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Fr. John Allison

Proper 20A

Jonah 3:10 - 4:11

Matthew 20:1-16

September 24, 2023

Christ Church, Hudson


From the time since I was quite young I have always had some kind of job to do. Whether it was doing chores around the house and earning an allowance or later, when I was older, mowing lawns around the neighborhood and earning my own spending money, I have always had some kind work for which I was compensated; it taught me the value of work, the value of a dollar, and instilled in me a work ethic that is part of who I am to this day. I imagine many of you here today can say something similar, which makes the parable Jesus shares in our Gospel today all the more surprising. I’m used to getting what I deserve, what’s fair—a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. The reaction of the workers hired early in the day by the landowner is not all that surprising to me; I can understand their dismay, their resentment that the workers hired in the eleventh hour, at the end of the day, earned the same as them. It just doesn’t seem fair. 

And we humans are hard wired for fairness. Various psychological studies show that even from a very young age children recognize unequal treatment. One study placed bowls of candy a in front of two children. One child would receive a single piece of candy in his or her bowl and the other would receive four pieces in his bowl. The child being tested then had a choice. He could pull a green lever and each child would receive the candy allotted them; or, he could pull a red lever and neither child would receive any candy. Time and time again the child who was disadvantaged would pull the red lever and neither would receive anything. There are numerous variations of this experiment, some with older children and even adults and, of course, this is an extreme example, but my point remains—we have strong feelings about what is fair and what isn’t fair. And quite often, perhaps more often than we are willing to admit, we become quite attached to our notions of fairness—so attached that we sometimes fail to see the real issue at hand and act in ways that harm others and ourselves. We see this in politics and the larger society all the time.

I think that was certainly the case for Jonah in our Old Testament reading today. Many of us are quite familiar with the first half of Jonah’s story. He is called by God to go to Nineveh and warn the people to turn from their evil ways, so that God will not destroy them. Not wanting to heed God’s call to be the messenger, Jonah runs away; he turns and goes in the opposite direction of Nineveh. That’s when he is swallowed by a whale and eventually ends up in Nineveh anyway and goes about preaching of the coming of God’s judgement. He couldn’t escape his call, even though he tried. Our reading today picks up after Jonah has warned the town of God’s judgement and—surprise—they actually listened and God sees that they have turned from their evil ways and shows mercy on them. God does not destroy them as Jonah had warned, but Jonah is not happy about this. In fact, he’s angry, resentful. It isn’t fair. For Jonah, these were a sinful people and they deserved to be punished. In his mind, a last minute change of heart was no cause to revoke punishment.

What Jonah doesn’t realize, what the laborers in Jesus’ parable don’t get, and, for that matter, what we don’t get in our very human preoccupation with fairness, is that God’s mercy, God’s love, does not depend on us. It’s not about us. Love and forgiveness are the essence of God’s very being and human behavior does not change that; God’s love and forgiveness are unconditional. It’s not about how many hours we’ve worked or how many prayers we’ve said, or even how many years we’ve had perfect attendance at church. God’s love is there for us to accept, for us to turn to and live into. The people of Nineveh repent, which simply means to turn back toward God. 

If we understand Jesus’ parable as representing the Kingdom of God, those laborers who come at the end of the day, who turn to God—no matter how late—are welcomed with the same love as those who have been in God’s grace all along. God is love and loves unconditionally. 

For some of us, that is a hard lesson to learn. It doesn’t help that we see pop culture representations of heaven with people standing at its gates and St. Peter tallying up good deeds versus bad to see if the scale might be tipped and the gates opened in welcome to those worthy souls who’ve labored hard. No. God’s love does not depend on us. Do not misunderstand me. I’m not giving you a blank check and saying it doesn’t matter what you do. No. That’s not correct either. We turn away from God of our own volition; it’s our choice. And it is our choice to turn back, to repent. But God's love comes first. Jonah learned that in Nineveh. God descended to us, came to us in the Incarnation and we are called to return with Christ, ascend back to God. That’s what it means to say yes to God’s call, to seek union with God. 

As laborers in the vineyard, we work not to win favor but because God has called us and we have accepted. The works that we do, the gifts that we offer, are not offered to win God’s love but are the outward signs that we have said yes and are living into God’s love for us. We are reflecting God’s love to the world. The love that we show to our neighbors, the forgiveness that we offer our enemies, the prayers we say, the alms we give, the Eucharist we offer—all are expressions of God’s love for the world and it comes through us. We are Christ’s body in the world. 

Our psalm today tells us, as does Jonah, “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.” God’s graciousness and mercy, God’s love, transcends human notions of fairness. We prayed in our collect today to let us not be anxious about earthly things but to love things heavenly, that amidst all these things temporal that are passing away, we hold fast to what endures. Love is what endures. Hold fast to God’s promise of love in Christ and know that in Him, in his mercy, we will find rest. Amen.