Sunday, September 21, 2008

Nineteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16
Or
St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
Ezekiel 2:8-3:11
Psalm 119:33-40
Ephesians 2:4-10
Matthew 9:9-13

Jehovah is gracious, and merciful; Slow to anger, and of great lovingkindness.

James Limburg in Jonah: A Commentary wrote, “The entire Bible tells the story of God’s love for the insiders, the people of Israel and the people of the New Testament church. The book of Jonah, however, has a special concern to show God’s love for the outsiders, the people of the world—even for their cattle.” I would argue that there are other places which God shows that special concern for outsiders. Take, for example, the story of Ruth, a foreigner whose concern for her mother-in-law took her into a world and a life she did not know. The Apostle Paul was called not to lead the Jewish Christians but to call the Gentiles into a relationship with God. Even Matthew, whose Gospel was written to convince the Jewish people that Jesus was the Messiah, shows a special consideration for outsiders. The first visitors to worship the baby in his Gospel were the wise men from the East.

September 21st is the festival day for St. Matthew. Many churches have moved the festival to September 22nd but some churches will be celebrating on Sunday. Since this is the year we are looking at Matthew’s Gospel, it seems like a good time to talk about the man behind the words. The writer of Matthew is unidentified in the scripture and many modern scholars suggest that the book was not written by Matthew, but was actually written by someone following the teachings that came out of Matthew’s ministry. For today we are going to follow the traditional understanding that Matthew was indeed the writer.

The Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek and therefore most likely addressed to the Greek speaking Jewish Christians. He was a Jew and wrote to show his fellow Jews the fulfillment of God’s promises as found in the person of Jesus Christ. He quotes the Old Testament scriptures more than any other New Testament writer. His genealogy of Jesus Christ shows how Jesus descends from Abraham, an important fact for the Jewish readers. He uses Jewish terminology and does not explain Jewish customs, assuming the readers will know and understand what he’s talking about. Even so, Matthew does not limit the Gospel message to the Jews; he’s determined to prove that Jesus is indeed the Messiah to whomever will listen, even us today. There isn’t a mold into which all believers will fit. God calls into His Kingdom whomever He pleases.

For the past few weeks, an obvious topic of our scriptures has been forgiveness. We have learned that we need to recognize sin, but also that we need to forgive sinners. We’ve seen how the grace of God has opened the door to reconciliation and transformation by His power and for His glory through the forgiveness found in the cross. We have experienced the forgiveness of God even as we have continued to sin against Him. We live in the hope of God’s promise to remove our sins from us as far as the east is from the west.

So, how do we look at the story of Jonah in light of our lessons about forgiveness? We know all about Jonah; I identify with him. He was a guy who heard God’s call but did not want to do what God was calling him to do. After all, the Ninevites were enemies of the Israelites. They’d murdered his people in border skirmishes and wreaked havoc on their lives. Jonah had no room in his heart to allow the Ninevites to enjoy the grace of God, and Jonah knew that if they repented, God would grant them forgiveness.

So, Jonah ran away, hitched a ride on a boat in the hopes of escaping God’s plan. We don’t think through our actions very well when we are afraid and angry, so like Jonah we try to do the impossible. He tried to hide from God. We also try to hide from God when He calls us to do the things we don’t want to do. We even hide from Him when He wants us to forgive people we don’t want to forgive. Yet, we know we can’t run or hide from God. We end up like Jonah, perhaps not in the belly of a big fish but in the midst of a situation where we are forced to our knees in prayer to contemplate the reality of God in our life. That’s what happened to Jonah. He realized God’s authority and prayed for God to give him the opportunity to do what he should have done in the first place.

But even when we follow God’s call and do what God has asked of us, we still feel the things we feel. Jonah was angry. Jonah did not want God to forgive the Ninevites. Jonah wanted the Ninevites to suffer the punishment they deserved, but God had another plan. Jonah knew that God would be gracious, so he did not want to give God that opportunity. If the Ninevites never heard the warning, they could not repent and God would not need to forgive them. That’s why he ran away. But God called him back and sent him into Nineva to share the Good News of God’s Kingdom with them. They heard, repented and received forgiveness.

Jonah responded by whining. “I knew you’d do it, that’s why I didn’t want to go!” Jonah preached the message, much to his disdain, but went to the top of a hill to watch the destruction of Nineveh, hoping that God would do Jonah's justice. When God relented—changed His mind—Jonah got angry. “And he prayed unto Jehovah, and said, I pray thee, O Jehovah, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I hasted to flee unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil.”

Isn’t it funny how the very thing that God does to make us worship and praise Him is the very thing that makes us most angry? We embrace His grace when it is applied to our lives, but hate when it is given to others whom we think it is undeserved in theirs. Jonah was so angry that he wanted to die. He no longer wanted to live in a world where his enemies were given mercy. It was better for him to die than to live seeing God's lovingkindness given to the very people who had destroyed his people.

