Lectionary blog for Sept. 21, 2014
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8;
Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
By Delmer Chilton
Back in the winter, during a really cold streak we had in January, we had some serious plumbing problems at my house. A pipe burst in an outside wall (where it should not have been in the first place) and my booster pump froze up and then died. We were lucky enough to get a plumber out to help us the next day.
There we were, the plumber and I, shivering about in my backyard, getting wet in sub-freezing weather, trying to get my pump running, when he learns that I am a “preacher.” He talks a bit about the church he attends and how long he’s been going, when suddenly he stops working, stands there with a wrench in his hand and says, “Preacher can I ask you a question?” “Certainly, what is it?” He looked off in the distance and then he turned and squinted at me and said, “This here Hitler fellow; if before he died, he was to have told God he was sorry and all, would God forgive him? Would he get to go to heaven?”
I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even I knew this was a question the plumber had been carrying around for a very long time, and that it wasn’t really about Hitler – it was about something else. Cautiously I said, “Well, if he was repentant, and I would trust God to judge that, then the answer is yes, God would forgive him.” The plumber’s face turned red, he threw down the tool he was holding and he spat out loudly, “That’s not fair. That’s just not fair! It’s like them fellers that lives like hell their whole lives, then at the last minute they get sorry and get saved and then it’s all right. It’s just not fair, I tell you.”
“It’s just not fair” is the theme of the day. Both the book of Jonah and this parable of Jesus are told in the style of a humorous story or a joke. They go from basic believability to exaggeration and hyperbole in order to drive the point home. In both stories, the point is two-pronged: 1) God doesn’t measure divine grace as a reward for goodness, and 2) those of us who think we have been good enough to earn that grace resent and object to God’s love and generosity.
Jonah is told to go to Nineveh and preach, but he runs away instead. He is swallowed by the big fish and then regurgitated back on shore. When I was a kid, my Daddy would tell me that story and say, “Now boy, don’t worry about the fish, that’s not the point. Point is – if God wants you to do something you may as well do it. Running away won’t do you any good.” Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches and, much to his annoyance, the people repent and God relents and everybody’s happy. Well, everybody but Jonah.
Jonah said, “It’s not fair. I knew it. I knew you wouldn’t do it. You sent me over here to preach to these evil people in Nineveh. You had me tell them all about how you were going to destroy them because of their evil ways. But I just knew it. I knew you wouldn’t do it. I knew you would get all soft and generous and merciful and leave me looking like a fool. It’s not fair I tell you; it’s just not fair.”
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus starts out with a story that’s reasonable enough. The owner of the vineyard needed extra workers during the harvest. Most small towns in farming country have a corner where day laborers hang out, hoping to be hired. And throughout the day, he goes back and hires more, all very normal. The exaggerated and unbelievable part comes when it’s time to pay up. Everybody gets paid the same, no matter when they were hired.
When the ones who worked all day found out that they were being paid the same as the people who only worked an hour, they were furious, they threw down their tools, they sulked, they mumbled amongst themselves. And do you know what they said? They said, “It’s not fair; it’s just not fair. We worked all day, and in the heat of the sun too, and they just worked a bit in the cool of the evening. And they get the same amount of money. It’s not fair, I tell you; it’s just not fair.”
It’s a hard lesson to learn – to not be jealous and resentful when it appears that others are faring better than we are for no good reason. All of us, at one time or another, wonder “Why him and not me?” “Why them and not us?” “What have they done that I haven’t done?” “What have they got that I don’t have.” “It’s not fair; it’s just not fair.”
And God’s answer to all that is, “You’re right. Life is not fair. I am not fair. I am God, not a mechanistic dispenser of divine favor in response to supposed human merit. I created the world. I created all the people. I love all the people, and I desire only what is the best for all the people I created. Therefore, I do what is best for them, not what another of my children thinks is fair.”
When I was a teenager, my brother and I worked on my uncle’s tobacco farm. Uncle LW made my brother his paymaster. Every Saturday noon, he figured up the hours, did the math and wrote the checks for Uncle LW to sign. One Saturday as we were walking home, my brother told me that “Joe” was paid more than we were. We were both angry about this. It wasn’t fair. Joe was nowhere near as good at harvesting tobacco as we were. My brother worked up his courage and after church and Sunday dinner at the grandparents, he broached the subject with Uncle LW. LW squinted at him and then tossed his cigarette butt into the yard and said, “Hello here, boy, I don’t pay him more ‘cause he deserves it. I pay him more ‘cause he needs it. Them little young’uns of his would starve to death if I didn’t pay him a little more.”
So it is with God and us – God’s grace does not come to us because we deserve it. It comes to us because we need it. God’s love for us is not meted out to us in miserly portions according to our good deeds and faithful actions. No, it is lavished upon us in a generous and loving way because we all so desperately need it so much.
Amen and amen.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.