The Sunday Sermon: The Unfair Love of God

Penelope Bridges 

In the name of the holy Trinity, one God. 

If you happened to view my weekly video on Thursday, you will have some idea of where we are in the story of Jonah when we pick it up in today’s reading. But in case you haven’t yet seen the video, allow me to remind you. God calls Jonah to go and preach God’s word to the people of Ninevah, which is the capital of Assyria, one of Israel’s greatest enemies.  

Jonah doesn’t just refuse the invitation: he gets on a ship going in the opposite direction. God sends a terrible storm and the sailors discern that Jonah is the reason for the storm. He volunteers to be thrown overboard (which saves the ship and the sailors) and is swallowed by a great fish. After three days he is ejected onto dry land and God repeats the call to go preach to Ninevah.  

This time Jonah obeys, and he is wildly successful, with the Assyrian king proclaiming a fast of repentance and a general transformation of the Assyrians’ evil ways. And here we are, at the end of the story, with God giving the Assyrians a reprieve and Jonah throwing a most un-prophet-like fit. We really have to consider the whole story to learn the lessons that the book of Jonah teaches.  

Why, at the beginning, does Jonah run away from God’s call? It’s not that he’s afraid of an unknown God, as the young boy Samuel was when he heard a mysterious voice in the Temple. It’s not that he’s afraid of God catching him out in a misdeed, as Adam and Eve were afraid when they heard God looking for them.  

No, Jonah knows God and knows what kind of God he’s dealing with. He just doesn’t want to go and preach to his enemies. He wants to hold onto his hatred and watch the Ninevites suffer for their sin. After all, how can he feel comfortably superior to them if they turn over a new leaf and become as righteous as his own people? 

At every turn Jonah exemplifies recalcitrance and prejudice, whereas all the other players in the story: the sailors, the sea, the great fish, the Ninevites, the wind, and even the bush are obedient to God and open to change.  

Most of the Hebrew prophets had mixed success at best with trying to change the hearts of their own people. They met with all kinds of hostility and resistance; but with Jonah, who converts an entire foreign city with a single speech, the only resistance comes from within himself. And when God keeps God’s word and rescinds the threatened punishment, Jonah gets mad.  

Wait, What? He wanted 120,000 people to suffer? And it was his own preaching that saved them? And he’s angry? I think our English translation misses a nuance here: where we read of God saying, “Is it right for you to be angry?” we might equally accurately read, “Does it feel good to be angry?”. Oh yes, it feels good to be angry about this unfairness. Jonah is wallowing in his rage. 

But once again, just as when the great fish saved Jonah, God shows compassion, causing the plant to grow and shade him. And even when Jonah stamps his foot and says he’d rather die than live in such an unfair world, God is patient, asking rhetorical questions that point out exactly why Jonah’s God is the God whom we worship, this God who sent Jonah to save his enemies, this God who sent Jesus to save us: because this is a God who chooses love over punishment and life over death. This is a God who cares about the entire creation, not just Israel and not just human beings.  

The book of Jonah ends with God asking a question, and we are left with a question hanging in the air for us to ponder: what is the nature of true obedience? Is it enough to do as God wishes even when we are resentful and dragging our feet, hoping for failure, or is God looking for us to turn around in heart and soul, to truly abandon our prejudices and the cheap thrill of seeing someone else get their just deserts, to embrace God’s generosity, to live fully into the promise of life for all? 

What would it take for us as a nation to pay attention to a call to repent? Would Jonah’s voice be heard today? We are guilty of all Jonah’s faults: we run from God’s call; we test God’s power and patience; we resist the notion that all people are equally worthy of God’s love and mercy. 

See how Jonah’s life is diminished by his resentment. How much better off he would be if he focused on being grateful for God’s generosity, if he simply gave thanks for God’s mercy and for the gift of being able to do God’s work. 

And that thought brings us to the Gospel and the landowners’ question to the grumbling laborers: “Are you envious because I am generous?”  

A landowner went out early to hire some laborers. He hired more laborers throughout the day and ended up paying them all the same wage, regardless of how many hours they worked. You are probably familiar with the day laborer economy, which revolves around the fact that throughout this country there is a whole population who cannot find steady work, for a multitude of reasons. On any given day you’ll find groups of men – usually men – on many street corners and outside Home Depots in most of our metropolitan areas, hoping for work. As a rule, day laborers are willing to work hard, but they have to wait for someone to come along and find them.  

