Sermon for Pentecost 16 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The most pernicious theological problem which Christianity has faced since its inception, and which likewise bedeviled our Jewish forbears, is what we call theodicy or “the problem of evil.” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, how can He permit suffering? As I’ve said before, if you can answer that question sufficiently, be my guest; you’ll be hailed as the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas. The best I can tell you is read the Book of Job and see if you find it’s answer satisfying.

I sometimes wonder, though, if our real problem comes from a question antithetical to the traditional question of theodicy- namely, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Now, this question is not very theologically difficult, but I think that if we were to interrogate our own sense of justice, we would find it poses some spiritual difficulty. The psalmist laments, “[The wicked man’s] ways prosper at all times; thy judgments are on high, out of his sight; as for all his foes, he puffs at them.” St. Augustine complains, “I live well and am in need; and the unjust man abounds.” Well, it seems like Jonah had the same problem in this morning’s Old Testament lesson.

Many of you probably remember the story of Jonah, but a quick refresher might be helpful. Jonah, an Israelite, is called by God to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh, “an exceedingly great city” which served as capitol of the Assyrian Empire. This is in the 8th Century B.C., when Assyria is expanding and threatening the Kingdom of Israel. So, Jonah had reason to be a bit intimidated by God’s request, and in a moment of what may seem to us rather unclear thinking, he decides to try to run away from God, quite literally. He boarded a ship going the opposite direction from Nineveh, but the ship encountered a storm at sea. Jonah was forced to admit to the crew that the Lord God might have had reason to be a touch peeved with him, and offered to let them throw him into the sea. So, that’s precisely what they did, and as the Scripture says “the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah.” After three days in the belly of the fish, Jonah reckons prayer might help, and indeed upon the prayer’s completion, the fish “spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”

God doesn’t waste time, and He comes to Jonah as soon as he makes landfall. “Get up,” God said, “go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message I tell you.” This time, having realized that his initial disobedience was more than a little unwise, Jonah got up and did as the Lord had commanded. When he arrives in Nineveh, Jonah preached repentance, and to his great surprise, the Assyrians listened. The king mandated acts of contrition, and the populace obeyed. God withheld His wrath; by all accounts Jonah had succeeded in his task.

By all accounts, that is, except for Jonah’s. Jonah did not rejoice because of the Lord’s mercy. Rather he sat beneath a bush and sulked. Why, he thought, did God not impose His judgment upon the Ninevites? He had sworn in His wrath that He would make an end of them, and Jonah really wanted them to get their just desserts. They had it coming, after all.

The funny thing is, though, that Jonah’s just desserts would have been to die at sea. He had it coming, too. But, God’s mercy, in both cases, trumped His justice.

Likewise, Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel, presents a picture of God’s mercy which upsets our notions of justice. There are laborers who work in the vineyard all day, and there are those who put in a half-day’s work, and there are some who only put in a few hours on the clock. Yet the latter get just as much pay as the others. It might be hard to notice, at first, how counterintuitive the parable is, because we’ve allegorized it so much and have agreed (on a sort of cognitive level) to its theological point. But do we really, deep down, believe the Good News it has for us. What if we were hearing this parable for the first time, like the disciples, and if we were to take the story it tells on its own terms, without immediately identifying the landowner with God. Well, we’d find the parable terribly upsetting. It’s not fair! If we had been working all day, we’d either expect the late-comers to be docked some pay, or we’d demand a bonus. If the landowner were operating justly, he’d have to do that, we’d say. It’s just like Jonah’s indignant attitude. It wasn’t fair, but is fairness the only virtue?

It seems to me that in secular society and in some quarters of the Church there exists today an assumption that the moral life or the Christian Gospel are primarily, or even almost exclusively about effecting some vision of justice. But, such a vision of the moral life and of the Gospel cannot be the full picture. It cannot be the full picture because it leaves out the central quality of our faith. What did our Lord say? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world: but that the world through him might be saved.” This is not primarily a matter of justice, but of mercy. Yes, we believe that Christ shall return to be our judge, but he also serves as our advocate before the heavenly throne. His sacrifice upon the Cross, and the perpetual sacrifice of the Eucharist were not given for our benefit because we deserved it, but because of God’s mercy and loving-kindness. We are not brought through the waters of Baptism as a symbol of our innate worthiness, but as a real act of regeneration, God’s mercy making us worthy despite ourselves.

This should give us pause when we begin to judge. Of course, judgment is necessary in some cases: in courts of law, and academic examinations, for example. We hope mercy operates in these contexts as well, but judgment is necessary. Sometimes the Church must act on behalf of Christ her head to judge profound evil in the world and within Herself. In instances like these, God’s judgment and ours is an expression of love. But how much more lovely is mercy? The Church has something which no other ideology in the world, as far as I can tell, had ever come up with before Christ: a full-throated endorsement of forgiveness. Forgivenes, not for the sake of demonstrating benevolence and power, nor for the sake of currying favour, but simply because we were forgiven first.

We have been made a people of mercy, because in Baptism we were, I like to say, given a pair of cruciform spectacles. We were given the means of seeing the world through the lens of the cross. Thus, the mercy we are called to show is a sacrificial sort of mercy. Our innate sense of fairness, of justice, is transformed in our seeing, in the light of unbounded, unbidden mercy, because when we look through the Cross the light we see is resurrection light. May we be so illumined by that light that when we see each other on that day, the day of Christ’s return, we may see each other and ourselves no longer as unworthy Ninevites, nor as unaccomplished vine-dressers, but as fellow members of Christ’s one Body and co-heirs of His eternal kingdom.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.