Princeton University Religious Life

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11 ~ Matthew 20: 1 - 16

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
September 21, 2008
Jonah 3:10 – 4:11 ~ Matthew 20: 1 - 16

The financial news this past week has been very hard, and not just for us here in the United States but across our globalized and interconnected world.

I began writing this sermon last Monday, noting that Lehman Brothers had just filed for bankruptcy protection while Merrill Lynch was just bought by Bank of America. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had been bailed out by taxpayers, Countrywide Mortgage had already been bought by Bank of America, and Bear Stearns had been gobbled up by JP Morgan – Chase. I wrote, too, that the insurance giant AIG seemed to be circling the drain. The next day I amended my sermon text to note that AIG was going to be bailed out. The next day I inserted something about Washington Mutual and Wachovia. The next day, I gave up keeping track altogether. By the time I stopped tweaking the sermon last night the headline of the NY Times on the table next to me was blaring the news that our government is asking Congress for “broad rescue powers” in order to avoid an “economic cataclysm.” Perhaps some of you here are already feeling the crisis very personally because you (or family members) work for one of these companies, or are struggling to meet a mortgage payment, or are watching the value of stock and portfolio’s fall. Perhaps the economic downturn is already hurting your (or your family’s) business. I hear grumblings in the media and in conversations around me about how this all could be happening. We each know that we have made our own choices only with fullest integrity. Somebody has blown it, though. Folks say trusted people – seeming experts – in positions of real authority must have been cavalier with how they’ve handled our money, and you just watch – us shareholders are going to lose everything and the fat-cats in the executive offices aren’t just going to be let off the hook, they’re going to get huge severance packages. People who don’t feel like they deserve to lose their shirt want to know what’s fair. We human beings have always championed fairness when we think we’re being cheated. Sadly, we’ve been less likely to protest when we’re benefitting from a situation that may be unfair to someone else.

The good people around Jesus were just like us, and so they were scandalized at his parable of a vineyard owner who paid people the same wage whether they labored in the blistering sun for one hour or for eight or nine. We identify with the folks who’ve been sweating all day, not the ones who got picked for work in the late afternoon. We identify with the brother of the Prodigal Son, who’s done all the right things and made all the right choices, then gets to watch his father throw an extravagant party for a guy who blew through his whole inheritance and earned a trashy reputation. We are less likely to identify with this brother who made big mistakes in his young life but who had sense enough to ask forgiveness and try to start over. If fairness – in business and in personal life – is not the cornerstone of what we can expect, why should any of us play by the rules? And if fairness from God seems to be arbitrary, where are the rules of spiritual justification that we all need?

In asking these things we are, of course, projecting on to God our own criteria for what is fair. We are holding God accountable to what we think is deserved. Fairness is our obsession; mercy is God’s disposition. Jesus’ parable is not meant to be taken literally regarding human financial relationships; it’s the only kind of analogy he has with which to describe the realm of heaven to the very human people around him. We hear a scandalous story about fairness; Jesus tells a scandalous story about mercy. The writer of the Book of Jonah did the same. Poor old Jonah, told by God to go to the evil city of Nineveh and call them to repentance. It’s easy to chuckle at Jonah (we do not identify with him!). He’s so small-hearted, so despising of the Ninevites that God has to do extraordinary things just to keep him on mission. Jonah tries to sail away from Nineveh, so God sends a storm to toss him overboard into the mouth of a great beast, in whose belly he survives, only to be wretched up on the shore only a short distance from . . . Nineveh. Giving up, he walks into the city, says five desultory words to passersby and whoosh – the whole city repents and worships God, from the king right down to the cattle. Jonah wasn’t even trying! But Jonah isn’t a laughable character. He isn’t heartless, self-interested or mean. He knows that evil Nineveh will, within several generations, attack the Jews of the Northern Kingdom – his people – deporting or killing them. And he knows that God knows that. The scandal here is not Jonah’s small-heartedness, but truly God’s great-heartedness, and the question of the interplay between God’s grace and God’s justice.

