September 24, 2023

"Getting What You Deserve!”

Rev. Scott Landis

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

The book of Jonah is a favorite among children. If you are familiar with the children’s Christian cartoon series the Veggie Tales, Jonah ranks up there as one of the best episodes I’ve ever seen. You can’t help but laugh when you read the story. It’s so ridiculous that it’s hilarious. But at the same time, it is so sad in its truth.   

We tend to know only the first half of this short, 4-chapter book – the part where Jonah is called by God to go and preach to the Ninevites – to get them to turn toward the God of Israel.

Even though the passage read today focuses on the end of the story, you need to know the whole thing in order to get the point or to understand fully Jonah’s reactions. 

Jonah initially was reluctant to heed God’s call to go and preach to the folks in Nineveh. The Ninevites were a non-believing people – or, I should say, they did not believe in the Israelite’s God. In fact, they hated the Israelites, and repeatedly tried to destroy them. Jonah was afraid of Nineveh and wanted nothing more than for God to “give them what they deserve.” He wanted to see God’s wrath come down upon the Ninevites and certainly did not want to preach repentance there.

So he ran as fast as he could in the other direction. He hopped a boat headed for Tarshish which ended up smack in the middle a hurricane at sea. After the sailors figured out that the storm was the result of Jonah’s running from God, he convinced them to throw him overboard. The storm subsided but Jonah’s storms – his inner turmoil was just beginning. In a wonderful metaphor that describes a season of inner wrestling – the writer has Jonah being swallowed up by a large fish – following deep prayer and a “death-bed” promise to do whatever God desires, the fish vomits him up on the shore and Jonah reluctantly heads back toward Nineveh.

He preaches what has to be one of the worst sermons ever preached, “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.” That’s it. But it worked. The people of Nineveh – the king – even the animals repented – put on sack cloth and ashes and believed in the God of the Hebrews. And Jonah is so disappointed. No, Jonah was downright angry. Why didn’t God give them what they deserved? He knew his God was a God of steadfast love. Slow to anger and abounding in mercy. But the Ninevites! Are you kidding me? 

He went up on a hill overlooking the city to watch what he was sure would be a short-lived conversion. He even built a little shack for shelter while he waited, but the Ninevites continued to worship God. The more they did, the angrier he got. 

God even teased Jonah a bit by causing a bush to grow around the shack and provide even more shade from the sweltering heat which made Jonah very happy. “Maybe God is giving me what I deserve after all.” But that night a worm came and destroyed the bush and a dry, east wind blew upon Jonah and he was right back where be started. Angry, resentful, and puzzled at the ways of God. Which is where the story ends. No happily ever after. No hero’s celebration. Just unresolved questions, frustration and a huge dose of reality.

  I highlight this story for a few reasons. First, it is a very interesting tale of God’s ways and how different they can be from our ways – or our sense of economy and justice – what we perceive to be “fair,” and getting what we deserve. But also because this is a story that is read every year by Jews as they come to Temple on one of the holiest occasions of the year – that which begins tomorrow – Yom Kippur — day of atonement. For the Jews, this is a time of fasting, personal self-examination, and repentance. This story helps the observant Jew realize what Jonah was still struggling with by the end of the story – a sense of justice that confounds most of us still today – that God’s mercy is for everyone – even our enemies.

That same Divine mercy is expressed in the equally puzzling story Jesus told about the landowner who went into town to hire laborers for his vineyard. He returned a few more times later in the day – each time promising to pay them a fair wage for their work. 

You heard the story. At the end of the day, he paid those hired last - first leaving the earlier hires to think, “Surely we will get more since we worked all day and they worked only an hour.” But they all got the same amount! Doesn’t seem fair by our standards, they didn’t get what they deserved – or did they? They each received exactly what they agreed to. Another puzzling example of God’s economy and God’s mercy which is NOT based upon merit or seemingly what is deserved – or the way we tend to measure fairness. 

It’s so easy to look down our noses at Jonah or to think of the earlier hires as somehow selfish – that is until we realize that the joke is on us. That we might be more like Jonah than we care to admit. We who come to church each week and labor on behalf of God day in and day out. When do we get what we deserve? Don’t we deserve more than those who never come to church, serve on committees, help on workdays? It’s a question – a wrestling that each one of us, I suppose, needs to take into the belly of the whale.

I rather like that strange insert in the Jonah story. While physiologically impossible it is spiritually essential for us to come to grips with our deeper understanding of who God is in our lives and what God expects of us, as well as for us to think deeply about what we believe we deserve – and why others get what they do. 

What I find most interesting in the story is that Jonah spent so much time focusing on how graceful God was toward those he disliked – a grace that made him furious, and a focus that made him completely miss the fact that God kept pursuing him – God’s gracious intent was nothing more than for Jonah to share an equally vibrant relationship with him. 

In fact, the point of both of these stories is God’s eternal desire to be in relationship with us – the pinnacle of the created order – which includes all of humankind.  While we might spend all of OUR time on who “deserves” God’s love and mercy – God is way beyond that. God’s desire is for us to recognize the mercy that is being given – each day!

God pursued Jonah – inviting him to preach on God’s behalf.

God pursued Jonah – giving him the chance to wrestle with and engage in the belly of the whale.

God pursued Jonah – as God gave him the words to speak to the Ninevites resulting in more than 120,000 to believe!

And God pursued Jonah – as God caused a bush to shield him from the scorching sun.

But Jonah could not see that. His blinders got in the way – blinders of jealousy, blinders of spiritual comparison, blinders of who deserves more because we’ve worked harder, longer, and are more righteous than “those others.”  

But God’s economy – God’s mercy does not work that way. And that’s precisely why, I believe, God forced Jonah to spend three days in the belly of the whale. Three days (which in biblical terms means little more than “a long time”) to hit pause, to ponder, to reflect to think about what God was trying to communicate to him. It’s why the Jews re-read this story and do the same thing during Yom Kippur. Perhaps the invitation is for us as well.

It’s does us little good to look to the right or to the left, or over the fence at our neighbor, or at the other church or whomever we find the need to compare ourselves to. The invitation is to look within – to really open your eyes. You just may notice – if you can take your eyes long enough off of the other – that God is pursuing you too. 

God wants nothing more than to shower you with love, to bless you with mercy but we can’t possibly see that if our eyes are focused in the wrong direction. 

“Look well within,” an old song suggests. “Open your eyes, to realize, the wonder of your soul.” It is there that you will find God. 


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