Generosity and Grumbling

9:00AM service at Trinity Wall Street, New York City
Jonah 3:10-4:11Matthew 20:1-6
Watch it here.

God is good—All the time/All the time—God is good–Amen.

Indeed both the readings we heard today speak not only to God’s goodness, but God’s opulent goodness. God’s over-the-top generosity.

First we hear the story of Jonah and the Ninevites. Jonah takes the prize for being the whiniest of the prophets. I mean here he tries to escape God’s instruction to go to Nineveh and warn the people of their coming destruction and doom, he’s thrown into the sea and swallowed by a giant fish who vomits him out onto dry land again, he begrudgingly makes his way to Nineveh and says simply, “Forty Days and God will smite you all,” and then he climbs up a hill and perches himself on the side of it to wait and watch the destruction. Kinda like the Grinch who stole Christmas waiting at the top of the mountain to hear all the Whos in Whoville cry boo-hoo-hoo.
Jonah
But low and behold, those pesky Ninevites—the people everyone loved to hate—the people who had enacted such evil atrocities on so many—the people no one could forgive—what do they do? They change their ways and turn to God. And God changes the divine mind and decides to spare the city.

Jonah is not happy. Perhaps he crosses his arms and pouts, or perhaps he shakes his fist up at the sky as he exclaims, “I knew it! This is precisely why I tried to flee in the first place. I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I knew it.”

And God says, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

I think when we hear this story, we’re inclined to be like, “Yeah, Jonah! Give it a rest! How could anyone get upset over a merciful, gracious and loving God?!”

Ok, now picture a person, or a group of people, or a city or nation who have inflicted serious gut wrenching evils on us. Picture a modern-day Nineveh that you might wish were wiped from the Earth. Do you have that person or people in mind? Now imagine God forgiving them, and imagine your response.

Man, forgiveness is hard. Even when we’re not the ones doling it out, even just witnessing the immense love of a forgiving God can make us bristle.

And then we look at today’s gospel. A landowner goes to the market and hires some men to come work in his vineyard for a day’s wage. A few hours later he returns to the market and hires more men. And a few hours later he returns again, sees some men standing idly by, says “Why are you standing around doing nothing?” and when they respond, perhaps feeling destitute, that no one has hired them, the landowner brings who must have been the “least of these” back to work in his vineyard for the remaining hours of the day.

That evening he pays them all the same day’s wage, whether they worked 2 hours or 10. Of course the workers who had worked all day grumble at the landowner’s generosity. It’s not fair!! And like God’s response to Jonah, the landowner asks, “are you envious because I am generous?” And we might be inclined side with the landowner, because who could possibly begrudge his generosity?

But now imagine the implications on your life if minimum wage were to increase to better compensate the workers on the lowest end of our economic system. Or imagine how much more the food on your table might cost if the migrant farm workers who harvest it were entitled to basic workers’ rights, like one day off a week.

Sure it seems ridiculous to begrudge one’s generosity—until it demands something of us.

And lets face it. As easy as it is to laugh or scoff at the senseless anger of Jonah or the laborers, if we take these readings seriously and truly apply them to our own lives, we’re bound to squirm a little. Because if we worship a God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love—a God who acts out of generosity rather than fairness—a God who forgives way beyond our comfort zone—then are we not called to follow the one we worship and try our best to do likewise?

As you leave here today, think about which of these two stories makes you squirm the most, and then continue to reflect on it all week long. Think of God’s mercy on the Ninevites when you’re watching or reading the news. Think of the generous landowner when you’re going over your bank statement. Allow yourself to get uncomfortable. And then consider how you might practice more forgiveness and generosity in your own life so that your very lifestyle is an act of worship and a testament to the God of love we know in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

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