The last two areas I lived were Northern California and Northeast Ohio. There are very few people in the United States and Canada who would confuse the two. When I told people in Southern California I was moving to Cleveland many would say “Oh but it’s so cold.” After awhile I learned to say, “I find everlasting summer boring.” In Cleveland, they would be more in tune with some lines I think from a Bob Dylan song, “Leave New York before you grow too hard, leave California before you grow too soft.” They did have something in common. Both were strong union states and periodically business negotiations and strikes would be one of the topics of the day. One would hear or read on placards ‘Management unfair’.
At times God’s people share the same similarity, except the cry is not about unfair human management practices. The charge is levied against God our creator, redeemer, and sustainer. The complaint is not about the continual charge that shifts our behaviors onto God, “How could a good God allow evil in the world?” It is the complaint in the Old Testament lesson from Jonah, “How could God let those sinners off the hook?” It is the complaint of the laborers in Jesus’ parable in Matthew, “How can God treat the ‘Johnny come lately’ like the true blue most of their lives?”
Jonah is very direct and honest, though not speaking wisely, when he shares his disappointment over being forced to warn and the outcome of the mission, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I fled to Tarshish. I knew you are gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take my life, for it is better for me to die then to live.” Jonah is like the congregation that wants to see children and complains because they do not sit as still as adults when a new comer family comes with theirs.
Jonah has a historical point. Ninevah was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire. That empire eventually conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel. It was a regular threat to both Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah. The Jewish people had a legitimate fear of the Assyrians.
God has a different vantage point. He sees a city of 120,000 people who do not know their moral right hand from their left, when it comes to understanding what God desires in human conduct. God’s will is people have an opportunity to hear the divine Word and repent, change. In response to Jonah, God asks, “Should I not be concerned with that great city?” It is hard to say no to God when put that way, but still the question can make us uncomfortable when God is including our own national or personal Ninevite equivalents.
Jesus adds to the discomfort with what is a more subtle complaint in this morning’s parable. If this parable illustrated how to run a business protestor picket signs would go up in a hurry. “What do you mean seniority does not count?” Jesus story when applied to God’s kingdom still touches a spot with many. “You mean the eleventh hour person receives the same reward as the day one person?” I have been in bible studies when we struggled with the repentant thief on the cross being promised Paradise that very day. In some ways he seemed rewarded better than Peter or Mary Magdalene. We are not going to say with Jonah, “I’d rather die than be with a God whose mercy operates like that.” There can be an inner comic book “Augh” like Charlie Brown or Garfield say. Treating a man who harmed people most of his limited adult life like the Apostle Paul does make God’s management look unfair. At least Paul had years to atone.
Yet God’s way is Good News. It is better than Jonah-like notions of what God’s justice should be. It places God’s mercy in the driver’s seat. That speaks of an opportunity to be washed clean. It speaks to following the model of reconciliation in our dealings, which as imperfect as human implementation can be, has born better fruit in South Africa than remembering hundreds, even thousands of years of wrongs which gives us the Middle East, be it Arabs and Jews or Sunnis and Shiites. As they once said about South Central Europe with a shrug, “There is always trouble in the Balkans.”
Though I do not recall a time when I did not believe in some way in God as revealed in Jesus, if I am being honest with myself, I have not always been nor am I always not, true blue and faithful all the time. I am very thankful that I am given a chance God comes to my personal Nineveh and gives me the chance to reorient at my 3rd, 6th, 9th, and getting closer to the 11th hour with each passing year. Otherwise I become spiritually like a relation who moved from the desert smog of Riverside, California to the Sacramento suburbs. After a few years began complaining how people moving in from Southern California were ruing the area ambience. Someone commented, “So you are saying the migration should have stopped after you moved here.” God’s comment to me, you, and any Christian is, “the kingdom is not closed to anyone who recognizes the need for my grace whenever that occurs.”
God has given opportunities to experience joy when others are transformed through Jesus Chrst. In my teens one of my desires was to be a prosecuting attorney to counteract a system that seemed more concerned with procedural fairness than just results. I had come to the intellectual conclusion of not believing in our adversarial justice system, but that part of me remained. The army provided a juicy case early on in my year as a Trial Counsel. The case seemed juicy with drug use and a sexual assault. What it turned out to be an exposure to people who lived undera different set of rules than my military, middle class upbringing did. Both our and the defense witnesses were very dishonest. In the end the case was a small drug possession and simple battery, which was probably the right result. Afterwards I was less disappointed in the outcome and more validated in my faith. A number of months later I ran into the convicted. He shared during the months of pretrial restriction, which ended being his sentence, time served, he shared he came to see the crowd he was involved and how they were dragging him down. He began practicing the Christian faith of his rearing, which he had not really bought. He shared life with Jesus and his Christian friends was far preferable than the weed smoking, spouse and significant other swapping crowd he had been running. I affirmed his new choices and was internally grateful. He was ‘redeemed’. He was not a ‘dirt bag’, who got off light. God’s mercy and walking with him filled both of us with hope.
Praise God that we are under such a gracious, forgiving, and reorienting manager. Amen.