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Honking Saxophones

Written by Pastor Dan Wilfrid. Posted in Sermons

Pentecost 16 A       Matthew 20:1-16

If the Old Testament were compared to a beautiful symphony orchestra, with repeated themes and variations, then the book of Jonah would be like a honking saxophone stuck in the middle of it, sounding a discordant note that insisted on being heard.

Every Sunday School child knows that the Book of Jonah is about a man who God rescued after he was swallowed by a giant fish, most often considered to be a whale. You might also know that God sent the fish to swallow Jonah in the first place, and did so because Jonah was trying to run away from God, to avoid doing what God wanted him to do. And usually, that’s as far as our Sunday School lessons about Jonah take us. The story of Jonah is mostly used to remind us that we can’t run away from God.

But that message is not a noisy saxophone sounding in the Old Testament symphony. That’s the symphony itself. “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” That exact phrase, in fact, that refrain appears nine times in the Old Testament – first in Exodus, again in the Psalms, and on into the later prophets. It is always spoken as warm and comforting news to people who have in one way or another fallen short of God’s expectations of them and are delighted to discover that God has given them a second or third or umpteenth chance to start over. It’s a warm and comforting assurance about the kind of God we have, the only kind that offers any hope to people who both understand God’s holy will and their own failure to live in line with it.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  In the Old Testament symphony, that is a lovely and oft-repeated refrain ….until the Book of Jonah starts honking its own discordant version of this marvelous truth, namely, that a God who is gracious and merciful to us, slow to anger over things we do, and abounding in steadfast love for us, is also likely to love everybody else just as much as us; and be just as gracious and merciful to every penitent soul, even toward those we’d rather not see included in that wide holy embrace. Furthermore, Jonah keeps honking, God sometimes even sends us directly to our enemies to tell them just how gracious and merciful and eager to forgive and start over our God can be.

“Be careful about wanting a gracious and merciful God.” the book of Jonah says. “You just might get more than you asked for.”

In the first chapter of Jonah, we find that the prophet was running away from God because God told him to preach repentance to the people of Ninevah, and he flat out didn’t want to do it. He didn’t want to be a missionary to Ninevah because he was afraid that they might listen to his warning and repent, and God would forgive them and change God’s mind about destroying them for the evil they had done.

And what this evil that they had done? Ninevah was the capital city of the Assyrian empire and in 721BC, the Assyrians descended upon ten of the twelve tribes of God’s chosen people and viciously and mercilessly wiped them out. They utterly destroyed the cities of the northern tribes, including the capital city of Samaria. They rounded up the leaders of government and commerce, executed many and dragged others, some with fishhooks in their noses, off into exile, never to return. The Ninevites were the brutal and heartless destroyers of Jonah’s country, the murderers of his neighbors, the cause of great grief and suffering for his people. And yet along comes God, who says to Jonah: “Go to Ninevah and plead with them for me. Urge them to repent of their wickedness so that I may spare them destruction.”

That’s why Jonah ran away from God. That’s what he says at the end of the book in the reading for today. “I didn’t want to go, because I didn’t want them spared. I didn’t want to go because I was afraid they’d listen to me. I didn’t want to go because I knew you would be gracious and merciful if given half a chance. I didn’t want to go because I KNOW YOU, God, and sometimes I DON’T LIKE what I know about you.”

“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

We also love that truth about our God, don’t we? We count on God giving us second and third and even umpteenth chances when we fall short of God’s will. We confess every single Sunday that we’ve come here needing yet another one, and we’re promised that God has also come to give it. But can we also hear Jonah’s saxophone honking in the midst of that symphony of God’s love and mercy toward us? Can we see how different it sounds when it’s turned toward people we don’t consider worthy of it, especially people who we despise and wish to see paid back in full for the evil they’ve done to us? Can we really love our enemies enough to let God love them too? That’s the real question of the Book of Jonah. Does Jonah have any right to complain about the wideness of God’s mercy?

And as if that weren’t enough of a challenge for one day, we also had to listen to a parable in which Jesus describes God as the kind of employer who gives the same reward to late-starter laborers as he gives those who worked all day. That too, is a kind of harsh honk in the symphony of Jesus’ parables.

To understand this one, we need to get ourselves out of the role of the full-day laborer and begin to think like the landowner. The landowner has work to be done, and he goes out looking for people to do it. The “daily wage” or denarius in the economy of the New Testament was the bare minimum that a family needed to survive another day. If they didn’t have a denarius, they went hungry or worse.

So the strange behavior of this landowner – paying that same daily survival wage to everybody he could find, whether they worked hard all day or barely showed up at the end, is far less strange if you see in it a sign and reminder of what we pray for when we ask God to give us today our daily bread. God’s will is that all of God’s children get what they need each day to simply live, whether they’ve earned it or not,
whether they can find work or not. And God expects that to be our prayer and passion as well.

As with Jonah, counting on God to give me my daily bread is one thing, especially if I’ve worked hard for it, but watching God give daily bread to others who I might for whatever reason find unworthy of the gift is another.  How long does it take us, after all, when we hear about billions in aid pouring into the regions devastated by recent storms and earthquakes, to begin to resent those who are given so much in handouts while we continue to work so hard to make ends meet? How many of my tax dollars should be spent to rebuild homes that people didn’t insure after building them in flood-prone places with no sensible building codes or zoning laws?

How much self-examination does it take for this parable to make us uneasy when God asks us “Are you envious because I am generous?”

Hear the word of the Lord. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and God is that way when it helps us and pleases us and saves us and God is that way when it annoys us and troubles us and even when saves the people we frankly don’t want to see saved.

Hear the Word of the Lord. God is like a landowner who has important work that needs doing and spends all day looking for people to do it, including people on the edge, on the margin, so that they can receive their daily bread. God each and every day provides enough for that prayer to be answered for all of God’s children. To God, fair pay for work done is a just and fine way to order economic life, but only after everyone has been provided enough to simply live. 

Honking saxophone stories. They are inserted here and there into the Bible’s symphony to wake us up to the full meaning of grace when practiced by God. Today, we just happen to come across two of them. And they both still speak to us today, challenging us with a vision of a God who is serious about the work of his vineyard and seemingly limitless in grace and mercy and compassion and generosity in order to get people engaged in it, and who expects his children to be just as serious and limitless with those things as well…   even if and when they just don’t feel like it.    AMEN