The Hebrew Scriptures are full of reluctant prophets. But there was no prophet more reluctant than Jonah. Jonah is the only prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures who was sent by God to a people other than Israel, to a people other than his own; God commands Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh, in Assyria.
Now when I was taught this story in Sunday School, we were told that Jonah resisted this commandment from God and fled on a ship to Tarshish, in the opposite direction from Nineveh because he was afraid of the Assyrians, who were a great enemy to Israel. It is true that Assyria was an enemy of Israel, but this is not why Jonah flees on the ship. We only learn the real reason why Jonah flees at the end of the book.
When Jonah sees that his preaching has actually worked, that Nineveh has repented and turned to the God of Israel for mercy, he’s not happy; he’s angry. “I pray thee, Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil.”
That’s the real reason Jonah flees: because he knows that if Nineveh does repent, then God will be merciful and gracious and will put away his anger and show his steadfast love for the people of that city. Jonah is angry not because he was wrong about God; he is angry because he was right about God. He didn’t want the Ninevites to repent because he knew that if they did God would show mercy.
God’s question then is a good one: “Do you do well to be angry” about this? Jonah’s reply is truly stunning: “I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”
There is a name for this attitude my friends, and that name is spite. I would define spite as maliciously regarding someone who has something good that you too have and being angry that they have it. This I take it is the point of Jonah’s story, to condemn the attitude of spite as the nasty and perverse sin that it is.
Jonah has given the Ninevites a great gift that he himself already enjoys: relationship with the God of Israel, maker of heaven and earth, the God of steadfast love and mercy. And this spiteful little man is angry that the undeserving Ninevites have accepted that gift.
The ending of Jonah pairs excellently well with today’s parable from the Gospel of Matthew. This fascinating parable is named by the Revised Standard Version the parable of “The Laborers in the Vineyard.” This is a misleading name. This parable is not about the laborers; it is about the householder, as Jesus himself says at the very beginning: “The kingdom of heaven is like a householder.” This householder embodies the steadfast love and mercy of God that we saw in the book of Jonah too.
This householder may be the worst HR manager of all time. He seems incapable of strategic planning and appears to have no ability to assess what his employment needs are. He goes to the open market and hires a group of workers for his vineyard “early in the morning.” Then again at 9am, then again at noon, then again at 3pm, then again at 5pm. How are we to make sense of this erratic pattern?
It will help to know something about the condition of hired workers in the ancient near east. Men hanging around the market waiting for day labor are in about the worst possible economic condition. In some ways it would have been better to be a slave.
A slave in Greco-Roman culture would have been attached to a household where he could at least count on being fed and lodged by the householder, who had at least some obligations to his slaves.
A day laborer was in a more precarious position. He could be hired or fired at will, so for him, a day without work is a day without food. And the day laborers that the householder meets at 5pm are the worst off of the worst off. I say that because of the literal meaning of the word “idle” in verse 6. In that verse the householder asks the 5 pm work crew, “Why are you standing here all day idle.” It’s an unfortunate translation in my opinion, because calling these men “idle” in English carries a connotation of laziness. It’s too prejudicial. In Greek the term here is argous, which is formed by contracting “a” with the word ergon. In Greek the “a” prefix is negative, it means “not” or “without,” and “ergon” means work. So literally the householder asks the 5pm crew, “Why are you standing here all day without work?” Their answer then makes perfect sense. We are not standing here out of laziness, we are standing here “because no one has hired us.” We have no work because no one has given us any work to do.
Now I think the desperate situation of these workers should be considerably clearer. The workers standing around at 5pm must work to eat, but the day is almost over, and no one has hired them. They have been passed over. Everyone else has been given a chance to earn a little bread but they have missed that chance. They are the last.
Mosaic law forbids withholding a worker’s wages overnight. You cannot hire a person who needs to work in order to eat and then postpone payment. They need dinner now, not tomorrow, not at the end of the week, but now. The householder does justice by paying for work he has contracted right away. Notice though that he gives the workers their wages in reverse order when the day is ended. He pays the last first, a full day’s wage for only one hour of labor. That’s not quite justice. That’s grace.
The householder’s act incenses the first workers, who in witnessing the householder pay a full day’s wage to the last, must have got their hopes up that more was coming to them by virtue of having been first.
We too are accustomed to think that extra effort merits extra reward, and that’s why the householder’s act seems unfair or at least incompetent. It is neither. It is rather an expression of love and mercy.
The householder in this parable, as I have already said, is by the world’s standards a terrible economist. But parables do not teach us about the world, they teach us about the things of God.
This parable is about God’s economics. In the economy of God, there is a place for justice, and there is a place for grace. The householder explains his act in terms of these two principles. First there is justice: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you…” This is justice speaking. No one has been wronged. I told you I would pay you a day’s wage for a day’s work, and now that the day is done, I am paying you what we agreed to, on time, fair and square.
Then there is grace: “I chose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” This is grace speaking. I will do what I want with what is mine. And what I want—what God wants—is to freely give to all. It is my will—it is God’s will—that all be fed this day, even the worst off, even those who have been passed over, even the last.
To begrudge this generosity is to fall victim to spite. I know because I do it all the time. The first workers spite the generosity of the householder; they have their wage, but it angers them that someone else does too, someone they think of as less deserving of it. So it is that the first really are the last and the last—for once—are first.
Two challenges to pose to ourselves. When God lavishes mercy and generosity on someone we don’t like or that we think is undeserving, how do we react? Spitefully? Or do we truly rejoice when God lavishes others with his steadfast love, just as he has done with us? I know what my tendency is.
A first step would be to rid ourselves of spite and learn to rejoice in the mercy, love, and graciousness of God, whenever it is manifest in the lives of others, but this is just a first step. Second challenge: How often do we ourselves show the generosity and love of God to others? Even when it looks incompetent or unfair in the world’s eyes? Because once we are able to rejoice in God’s favor to others in addition to ourselves, then we can take even further joy in promoting that very same generosity and love and mercy by extending it to others who have yet to feel it in their own lives. By making the last among us the first.
We are enmeshed in the world’s economy, which often justice and has no place for grace at all. This parable is about the kingdom of God, of which we are also striving to be members. And in that economy, justice is imperative, and grace abounds all the more.