Though the stories are different, the Gospel lesson for today has a similar theme. Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who went out to hire field hands for the day. As the day progressed, the landowner went out to find more and more helpers for the field. Finally, at five o'clock in the afternoon he found a group of workers standing idle on the street. He asked, “Why stand ye here all the day idle?” They answered, “Because no man hath hired us.” He sent them to the field, too, even if it was for only an hour. When it came time to pay the workers, the landowner paid the last ones hired first and he gave them a day's wage. The first ones hired were sure that they would get something special, a bonus for working more hours. However, when it came time for them to receive their pay, it was what they were promised.

The workers thought this was unfair. They had labored a long time through the heat of the sun. Didn't they deserve more than the workers that only worked an hour? They are a lot like Jonah, unwilling to allow God’s grace for those late hires that did not deserve to be paid so well. They fought for their rights, unwilling to take anything less or give anything more to the others. But the question we ask with today’s lesson is this: Are the rights we claim always what is right?

The landowner in today’s story made a deal with the first workers: they would work for the day and receive a day’s wages. A denarius, a day’s wage, was enough to feed a man’s family. It sounds like a ridiculously small amount to us, but it was enough. The workers agreed, gladly. They were happy to have the work. The landowner returned to the corner and discovered more workers throughout the day, each time hiring them to work his fields. He made no agreements with those later workers, but they were happy to have the work. When the day was over, the landowner paid each worker a day’s wage, one denarius. He gave each worker enough, a living wage.

We are, of course, incensed by this story because we believe that the person who worked more hours deserves more wages. What is right in this situation? The first workers agreed to the wage and when they agreed they felt it was right. Yet, when they discovered that the last hired also received a day’s wage for their work, they grumbled about it to the landowner. “It’s not fair.” “We have rights.” But what is right in this situation? We don’t know why those workers who were hired at the end of the day were not there when the landowner was looking for workers early in the day. They answered the landowner’s question, “Why aren’t you working” with “No one hired us. We might just as well see that they are blaming the landowner, saying “You did not hire us.” Were they there? Did the landowner only select a few out of many the first time, a few out of the rest the next time and so on. We assume they were not there, yet the passage tells us that they could have been hired. Even if they weren’t there when the landowner was hiring, we do not know the circumstances that kept them from being present at that time.

The landowner decided that a living wage is what was right and just in this situation. Perhaps it was generous, but it was also right. Can a man live on less than a denarius a day? Can he feed his family? We want to assume that a man who is not hired immediately has not tried to get hired. And, there are certainly those in this life who refuse to do what is necessary to get a job. Perhaps they do not deserve to have a job. Yet, there are many who have tried, but who do not have the necessary skills or whose circumstances make it difficult to find a job. The landowner could have been generous and simply gave those last men some charity, but he chose to hire them for work. He was not only generous with his money, but he was also generous with compassion and encouragement. He did what was right, even if it seemed like the rights of the other workers were traipsed upon

Matthew is an unusual character in the gathering of disciples. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen. Though we do not know the vocations of most of the disciples before they met Jesus, three others may have been fishermen, having grown up near Peter, possibly acquaintances of the fishermen. Some were probably craftsmen. Simon was a religious zealot and Judas was probably a revolutionary. These eleven were most likely hardworking men, enemies to the Romans and desirous of national freedom. They sought the Messiah for deliverance from the oppression under which they lived.

Matthew was different from the others. According to the scriptures, Matthew was a tax collector. As a tax collector, Matthew was a local man who was a representative of the government. He paid for the privilege, having bid for the job against other publicans. In bidding, Matthew would have said he could raise a certain amount of taxes and when he won the bid would have paid it out of his own pocket. It was then his job to recoup his investment. He pocketed any amount he received over the amount he paid to Rome. This made the job of tax collector ripe for abuse. Tax collectors wanted to earn a living and so often cheated the people out of money by making them pay more than their due. We don’t know if Matthew was an crooked tax collector, but he was still taking the hard earned money of his own people to give to the government, so he was seen as a sinner.

So, we see in Matthew an outsider. He was a Jew, a son of Abraham, but his position with Rome made him despised by his own people. The other disciples were probably very fit, tanned from hours in the sunlight, rough in action and language. Matthew, on the other hand, had a desk job. He was probably fat from lack of exercise and rich foods. Soft and pale from little time in the sunshine, Matthew was not the image of what we might have expected from a disciple. And, he was a sinner. He was the enemy or at least in cahoots with the enemy. Despite his Jewish heritage and his willingness to leave everything at Jesus’ word, he would not have been openly welcomed into the fellowship of followers. Can you imagine Judas, who greedily held the corporate purse, embracing Matthew, who had probably encountered each of the disciples at some point in his career?

