(Texts: Jonah 3:10-4:11, Matthew 20:1-16)
There are times in the Bible when Jesus is very logical. Times when what he says is crystal clear and undisputable. This is not necessarily one of those.
There are times when the Old Testament prophets make perfect sense. They are righteous and full of wrath, rightfully so. This is not one of those times.
Jonah... I just don't understand why God picked that guy.
Not only does he run away from his duties. He is also seriously upset when God decides to spare the great city of Nineveh. He can't deal with the repentance of others and would prefer them to receive punishment instead of mercy. Man, did he pick the wrong God to serve. But I guess that's just the point, he didn't really pick God. God picked him. Sometimes we are so deeply steeped in a culture that believes certain things that we don't remember the reality behind those beliefs. Like God. Jonah was a faithful member of the community, did his chores, paid his dues, but had somehow not gotten to the ”personal accountability”-part. When God calls him, Jonah decides to run away, which only proves how little he knows about God, how little attention he had paid to the history of his people's relationship with God. There is no running from the Lord. As the author of the psalm puts it: If I went to sleep in the deepest ocean, you would find me there.
And not only does God find him, he puts him to use. Jonah preaches to Nineveh, a city that he detests so thoroughly that he kind of looks forward to seeing it buried under a huge pile of burning brimstone. I suspect his preaching wasn't very enthusiastic. But he is disappointed. God works through him, and the king and the people of the great city repent. No brimstone. No fire. Jonah cannot see that the same grace that God extended to him, in spite of him not doing a thing to deserve it, God also extends to the people of Nineveh. He cannot see that he also is a late-comer to the feast, but equally as loved as the ones who have loved God from their very first breath. And just as Jonah is loved and cherished, the sinning citizens of the great city get another chance. And another. Because that's (just) the way God works.
Jonah would be one of the workers in the vineyard grumbling about the late-coming workers getting equal pay. It's a little like people who have immigrated to a country, found a place, and then resenting that others come after them. But in the Kingdom there are no immigration laws, no restrictions on who has the right or is allowed. There are no demands for visas or permanent residence permits. No green cards needed. The borders are open.
Jesus seems to say, in this parable, that the person who has barely lifted a finger for the church or for the faith is worth just as much as those who have toiled their whole lives. He seems to say that the reward is as equally great for the returning sinner as for the faithful servant, and boy, does this provoke people. The righteous long time member of the congregation looks at the person distributing communion, with mistakes and a certain amount of fumbling, for the first time, and wonders why that person is suddenly considered as valuable as the one who has spent hours cleaning the albs and sweeping the church floor. It seems a waste of time, all of those things, if it doesn't at least result in some kind of recognition, some kind of position. But that person does not seem to know God very well. In the Kingdom of God there are no ranks of merit. There are no titles or special positions for those who have been serving for a long time. There are no gold watches for dutiful workers. There is only grace and mercy, for all.
So, the question remains: are you the late-coming sinner, or the faithful servant? Are you Jonah, begrudging the repentant person his or her salvation? Are you a prophet trying to run away? You see, God has use for you. God wants you for his Kingdom. Whether you think you have nothing to offer, if you believe you have nothing to say, or are not worthy enough. God wants you for his Kingdom. And God wants your neighbor too. There is plenty of space in God's house, and Jesus came to prepare room for us there. With all of our insecurities and un-charitable ways. There is room. The vineyard needs workers, there are Ninevehs to speak to. There are places all over our world and our city that need God's grace, and you're the voice God has. Your hands are God's hands. Your eyes and your ears are the only ones God has. And God needs you to do his work.
Yes. That is why God picked Jonah. He gave him purpose and call. He showed us, through an unwilling and, to be honest, pretty petty man, that grace is not dependent on merit. Grace is not something God gives as a reward. It is God's sign of his love. Undeserved and beyond understanding, it is given to us. Jonah is the sign. Jesus is the proof. And you are the next chapter.