The story about Jonah isn’t really about Jonah at all, but about God, and the purpose that God has for individual people. Sometimes God’s purpose for a person contradicts all human common sense and standards of fairness as in the story of Jonah. Christ’s parable about the workers in the vineyard is also about God’s purpose for people. All those workers began the day idle. They had no work to do. They – we – are lost. Christ and God are the vineyard owners who, in their realm, sweep us up wherever we are sitting around and they set us to the labor they need us to do to construct the Reign of God. They recognize no spiritual seniority between us, rewarding us equally, and undeservedly, with grace upon grace.

Jonah is someone whose direction from God could not be more crystal clear. (How many of us, wondering what purpose God has for our lives, would love some blatant communication?) But Jonah’s purpose is one he disagrees with – he just can’t bring himself to do it. I think he’s a model for all of us who have resisted a certain calling, or faced a massive turn-around in our understanding of what we are supposed to be doing. Last spring I heard the story of a so-called “hardened criminal” who, after his release from prison, became one of this country’s most effective advocates for educational programs for inmates and a respected colleague of corrections officials – not a purpose he ever would have envisioned for himself. I think of a friend who continued to teach at a university that she did not enjoy just long enough to get the professional credentials she needed to get a job elsewhere. No one was more surprised than she when later she felt truly called to return there, to serve with all her heart, and maybe even make it a better place. Some people resist a calling to some task or vocation because they’re sure they wouldn’t be good enough at it. They hold out for a long time, and when they give up, like Jonah, are stunned to find that they’re actually quite effective. Some of us avoid committing to work that has an obvious purpose to it because we know it would take a lot out of us. Jonah’s story shows us that God is at work with a wisdom far beyond our own, employing us in a scheme of scandalous mercy we may never fully comprehend.

Jesus’ parable of idle people swept up into work and given a purpose has application for us, too. How grateful were those who started the day with an invitation to good labor. How much more grateful, perhaps, were those who had given up hope by 4:00 in the afternoon. Without purpose for so long, lost, wandering, God had not forgotten them. The Holy One knows all about them and calls them to labor when new work needs to be done. How many of us have only been able to articulate a sense of purpose to what we do much later than others seem to. How many of us find a new and more meaningful chapter opening in our life when we had little hope left that this could be possible. And God’s purpose for us certainly needn’t be lofty. The workers in this parable were doing stoop labor for the production of wine. All good and productive work helps build the Reign of God.

Driving a taxi, studying hard, working retail, raising kids – the type of labor we do is not important. All our labor has holy purpose if we know where God is in it. Do we see the content of our days – the leisure, the service, the employment – as a gift from God or as a favor we do for the world or others? Is our work an example of our magnanimous generosity to others, or of God’s generosity to us? Divine purpose may not be obvious in the content of our days (as in tending to grapevines). The purpose we are looking for is in what we bring to it – the knowledge that, but for God’s grace, we were idle and lost. Jesus said that God’s very eye is on the sparrows of Jerusalem. The book of Jonah adds the cows of Nineveh. How much more so is divine compassion and grace upon you and me.

Scandalous compassion and grace it is – as long as we insist on boxing God’s mercy into our own standards of fairness. We should be ever grateful for such mercy. Haven’t we been as Nineveh – as individuals, as a country, as a human family? Just think of the record of the last century alone, think of what we have done to one another. Are we not like those laborers hired late in the day – lost, idle, redeemed by a love we could never repay in kind (and are not asked to)? Have we not been the recipients of God’s mercy time and again? Shall we not give thanks for this mercy, even as it is extended to people we think are wicked or lazy or undeserving – the illegal immigrant, those who are religiously intolerant or even violent (including from our own tradition). Imagine if we showed such mercy to people whom others despise. That would be . . . well . . . scandalous! And would we not, in doing this, earn the name of Christian?




Ira Brent Driggers, Anathea Portier-Young,, Sept. 21, 2008.

James Limburg, Jonah, Interpretation Bible Series, WJKP.

Douglas Hare, Matthew, Interpretation Bible Series, WJKP.

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