It was Matthew who reminded us just a few weeks ago how to deal with a brother or sister who hurts us. Remember how he quoted Jesus as saying that we should deal with the errors of our brothers and then if they are unrepentant we should treat them as sinners or tax collectors? How would Matthew, the tax collector, wish to be treated? Would he want to be treated the way he was probably treated by those disciples when he first joined the community? Or would he prefer being treated the way Jesus treated him, calling him into the ministry and welcoming him into the community. We see a different point of view from Matthew, we learn about forgiveness and acceptance from him.

Matthew was in this way much like those late hires. It wasn’t fair to the disciples who had lived such a hard life under the oppression of men like Matthew to share in the grace that Jesus brought. Why should he get to be part of the kingdom promised to those who suffered at the hands of God’s enemies? He was the Ninevite in Jesus’ company, needing to hear about the forgiveness of God and receive His mercy. It might seem as though the rights of the other disciples were traipsed upon, but God’s ways are always right and just.

Paul was also like the late hires. He met the risen Lord on the road to Damascus long after Jesus had ascended into heaven. Before he came to faith, Paul persecuted Christians. He was at the stoning of Stephen. He was on his way to arrest more believers in an effort to stop the flow of the Gospel. Compared to the other apostles, Paul was a late hire. He was not readily accepted. Ananias was afraid. Peter argued with him. He split with Barnabus because his ministry was reaching beyond the limits of the Jewish people.

In today’s epistle lesson we see Paul in a state of suffering and pain. He’d been imprisoned and he did not know what would happen to him. The people who might have been able to help him were unwilling to give him the help necessary. His Christian congregations had no power or authority to help him, but they were able to give him some aid. The letter to the Philippians was a thank you note to them for gifts they had sent to help him in this time of need. It might have seemed to the readers at first that Paul was suicidal, wishing for death. Yet, his letter is so full of hope. He has hope because his life is centered on Christ; whether he lives or dies, Christ is his life. He knew that if he died, he would gain, but if he lived, he could continue the work Jesus had called him to do.

Now, we must be careful when we talk about death in cavalier terms because a wish for death makes us wonder if the person is suicidal, willing to take their own life rather than live with the suffering. Chaplains and nurses in old age homes often hear the residents wish for death. They are lingering in a life that seems pointless and without value. They can’t do anything to help others as they are so helpless themselves. They are often living with extreme pain or discomfort. They have no hope for a better life in this world. They believe that death would be a relief.

But in this letter we see that Paul has not lost hope. He clings to Christ: dead or alive Paul knows the source of his life and his faith. That’s what Paul hopes for the people of Philippi. They will face suffering in their own lives. There were those who were against the Gospel of Jesus Christ and many of the new Christians would be arrested, imprisoned and even killed for their faith. Paul’s word of encouragement to the community is that they stay centered on Christ, too, just like he has whether he was preaching, traveling or imprisoned. If they were united around Christ Jesus, they would have the same joy in the good times and the bad. They would be fruitful together, able to face death (which is gain) or life (which is for the sake of God’s glory) and work toward the increase of Christ’s Church. That increase comes with sharing God’s forgiveness with the world.

We learn how to forgive and we are usually able to overcome the anger and hurt we harbor against those who have been like enemies. But there are two entities that are more difficult to forgive: ourselves and God. We have trouble forgiving ourselves because we can never really be sure that we have done what is necessary to overcome our sin. We forget that forgiveness is not about becoming perfect, it is about being transformed by grace.

I think it is even harder to forgive God. Part of the problem is that we know that God can not do any wrong, so for what is He in need of forgiveness? Yet, for that same reason, then, we should have nothing about which we are angry at God. But we do get angry at God. We can be exactly like Jonah, whining under our dying little tree and forgetting that God has granted us grace, too. God certainly does not need our forgiveness, but there are times when we have to forgive God. We have to find the grace to look at God’s plan from a different perspective than our own and accept that He is gracious and merciful, not only to those we wish to be forgiven, but to all He chooses.

So, the question we ask is, how will we face the circumstances of our life that could make us angry at God? Do we do so with whining or do we do so with praise, facing difficulty like an adventure knowing that God will be faithful through it? The psalmist writes, “I will extol thee, my God, O King; And I will bless thy name for ever and ever. Every day will I bless thee; And I will praise thy name for ever and ever.” Can we sing along, knowing the truth that Jonah knew, that “Jehovah is gracious, and merciful; Slow to anger, and of great lovingkindness.” Can we dwell in that word, knowing that while it was meant for us, it was also meant for the outsiders, and those we may even call our enemy? Can we forgive God when He is graciously generous to those whom we think do not deserve it?

A WORD FOR TODAY
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