Imagine being in that position of waiting on a street corner for someone to hire you just for today, with no guarantee that you will earn anything, which means no guarantee that you and your family will eat today. What a terrible, stressful way to live; nobody should have to live like this. And your chances of being hired depend on who’s ahead of you in the line, whether you look strong enough for the work, what color your skin is, what language you speak, and the whim of the person hiring. What did that first group of laborers do to deserve more pay than the ones who came later? They were simply the first guys the landowner saw on the corner that morning. 

The Gospel story is based on a structural inequity of power: the laborers are powerless, while the landowner can hire whoever he likes. He has complete freedom of choice. Having set the bar low – a pittance for a full day’s work – he has the discretion to pay even less for a partial day. After all, he promises the usual daily rate only to the first group that he hires. As the day goes on his offers of pay become more and more vague, until the last group isn’t even offered a wage, just a chance to work. “The usual daily wage” is how we translate “denarius”, a Roman coin. It was a minimum wage, just enough for your daily bread. It wouldn’t make anyone rich. A denarius was a low wage for a day’s work, however many hours long.  So the landowner, being a righteous and compassionate person, made sure that everyone’s family would eat that night. 

We live in an unequal world whether we like it or not. Some people are valued more than others. And it’s getting worse. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in the last 40 years compensation for CEOs in this country rose over 1,000%, compared with just under 12% for the average worker. The same organization reports that black Americans still consistently earn 30-40% less than white Americans, with no significant change in the last 20 years. We are not becoming a more equitable society but less equitable. Now that is unfair. 

That’s why St. Paul’s is engaging in the Sacred Ground curriculum, to help us become more aware of the inequities built into our world. The Gospel tells us that the world shouldn’t be this way, and it’s a subversive message today as it was 2000 years ago. The equity of payment portrayed in the parable offends our capitalist mindset: we expect competition, hierarchy, differentiation; but instead God gives us radical equality. Everyone gets enough. “You have made them equal to us” is the complaint. Yes. That is exactly the point. Them and us, an arbitrary distinction based on a random hiring. In the kingdom of God there is no them and us. There is only enough for all. Both of these stories tell us that God chooses to be merciful, compassionate and generous beyond what we deserve, that each one of us will receive the same treatment from God, that our narrow concept of fairness and merit is not part of God’s SOP, that God loves each one of us equally and rejoices just as much over the latecomer to the party as over those who were in it from the beginning. What matters is not our idea of what is fair or just but what is God’s covenant of faithfulness. The promise is kept: I give you what I promised you, and I give to these others as I choose. And I choose to give everyone enough. 

As people of faith we are blessed if we have enough to be able to share, to give out of our abundance, to help to even out some of the inequality in our world. To be invited to give so that others may have enough is a compliment.  We are blessed to be privileged with a choice of how to live our lives. God offers us the opportunity to work in the vineyard, to be a part of the transformation of this world so that all will be fed and all will be cared for. We should not expect God to be fair; no, God is going to be loving, and that’s good news for Jonah, for Ninevah, for the day laborers, and for all of us who seek to walk this path of faith. Amen. 

En el nombre de la Santa Trinidad, un Dios. 

Hoy leimos el fin de la historia del profeta Jonás. Quiero contar un resumen del libro total – es un libro muy corto. Bueno: Dios llama a Jonás para que vaya y predique la palabra de Dios a la gente de Nínive, la capital de Asiria, un gran enemigo de Israel. 

Jonás no solo niega la invitación sino también embarca en un barco que va en dirección opuesta. Dios envía una tormenta terrible y a los marineros les da cuenta que Jonás es responsable. Ellos tiran a Jonás al mar, salvando el barco y a los marineros, y un gran pez lo traga. Después de tres días el pez vomita a Jonás sobre la tierra, y Dios repite la llamada para que vaya a Nínive. Ahora Jonás obedece y predica, y tiene mucho éxito: el rey de los Asirianos proclama un ayuno y ellos se arrepienten de su mala conducta. Y hoy estamos al fin de la historia, cuando Dios perdona a los Asirianos y Jonás se enoja. El no quería predicar a sus enemigos; quería aferrarse a su odio, quería que los Asirianos sufrieran por sus pecados. Porque, ¿cómo puede sentirse superior a ellos si se arrepienten y se vuelven tan justos como su propia gente? Cuando Dios le pregunta ¿“te parece bien enojarte?”  Jonás responde sí. A Jonás le gusta sentir enojado. 

