We hear two parables in today’s readings. The last one is the Parable of laborers in the Vineyard from the Gospel of Matthew. The first was the Parable of the Jealous Prophet.
Now, there are a range of thoughts about the original intent of Book of Jonah. Some understand it to be a narrative of both historic and natural fact. Others laugh and say that it is purely fantasy. There have been arguments about the Book of Jonah for millennia – from the time of the first Rabbinic interpretations all the way through to the present.
Arguments still go on about whether it was a marine dinosaur, a whale or a big fish that swallowed Jonah – that, of course depends on what you believe about creation and evolution. And arguments about whether it would be possible for a human to be swallowed whole by any of them and survive – which, of course, depends on whether you believe miracles happen. And then there are arguments about … Well, never mind. You get the idea.
Suffice to say that, as with so many things, the Book of Jonah presents yet one more reason for people of faith to fight with each other. And what is at stake in these arguments? Why the right to claim to be right, of course. It seems like, if any party can convince enough people that it’s right, their truth will somehow become God’s truth – that somehow God will be and act the way they think God should based on a majority vote.
And into this fight I am going to step and say, “I don’t care.”
I don’t care whether it’s fact or fiction, whether it’s a miracle or explained by natural law, whether it is a historical narrative or a parody. It is what it is and what I think won’t change it. What I do care is what it is trying to tell us. And, for that reason, I think one way of reading Jonah is as a parable – albeit a very long one.
A parable, if you remember, is a story that has shock value or surprise – one in which things are not as they seem or not as society thinks they should be – and one that tells a deep, meaningful theological truth. When Jesus told parables, we have no idea whether they were true or not – in the sense of actually happening – but they convey a truth that is important to understanding God. The Book of Jonah qualifies in all regards as a parable, without ever having to wrestle out the questions about historicity or miracles or whatever.
So, let’s first deal with the parts of the Jonah story that would have shocked Jews beginning 500 or 600 years before the time of Jesus.
Now, right off the bat – the part story about that big fish wouldn’t have been shocking. While we center almost all our attention on the big fish or whale, and on whether the miracle could have actually occurred, those kinds of things were completely understandable to the Hebrews. Belief, at that time especially, was that Yahweh actively commanded and controlled elements of creation – whether it be weather, the seas, plants, animals or humans.
So, what was shocking?
Jonah was approached by God and called to be a prophet to the people. Unlike all the other prophets in Hebrew scripture, Jonah wasn’t called to prophecy to the Israelites – but to the inhabitants of Nineveh. God is sending a prophet not just to non-Jews, but to Assyrians – the very people who at one time exiled and enslaved the Jews. This is just as shocking, if not more so, than Jesus using Samaritans as righteous examples in parables.
God tells Jonah to go to the Ninevites and give them the same kind of message that all the other prophets give only to the Israelites – only to those who have defaulted on the covenant relationship with Yahweh. The Israelites were God’s chosen – that’s the message of much of the Old Testament. The prophets, however, reminded them that God’s chosen – God’s covenant people – had a responsibility to the stranger, the alien, the sick and the widowed. They reminded the Jews that they were turning their back on God when they abused, rejected and oppressed other peoples. And the Israelites failed to heed the warnings that the prophets cried out – in each case the covenant people continued to turn a deaf ear to God’s message.
Just before our reading from Jonah the most shocking point of the parable is revealed – the people of Nineveh repented and believed in God – they do what even God’s chosen have failed to do in response to other prophets. Upon hearing Jonah’s proclamations, the people believed, repented, proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth. The king said, “Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.” Which is why our reading begins with, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God’s mind was changed about the calamity that God had said would be brought upon them.”
No prophet of God had ever received such a response from the Hebrew people. Can you imagine how thrilled any of them would have been if they had? And how did Jonah respond to the Ninevites’ conversion? Jonah responded in much the same way that most Jews would have when they heard this parable – in anger – in denial – and in Jonah’s case, by wanting to die.
This was grossly unfair. The Jews were the covenant people. Yes, they’d messed up a lot. Yes, they had mistreated other people when God called them to mercy and kindness. Yes, they had even failed to respond to prophets. But, they came first – they were God’s chosen.
Jonah said to God – I knew you’d do this. I knew you were gracious and merciful – full of steadfast love – I knew you’d forgive them. Why them? They don’t deserve it!
Jonah left the city in despair – angry at God – wanting to die. God made a bush grow where Jonah sat to shield him from the sun, and Jonah was happy about the bush. The next day God caused the bush to wither, removing the shade from Jonah. And Jonah was even more angry.
God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush.” And Jonah responded, “Yes! Angry enough to die!” Then God asks the question that is the point of the story – the punch line to the parable. The last sentences of the Book of Jonah admonish the Israelites because they were more concerned for their own interests – the fleeting things of selfish comfort – than they were about people.
You are concerned about a bush – something for which you did not even put out any effort – something that came one day and was gone the next, God said. And God continued, “Should I not be concerned about the people – even the ones who do not know me?” God lays claim to the value of all people – even those the chosen would reject and despise.
The parable from the Gospel this morning is a completely different story, but one with an identical message. Day laborers were among the poorest people in ancient society – life was a bitter struggle. The householder shows uncharacteristic generosity by giving “to the last the same as I give to you.” That’s from verse 14.
Verse 15, however, is the most critical verse when it says, “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
The story of Jonah was shocking because God was generous to Israel’s hated enemies. The Parable of the Laborers was shocking because God was generous even to those who did not deserve it by society’s standards.
There is a consistent message throughout scripture – from the prophets to the words of Jesus. It is a message that can be difficult for some to accept. It is a message that goes against the grain of culture – not just the culture of the old world, but culture throughout history.
God’s grace extends to all people – not just the long-term believers, the righteous, the pious, and the socially acceptable. In scripture, it can sound like a broken record – just as, I am sure, I sound like a broken record sometimes. But for all the consistency of this message, it is one that has failed to become part of the mindset or worldview of the Children of God.
Jenna has reminded me often, when I tend to blame this on human nature, that the nature of humans is to be made in the image of God. God is all-embracing and all-loving. God loves and values people over and above their utility or acceptability to those who see themselves as righteous.
God loves because God created.
God created because God loves.
God calls us to embrace creation – to care for what God has worked with God’s hands – whether we understand that as literal or metaphorical.
Fear creates envy and jealousy – fear creates judgment and mercilessness – fear creates the need to see ourselves as superior. But, God is superior and God incarnate as Jesus called us to embrace radical love – the same kind of radical love that Jesus showed all people …
… and Jesus called us to “be not afraid” – to set aside the fear that makes us need to separate people into us and them.
We can look around us find ample examples of people who we might treat as “the other” – those that we might object to recognizing that God loves them as deeply as God loves us. It is tough to imagine a drug user or drug dealer being of equal worth in God’s eyes. It is hard to accept that someone who is mentally or emotionally ill is loved just as much as God loves us. It is difficult to reconcile that God sees the inherent worth of people whose lives seem to reflect all the actions that we deem unacceptable or self-defeating.
God claims them all as Children of God. And Christ calls each of us to overcome our worldly concerns that may lead us to rejecting or despising them. We, as the human family, may be somewhat dysfunctional – but we are called towards health and reconciliation with all of our siblings. The bottom line is that when we love our neighbor as ourselves, we are expressing the divine spark of God within us, and doing what is ultimately the healthiest for ourselves.