A Parable of Controversy
The 15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 14, 2014
Good Shepherd, Sumter
Whenever I read the parable in today’s Gospel, I think of a friend of mine. This friend was a successful Wall Street businessman, who became President of the Episcopal Church Pension Fund. He was a faithful churchman and a committed Christian. However, he had real problems with this parable. In fact, it was offensive to him, and he would emphatically say so. This friend argued that the lesson in the parable seemed completely unfair. I attempted to explain what Jesus may have meant, but my friend did not want to hear such an explanation. In fact, I think he would have argued with Jesus himself about the parable’s message.
You remember the basic points of the story. On a particular day, the landowner hired workers for his vineyard, and when he did so, he agreed to a daily wage for those workers. However, apparently the job was an especially big one, so he had to hire other workers during the day, in addition to those who had been at work since early in the morning. When the time came to make payment, the landowner gave all the workers the same wage – no matter how long they had worked in the vineyard. Not surprisingly, the ones who labored all day felt cheated. But the landowner made two points in response. He had agreed with those early workers for a day’s wage – and he had kept his promise. Secondly, the money was his, and so, if he chose to give the short-term workers the same pay, he could do so. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the parable has provoked questions about fairness from various people, like my friend.
The other two readings this morning shed interesting light on each side of this rather controversial teaching of Jesus. First, the reading from Jonah deals with the perspective of the workers hired early in the day. And secondly, the passage from Philippians offers the landowner’s perspective – which also is God’s point of view, by the way.
So, first of all, let’s look at Jonah. A great deal of action has happened prior to today’s reading – and this earlier action explains some things about our passage. The book of Jonah actually begins with God’s direction to the prophet to go and encourage the people of Nineveh to repent. However, Jonah did not want to accept that mission because he though those people deserved to be punished. So, he ran away. In fact, he went so far as to go to the port city of Tarshish, and he boarded a ship, which then sailed off. However, God knew what Jonah was doing, and God sent a mighty storm which nearly wrecked the ship. The other sailors discovered why Jonah happened to be on board, and they came to believe that he was the cause of the storm. So, they threw him overboard.
We know what happened next. A whale – or a “big fish” of some sort – swallowed Jonah, who then prayed to God for deliverance. And then, as we may read, the fish “spewed Jonah out on the dry land” (2:10).
Next, God’s call to Jonah was repeated – to go to Nineveh and encourage repentance from the people there. Apparently Jonah had learned his lesson, so this time he decided he had better do what God directed him to do. At the beginning of today’s lesson, we learned that the people of Nineveh had indeed repented and, further, that God decided not to punish them as a result.
This seems like it would be a good ending to the story – but the story does not in fact end there. Jonah did not respond well at all to what had happened. In fact, he pouted. He fussed and said that this was just like God, to forgive those people. Jonah thought the people should have been punished, and that’s why he did not want to go to Nineveh in the first place. He went off and sulked. Not even the shade of a bush worked out for him, because the bush died.
We get the idea that old Jonah was not going to be happy. In fact, he was committed to being unhappy. He sat out there in the hot sun, feeling sorry for himself, and exhibiting quite a case of self righteousness.
That image of Jonah – the image, by the way, which ends the book of Jonah – that self righteous, mad-at-the-world image might remind us of another situation. Remember those workers who toiled in the vineyard all day? Remember that they received the wage they had agreed on – but they were not happy nevertheless? The other hired hands had not worked as long or as hard, and yet, they got the same pay. In that situation, too, the self righteous, mad-at-the-world image was clearly on display.
Now, let’s consider briefly the reading from Philippians, where we find a different perspective and a different image. St. Paul writes of his own circumstances, as he tries to be faithful to his call. Further, he writes to people of the church in Philippi, encouraging their faithfulness as well.
St. Paul admits that “my desire is to depart and be with Christ” (1:23). However, he recognizes that his calling is to remain and encourage churches like the one in Philippi. He acts, therefore, out of faith and a commitment to his calling – not out of resentment and self righteousness.
St. Paul goes on to encourage the Philippians with words like these: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). In terms of our other readings this morning, St. Paul’s meaning might have been expressed this way: “Avoid an attitude that puts you at odds with the world. Don’t be self righteous about your own actions as opposed to those of others. Work at the job you have been given, and don’t worry about what other people do or don’t do.”
In summary, then, our readings put before us two perspectives on life when things don’t go our way … two ways of responding when the going gets tough. If we are honest, I imagine that each of us can remember times that we have found ourselves on each side of this divide.
On the one hand, we might respond like Jonah and the all day workers. We might become self righteous and mad at the world. And, you know what? As we sit our there in the hot sun, all alone, we are not doing anyone any good.
On the other hand, we might sometimes find ourselves in the company of St. Paul, the faithful Philippians, and the landowner. We might then realize that we have work to do and a calling to answer. Other people may respond differently, but we have our own responsibilities which are uniquely ours. As we live into those responsibilities, then we learn something about faithfulness and about the true joy that comes from within each one of us. Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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