When was the last time you complained that something was not fair? There’s a lot that’s not fair in the world. And most of us realize we can’t expect everything to be perfectly fair all the time. But we do have certain standards and expectations about what’s right and wrong, and when people are being treated so unfairly wrong it’s important that we speak up and care about advocating for what’s right. Whether it’s the ongoing war in Ukraine, or the possibility of another Armenian genocide, or the corporate greed that leads to some CEOs making 500 times more than their employees—there’s a lot of sin and greed and evil in the world. A lot of unfair, wrong treatment we are called to confront. But what about when someone is treated unfairly but in a good way? Unfair badness is something we should challenge, but unfair goodness, what do we do then?
That’s the topic of two of our scripture readings this morning. In the first reading we heard the conclusion of the story of Jonah. You may recall God asked Jonah to preach to the Ninevites. Jonah didn’t like the Ninevites, so he ran away and got swallowed by a whale. And he had good reason for not liking Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the major world power of his time. History remembers Assyria as a brutal empire that treated smaller nations like Israel horribly. Assyria would eventually destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel and permanently exile the northern tribes, leading them to become known as the ten lost tribes of Israel. The story of Jonah was written as a comedy, a kind of prophetic satire, coming together in its current form centuries after Jonah’s life. It’s an ancient Hebrew comedy with a clear message.
After the whale spit Jonah up, he reluctantly went to Nineveh and gave a half-hearted, one-sentence sermon on repentance, and much to his chagrin everybody listened to him! Everyone from the king to the cattle wore sackcloth as a sign of repentance. And when Nineveh repented—Jonah was furious! He shouted at God: “I knew you were a merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in love! That’s why I didn’t wanna come here because I knew you’d forgive these monsters!” Then God questions whether Jonah’s right for being angry and then provides a bush to give him shade. But the next day the bush dies. When Jonah’s upset about it, God basically says: “So you’re really concerned about this bush huh? What about the people in the city?” The story ends with Jonah angry that the people are forgiven.
Whether the story happened in this humorous way or not isn’t exactly the point. The point is that Jonah is angry with how forgiving God is. He’s angry that God would forgive his people’s enemies, these Ninevites who treated them so horribly. Jonah’s angry that God is so quick to forgive. That God doesn’t give them what they deserve. Jonah is angry at God’s unfair goodness.
This theme of being angry with unfair goodness shows up in the parable Jesus tells about the vineyard workers too. In Jesus’ parable a vineyard owner goes out to find day laborers to work in the fields. He finds some at the start of the day and they agree on the usual daily wage. Then he goes out periodically throughout the day and finds more workers at noon and three o’clock and five o’clock. Then at six o’clock when the workday is over, he gets ready to pay everyone. He starts with the laborers who only worked an hour and gives them the usual daily wage. Then he proceeds to give everyone else the same amount of money. When those who worked the entire day tell him how unfair this is, he responds that he didn’t do anything wrong—he paid them what they agreed, and he decided to be generous to the others. He paid them what was fair and paid the others what was more than fair.
The early arriving laborers may feel cheated. They’re right it’s not fair how the vineyard owner acts. Whether you’re a 1st century disciple or a 21st century one, it’s obvious that the way the vineyard owner acts is just not how things work in this world. That’s not how you run a successful vineyard business. Nobody’s gonna show up to work tomorrow morning at 9am if you keep doing this. And that’s strangely the point. The kingdom of God is NOT the way this world works. It’s a completely different mindset. It shows that God’s way is not the way of the world. It’s not the way of earning and rewarding. Not the way of getting what you deserve. It’s the way of unfair goodness.
Today is St. Matthew Day, the Sunday following the feast day of our congregation’s patron saint. And it’s interesting to note that this parable is only found in Matthew’s Gospel. Perhaps there’s a reason why. I think the apostle Matthew was one who understood God’s unfair goodness, God’s unfair forgiveness, generosity, and grace. Matthew experienced it himself. He was a tax collector, an occupation that many considered to be traitors and exploiters. But he was welcomed by Jesus. And Jesus’ welcome transformed him into a devoted disciple. In a way, Matthew lived the experience Jesus describes in this parable. Perhaps Matthew saw himself as a laborer who came late in the day. This tax collector Matthew received God’s unfair goodness himself and dedicated his life to telling the world about it.
And we know from Matthew’s Gospel that this is how God treats us all. Not giving us what we deserve or what we’ve earned. But rewarding us with forgiveness, love, and generosity—whether we deserve it or not. In fact, Martin Luther taught that God treats us with the same love, generosity, and blessedness that Jesus deserves. He said that because of the cross of Christ, when God looks at us, He doesn’t see our sinfulness but sees Christ’s righteousness. God’s way of handling sin is not fair, just like the vineyard owner’s way of handling wages is not fair. And to be honest, this unfair goodness is truly good news for us!
And it’s not just the laborers who came late in the day who benefit in this parable. Notice that in both stories—where God talks with Jonah and sits with him and hears his angry complaints; and also in the parable where the vineyard owner talks to the early arriving laborers—in both stories God, or the God character, takes the opportunity to teach the “more worthy” a lesson too. God is patient with Jonah while Jonah fumes about Nineveh’s deliverance. And the vineyard owner speaks with the early arriving workers and hears their complaints. God is there for Jonah and the early arriving workers too. Because God doesn’t tell them to shut up; God doesn’t dismiss them for complaining. God sees this as a teachable moment for them. Like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, this is a moment for them to learn something about God’s grace and mercy. For them to gain insight about God’s way of being.
And that’s important to hear too. Because in a lot of ways, the early arriving workers may be some of us. Those of us who make time to come to church on Sundays. Those of us who try to do the right things and care for those in need. Those of us who show up early and try to live our lives in accord with God’s will. To those of us who may identify more with the early arriving workers than the latecomers, the point is that God hears our complaints and takes us seriously. But also that God encourages us to grow beyond our limited way of thinking. Beyond our desire to judge. Beyond our desire to compare. Beyond our desire to see God give those people what they’ve got coming to em!
So whether you’re the type who sees yourself as a laborer who showed up late or one of the early arrivals, God is there for you! Whether you feel like you’re too big of a sinner to be acceptable to God, or feel like you’ve paid your dues, done the right things, held the right beliefs, and done what is necessary—we’re all in the same boat. Either way we are given the same. The same unfair goodness of God touches all our lives. Because God’s love and grace extends beyond what we think makes sense, beyond what we think its limits should be, and touches the whole world. In Christ, God draws all people to Himself and in this parable Christ teaches us to be ready for the unfair goodness God is so eager to give.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, September 24, 2023.