September 18, 2011
Proper 20 Year A, Abbey Church
Jonah and Paul and the laborers we all heard about in our readings this morning all have work to do, but only Paul has the right attitude about it. In the first reading, Jonah is mad not only because he lost the shade bush he thinks he deserves from all his hard work, but also because his work helped bring about the salvation of Nineveh, and Jonah does not want Nineveh to be saved, because he thinks they don't deserve it. The laborers in the gospel story are mad because others were paid as much as them, and the disgruntled laborers don't think the others deserve it. In other words, Jonah and the laborers think they have earned good things because of their good actions, and the others have earned bad things because of their bad actions. They don't care that the reason Nineveh has been wicked is because no one told them their deeds were bad until Jonah showed up; or that the other laborers have not worked as long because no one hired them until late in the day. All they want is to have their goodness affirmed and their backs patted while watching others suffer.
Paul takes a different attitude in our middle reading. He knows that if anyone deserves punishment, it is himself. He persecuted others whom he thought deserved punishment; he was like Jonah and the disgruntled laborers in that way. But Paul knows what it's like to be confronted by one's own evil deeds. He knows what it is like to be thankful for the chance to change and do good instead. Like the citizens of Nineveh, he was full of wickedness but did not know it until he was told about it, and like the idle laborers, he was hired late in life after spending too much time doing nothing of use. Like Jonah and the disgruntled laborers, he also knows he has rewards waiting for him for all the good he has done since his conversion, but he also knows the importance of continuing his work, rather than resting on his laurels. Unlike Jonah and the disgruntled laborers, he is glad to see others getting the same rewards he is to receive. He wants to give others a chance to change, just like Jesus gave to him, because he understands that his own life is only one thread in the story of God's love and grace. Jonah and the laborers were thinking only of their own little piece of the pie - wanting their reward from God and content to let others go to hell. What they didn't realize is that the greatest reward is the opportunity to help others escape their own pride and anger so that they can also find true joy in God.
Of course, we are a lot like Jonah and the disgruntled workers, and we need to be more like Paul. We tend to take a superior attitude toward those whom we think are not as deserving of God's mercy as we are. Sometimes we play the part of the beleaguered missionary to what we consider the heathen world around us (that is to say; anyone with different opinions or habits than ourselves), and we do it with a superior attitude, when we should instead simply live our lives humbly abiding in God's mercy, bringing God's love, peace, and joy to our small part of the world with no self interested motives or expectation of reward or acknowledgment.
And of course, we are a lot like the citizens of Nineveh before their conversion and the idle laborers before they were finally hired and Paul before his conversion. We do not deserve salvation; neither did Nineveh, but God chose to save them anyway. We do not deserve the same reward as those who have done good deeds all their lives; neither did the idle laborers, but the owner chose to give them the full pay anyway. Like Paul, Jesus comes to us to turn us away from our chosen road to the hell we have made for ourselves, rather than to push us further down that road. We don't get what we have been trying to earn all our lives of pettiness and greed, and we should be grateful for that. Instead, we get what God wants to give us, and God gives us nothing less than God's own self. That self is complete love, forgiveness, and acceptance. We have no excuse to be upset when anyone else receives the same gift. Instead, we have every reason to be thankful and joyful that God does not give people what they deserve. We work to earn hell, and yet we are offered heaven. All we have to do is accept it.
The choice of accepting heaven or making our own hell comes to us everyday and every moment. Jesus is always trying to get our attention as we travel to Damascus to persecute others. Shade bushes will come and go, but Nineveh will always be full of people desperate to hear of God's love and mercy. We will be smug in our own self-righteousness, and then be surprised on payday when others get the same amount of love that we do. May we be thankful for the shade when it comes, and let it go when it leaves. May we be thankful for the gift of heaven and leave behind the earned income of hell. May we walk the road to heaven with Jesus, along with all the citizens of Nineveh, and be grateful for their company. AMEN