I love the story of Jonah. And today it is combined with a Gospel text that connects to share a powerful message. The book of Jonah is only 4 chapters long and if you haven’t read it recently, here is the basic storyline.
God calls Jonah (an Israelite) to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Israel’s enemies, to proclaim God’s message of repentance and forgiveness. Nineveh was located near today’s city of Mosul, located in Northern Iraq. Jonah wanted no part of it. He hated the Ninevites and ran in the opposite direction boarding a boat heading west.
During the trip, a storm comes up, Jonah tells the sailors that he’s the cause because he is running from God and instructs them to throw him overboard. So they did, the storm ended, and Jonah was swallowed by a large fish where he reflected and repented for 3 days before the fish spit him out. On to Nineveh he went, preaching repentance and forgiveness. The Ninevites repented of their sins, God forgave them, and Jonah was angry that God would show them mercy. End of story. The Bible doesn’t say what Jonah did from there or what happened to him. But his reaction probably isn’t any different from yours or mine in that situation, right? God’s grace stretches beyond our comfort zones.
Jesus tells a parable about workers getting hired for an agreed daily payment. Throughout the day, the owner of the vineyard hires more workers up to the last hour of the workday. In the end, he pays everyone the same amount. Those who were hired earlier became angry, even though they agreed upon their wages. The owner responds, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Are you envious because I am generous? In the original Greek, the sentence literally says, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The Gospel of Matthew made reference to the ‘evil eye’ in chapter 6. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So if the eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if it is unhealthy, the whole body will be in darkness.”
Have you ever looked someone in the eye when talking to them? It has been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. When making eye-contact, there is an unexplainable connection that is different from voice, body language, and facial expressions. There is an additional layer of vulnerability. What will others see when they look into your eyes? Will you let them? Is there something you’re trying to hide? Do you look away?
Or is there something that you really wish people could see deep inside your eyes? Are you inviting others to look into your soul, to see the REAL you? What if you could look into God’s eyes? What would you see in God’s very soul? Just like when we are uncomfortable with others finding something in our own vulnerable souls, we might also be uncomfortable with what we find in God.
We may not like the generosity that God shows without partiality, similar to that shown to Jonah’s enemies. We might cringe at the grace that God gives to those whom we judge as unworthy. How can we possibly grasp this concept of grace when we use our own flawed glasses to determine worthiness?
Why do we care what the workers who have labored less than us got paid? What difference is that to those who began their full work day with an agreement of wages? We live in a world that believes we must earn everything, INCLUDING generosity.
When given an unexpected gift, what is our first response? ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ ‘I’ll pay you back.’ ‘I need to make sure to get them a gift too.’ Where is the grace or generosity when something needs to be done in response to the gift?
The people in Nineveh didn’t ‘deserve’ God’s grace of forgiveness in the eyes of Jonah. They had persecuted and controlled the Israelites for generations. But if grace had been deserved, was it really grace or generosity? Or was it ‘earned equality’? You know…when you get what you deserve.
Thank God for the grace that he showed the Ninevites because it is that same grace given to you and I through Christ. And thank God for his generosity to the laborers, because while it can be easy to think of ourselves as the people who worked all day to earn our pay, we are in fact the people hired during the last hour, who are NOT deserving of the master’s generosity.
No matter how often it is said that we cannot earn or deserve God’s grace, we still assume that we do. It is our human sin that wants to compare our imperfect selves to imperfect others. But thankfully, Jesus pours out divine grace beyond imagination to all of us. And in sharing compassion to others, we get a small glimpse of his love and desire for relationship with us. Amen.