my miscellany

Pentecost 16, 2020 — 20 Sep 20

Pentecost 16, 2020

RCL Year A, Proper 20
Psalm 145:1-8, Jonah 3:10–4:11, Saint Matthew 20:1-16

I have a very distinct memory from my days in college. I was in a Bible Study group, and the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, today’s Second Lesson, was the assignment for one of our sessions.

I remember that I was not able to accept the Parable. I had a Jonah Problem, let’s call it. Paying someone who works one hour the same amount as another who works all day and “who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”[1] was unacceptable to me. After all, I was in college after years of schooling with lots of practical experience; and I had a couple of parents who tried to teach me everything they knew. And this arrangement of paying the same amount to those who work only one hour as those who work all day was ridiculous. It flew right in the face of everything I knew about the world. I knew that such an arrangement would never fly in a union hall. I knew that no collective bargaining agreement would ever include such an outlandish arrangement. But here was our Lord and Savior telling a parable where that arrangement was supposed to tell us something about God. I could not take it. I could not wrap my head around it.

Earlier I gave this problem a name, and the name was a Jonah Problem, for Jonah in today’s First Lesson, has the same problem. He simply cannot stand it when God forgives the wicked people of Nineveh when they repent. God had commanded Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh that “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”[2] They repent; they proclaim a fast and put on sackcloth. God relents and spares the wicked city. Jonah, angry and disappointed—he of the Jonah Problem—wishes for death. He leaves the city proper and watches what will happen to the city. The forgiveness God gives Nineveh makes Jonah angry.

For the people of Nineveh are very like the laborers who work only one hour in the day. They are completely restored to a full relationship with God. A generous God being generous restores them just as if they had been righteous all along, just as if they had worked all day long in the scorching heat.

In college I could not accept the parable, because it is unfair. The one-hour workers had done so much less than those who worked all day long. But this is the very idea that we need to accept about God. Our God visits good things unto bad people when they repent. The point is to restore our relationship with God. Getting back to God doesn’t matter when. But it matters.

[1] Saint Matthew 20:12.

[2] Jonah 3:4.

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