Pero Dios tiene compasión y paciencia con Jonás, mostrando la razón porque este Dios es nuestro Dios, que envió a Jonás para que salvara a sus enemigos, que envió a Jesús para que nos salvara; Dios que elige el amor no el castigo, y la vida no la muerte. Este Dios ama a toda la creación, no solo a Israel, no solo a los seres humanos. 

El libro de Jonás se termina con una pregunta de Dios, y nosotros también tenemos una pregunta: ¿cual tipo de obediencia es apropiada? ¿La obediencia con el resentimiento, o la obediencia del corazón que nos lleva a la vida para todos? 

¿Podríamos oir la voz de Jonás hoy en día? ¿Podría nuestra nación prestar atención a la llamada de Dios? Somos tan culpables como Jonás: corrimos de la llamada de Dios; probamos el poder y la paciencia de Dios; resistimos la idea que todas personas sean dignas del amor y de la misericordia de Dios. 

Jonás puede ser más feliz si se enfocara en el agradecimiento para la generosidad de Dios. Y este pensamiento nos trae al Evangelio, y la pregunta del dueño para los jornaleros quejandos: ¿Será porque soy generoso y tu envidioso? 

Un jornalero busca trabajo cada día, sin garantía de nada. En la esquina de la calle espera una oportunidad de ganar suficiente dinero para alimentar a su familia hoy. Es una manera dura de vida, con mucho estrés. Y sus posibilidades de trabajo dependen en los que están adelante en la cola, en el color de su piel, en la lengua que habla, en el capricho del empleador. Los primeros jornaleros no hicieron nada para merecer más dinero: simplemente fueron los primeros que vio el dueño en la calle en esa mañana. 

El evangelio describe una desigualdad estructural de poder. Los jornaleros no tienen poder; por otra parte, el dueño puede contratar a quienquiera le gusta. Tiene la libertad de opciones. El salario para todo el día es bajo, y él puede pagar incluso menos para un día parcial. Mira, él promete el pago diario solo al primer grupo. Como sigue el día, sus ofertas se vuelven más vagas hasta el último grupo que recibe nada excepto una oferta de trabajo. El pago diario fue una moneda pequeña, suficiente para el pan de cada día, no más. Por eso, el dueño, un hombre justo, aseguró que las familias de todos pudieran cenar en esa noche. 

Vivimos en un mundo desigual y injusto. Algunas personas tienen más valor que otras. Y está empeoramiento. Según el Instituto de Política Económica, desde los setenta, los salarios de los directores ejecutivos subieron más de mil por ciento, contra doce por ciento para el trabajador medio. Según la misma organización, los Americanos negros todavía y constantemente ganan del treinta al cuarenta por ciento menos que los blancos. Nos volvemos no más igual sino menos. Sin dudo es injusto.  

Por lo tanto, la Catedral se involucra en el programa de Tierra Sagrada, para que aprendamos más de las desigualdades en nuestro mundo. El evangelio nos enseña que el mundo no debería ser así. En esta sociedad capitalista esperamos competencia y jerarquía, pero por otra parte Dios nos da igualdad radical. Cada uno recibe suficiente. Los jornaleros quejan, “Los consideras igual que a nosotros.” Sí, exacto. La distinción entre ellos y nosotros no existe en el reino de Dios. Solo hay suficiente para todos. 

Las dos historias de hoy nos dicen que Dios ofrece misericordia, compasión, y generosidad que nosotros no merecemos. Nuestro concepto estrecho de justicia y mérito no se pertenece en el plan de Dios. Dios quiere igualmente a cada uno de nosotros, y Dios se regocija por los últimos tanto por los primeros. Lo que importa no es nuestra idea de Justicia sino el pacto de fidelidad de Dios, que mantiene sus promesas: Yo quiero darles lo que prometí, y dio a los otros lo que quiero. Y quiero dar suficiente a todos. 

Somos bendecidos si tenemos suficiente para compartir, para disminuir un poquito de la desigualdad  del mundo. Somos bendecidos si podemos trabajar en la viña de Dios, si podemos participar en la transformación del mundo para que todos se alimenten, todos se cuiden. No deberíamos esperar que Dios sea justo; no: Dios ama; y este dato es buena noticia para Jonás, para los Ninivitas, para los jornaleros, y para todos que tratamos a viajar en este camino de la fe. Amén.  

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