The two readings we’ve heard today suggest some interesting and perplexing things about God. In the story of Jonah it seems that God is capable of changing his mind! Now if we accept that, where does that leave all the fatalists? God felt sorry for the people of Nineveh and he changed his mind!
And our New Testament reading seems to be telling us something else that we don’t expect from God. The story of the workers in the vineyard seems to be saying that God is not fair!
God, in his compassion can change his mind, what do we think about that? God, in his omnipotence doesn’t treat everyone fairly, and what do we think about that?
So let’s look at poor Jonah first. I love this story. Jonah is such an unlikely person to be chosen by God that it gives me hope for the rest of the human race, myself included! Yet again, and we saw this with Moses didn’t we, God chooses the most unlikely of people to carry his message and to do his bidding?
Jonah didn’t want to do what God was asking him to do… why was that? Well, he was afraid. No one likes to be the bringer of bad news. No one wants to be told they are in the wrong. And to describe Jonah’s news as bad is somewhat understating the case! God wanted Jonah to go to the people of Nineveh and tell them that they were so bad that he was going to destroy them and their city. In the story we’re told that it was a huge city, so big that it took Jonah three days to walk across. We’re also told that there were more than 120,000 innocent children living there.
Jonah just didn’t want to do it. Perhaps he felt like he was being set up, perhaps he suspected that God wouldn’t do what he had said, perhaps he was afraid to be left looking like a fool.
And, as it says many times in our Bibles, just what Jonah suspected happened, it came to pass! Jonah prophesied and the people believed him and mended their ways and God forgave them. He took pity on them and CHANGED HIS MIND. And what did Jonah do then? He was so fed up that he declared he wanted to die. He felt like a fool. And so, feeling sorry for himself he sat down in the sun and hoped to die. God felt sorry for Jonah and sent a bush to offer him shade from the burning sun but still Jonah was unhappy so God sent a worm to kill the bush and Jonah got angry with God yet again. There was to be no pleasing him, he was well and truly in the huff. And so in the end God gives Jonah a good talking to, like any good parent would. The whole story is so human and that I suppose is what I like about Jonah. He’s like so many of us.
There are at least two messages here for us in this ancient story.
The first one is about running away from responsibility.
In particular those responsibilities that God places upon each one of us.
There are times in all our lives when we feel that God has a task for us and more often than not we simply don’t want to do it. We know that we’re going to have a hard time or maybe we think we will look like a fool in front of others. But running away from things is not a solution. God will not give up on us. The relentless hound of heaven will hunt us down! You might be sitting there thinking that it hasn’t ever happened to you but if you cast your mind back, can you think of a time when that little nagging feeling keeps coming back? Something keeps popping up in your mind, time and time again. Or people around you start to suggest something that you might do and that feeling just doesn’t go away. You can put it to the back of your mind for a time.. it can get swallowed up in amongst all the other business of our lives but it never really goes away… That nagging feeling just might be God trying to tell you something.
So the first lesson that we learn from this story is just that. God has a variety of jobs for each one of us. They may (at times) not be the most pleasant of tasks but nevertheless we can’t escape so we might as well just get on with it!
The second lesson is to do with the tree and Jonah’s huff. God can see why Jonah is upset and he feels sorry for him so he tries to help by providing some shade for him to rest under while he tries to recover from all that has happened to him. However, God soon recognises that Jonah is too busy feeling sorry for himself to realise how foolish he is being and so God gets his attention by destroying the only bit of comfort Jonah feels he has left.
How self-centred Jonah has become. A whole city has been saved from destruction because God is kind and yet all Jonah is worried about is his reputation.
God is listening to us when we pray. God is open to change, God is always merciful and compassionate and God is always there.
The children in Lamlash Cool Club were telling us on Friday that they had been learning about meditation at school… and learning to take time out to just rest or think or simply to ‘be’ is a good thing but it’s not the same thing as prayer.
Prayer is a doing thing, not a thinking thing. It’s not about us alone, it’s not inward looking. It’s a two- way conversation with the person of God. And in every conversation we have the potential to make a difference. We have the ability to change someone’s opinion, to alter someone’s perception, to turn things around with the power of our argument or our conviction. This story suggests that we can do that with God. Prayer is a two-way conversation!
So much for the story of Jonah but what about Jesus’s story of the workers in the vineyard. Of course what Jesus is implying in the parable doesn’t fit with the rules of fairness or the rules that the world has created to make life more equable for everyone. God is not interested in fairness, he is interested in salvation! This wee parable basically tells us that God will accept us with the same open-hearted love if we come to him at the last moment of our lives or if we have been a faithful and trusting servant for many many years. God does not think in the same way as we do. He doesn’t measure out his compassion in hours or day or weeks, he simply loves us and accepts us whenever we come to him in faith and penitence.
Here is a God who shows no partiality, who provides for each according to his or ‘ her needs, not by the reckoning of a scale of their good works, who deals in gifts, not wages!
The late Leith Fisher, parish minister, hymn writer, theologian and author said this… “This parable opens a window into the mystery of God’s grace, the wonder of God who is kind to each and all, so that in turn those who understand the kindness they have received may be a people of mercy, not sacrifice as the gospel so often enjoins. Welcome to the upside-down Kingdom!”
Some words, that you may know well, of William Shakespeare, from the Merchant of Venice Act 4 Sc. 1
The quality of mercy is not strained
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes: Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes The throned monarch better than his crown
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings: But mercy is above this sceptred sway.
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice.