fallen creatures into his kingdom. In Nahum, justice wins. The bad guys get what is justly coming to them, and everybody should be happy because they got what they deserved. So which view is correct?

My understanding is that perhaps both views are true, in kind of a Schrödinger’s cat paradox. I’m not sure that from our limited perspective, we can understand the mind of God. How can God be completely just and completely loving at the same time? Don’t these qualities contradict each other? Job certainly understood that dilemma, and found it to be a question that could not be answered by reason, but which could be understood only through relationship.

The best understanding I’ve read (and I wish I could remember where I read it so I could credit the author) is that God’s wrath is really God’s love, seen from a different point of view. Seen from the side of the oppressor, God is acting in punitive anger. Seen from the side of the oppressed, God is acting in liberating love. What the Egyptian slavemasters saw as an expression of God’s wrath, the liberated Hebrews saw as an expression of God’s mercy. This motif is repeated again and again in the Bible, and I think it has continued throughout history for those with eyes to see it.

When the Bible seems to speak with many voices, I don’t see them as contradictions, but as different perspectives. Just because we have difficulty holding two different attributes in our mind at the same time doesn’t mean they aren’t both true. God is both great and good. And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

 

Jonah: More than a Fish Story

And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?

Jonah is one of my favorite Bible stories, and it’s not about a big fish. Personally, I don’t think it is meant to be taken literally at all. It’s a great example of the power of stories to tell the truth in ways that less powerful genres cannot.

The story begins with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn its people that God is not pleased with their behavior and if they do not change their ways, they are headed for destruction. Nineveh was a major city located near current Mosul, Iraq, and the capital of the Assyrian empire under Sennacharib. To say that Assyrians were not nice people would be an understatement: ISIS seems to have taken a few pages from their playbook. Assyria was bent on capturing and subjugating Israel, and waged war with exceptional cruelty, which is described in the Bible and also in external sources such as as the Lachish reliefs . The Biblical book of Nahum elaborates on Assyrian atrocities in poetic detail, calling it a city full of blood among other vivid descriptions.

Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, and who could blame him? Instead he books passage on a ship headed in the opposite direction. God brews up a storm that threatens to sink the ship, which Jonah apparently sleeps through until awakened by the ship’s captain. Lots are cast to determine who is responsible, and the lot falls on Jonah, who by now feels guilty and urges the sailors to throw him overboard. Ironically, the pagan crew seems to hold high moral standards of their own: they initially protest the idea of sacrificing Jonah to save themselves. The storm grows worse, so they give in and as soon as he goes over the side, the seas calm. Meanwhile, God “provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah” and Jonah winds up in time-out in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Upon his exit from the fish, Jonah again hears the voice of God telling him to “go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you”. Jonah reluctantly obeys this time, meets with astonishingly successful results, and God relents and doesn’t destroy the city or its people.

One would think Jonah would be pleased, especially considering that the outcome for most of God’s prophets in Israel were not quite so sunny. But he isn’t, and in fact is quite angry with God. He complains, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah wanted Nineveh to be destroyed as punishment for its many sins, and thinks God is wrong for sparing it. God responds by declaring both his sovereignty and his care for all his creation. And that’s the end of the story. Nineveh repents, but we don’t know whether Jonah ever does.

One of the most fascinating details of this story to me is that it presents both the pagan sailors and the pagan Assyrians more positively than most of the rest of the Old Testament treats nonbelievers. The sailors place a high value on human life, as evidenced by their unwillingness to sacrifice Jonah if they could find a way out of that. All the Ninevites, from the king on down, listen to God and change their behavior.There are plenty of Biblical examples of times the children of Abraham, who are supposed to be a moral and theological light to the rest of the world, fail abysmally. That is as true today as it was then. I know some atheists who are kind and caring people and some Christians who are quite mean and nasty people.

But I think the main point of the story is this: God loves everyone, bad people and good people alike, and will go to incredible, even ridiculous lengths to demonstrate that love. Isn’t that what the message of the cross is all about?  There is nothing we can do to change God’s love for us. There is nothing God will not do in an attempt to bring us back into relationship with him.  And that’s really good news to me!