Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

While I’ve almost always enjoyed being in school, kindergarten was not my finest hour. This is not because I failed to succeed academically in those early years, but rather because I felt as if it were impossible not to succeed, if affirmation were the mark of success. It bothered me terribly that my fellows received sticky little gold stars and colorful smiley faces on work which, in my callow youth, I believed did not warrant such reward. Something about it struck me as unfair, unjust. Certainly those who objectively succeeded (like me) deserved approbation, I thought, and those who couldn’t read or write or reckon very well ought to receive some kind of condemnation.

Looking back, I realize that even at that tender age I suffered from a sinfully inordinate amount of pride and resentment. But none of us is a saint, and very few of us avoid this pitfall all of the time. There are always those who seem to float by without putting forth much effort or to get affirmation for work which seems shabby to us. How many of us have never nurtured fantasies in which our co-worker gets his just desserts for sloth and underperformance? How many of us have not secretly wished (even just a little) that our neighbour would be found out and would get his comeuppance? I know I have these thoughts from time to time still, and I suspect I’m not alone.

Indeed, none of us is alone in this particularly insidious sin, because Jonah, from today’s Old Testament lesson, is right there with us.

Many of you probably remember the broad strokes of Jonah’s story, 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 was 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 quite literally try to run away from God. 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 (imagine that!) and, indeed, upon the prayer’s completion, the fish “spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”

God doesn’t waste time. 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 arrived 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, was greater than the demands of 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–namely that this has less to do with First Century agricultural labor practices than it does with the salvation-economy of the Kingdom of God. 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 else we’d demand a bonus. If the landowner were operating justly, he’d have to do that, we’d say. It’s just like my outrage in kindergarten about the bad students getting gold stars. It’s just like Jonah’s indignant attitude. It wasn’t fair, but is fairness the only virtue?

There is a golden calf to smash here. In some quarters of the Church there exists today an assumption that the Christian Gospel is primarily, or even almost exclusively about effecting some vision of justice here and now. Those of you who’ve heard me preach over the years know that this is one of my hobby-horses, and that I blame it mostly on the lingering effects of Nineteenth Century liberal Protestant theology, and it persists despite great theologians like Barth and Neibuhr trying to snap us out of it over the last century. Such a vision of the Gospel cannot be the full picture. In fact, as important as moral action and the attempts to establish justice are (and they are terribly important) that’s not the Gospel. It’s the Law, which will eventually convict us no matter how seemingly succesful our efforts may be.

What did our Lord say? to give us an example of of the virtuous soul and society that we might emulate him?” No. He said “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 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, and quarterly reviews at the office. 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 can be an expression of His love.

But how much more lovely is mercy? The Church has something which no other ideology in the world has ever come up with: a full-throated endorsement of forgiveness. Forgiveness, 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 given, I like to say, 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.