Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16
“And also much cattle” Job 4:11
In his book The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith tells of a heart-wrenching time in his life. At first things could not have been better for him. He had a loving family, a beautiful wife, a healthy son and a great career. He had become a Christian 12 years earlier and he was seeing God move in his life in obvious ways. So he had no trouble believing then that God was good.
But things changed. His wife became pregnant and at eight months discovered that their unborn child had a chromosomal disorder and would likely die at birth. She was born deaf, had a heart defect and could not keep food down, but she didn’t die at birth. She was just over two years old when they put her in the ground on a cold rainy day. At that time he had difficulty believing that God was good.
As if that was not bad enough they received well meaning but ridiculous comments like, “Well I guess God just wanted her in heaven more than He wanted her on earth.” Even worse a pastor took James to lunch and bluntly asked, “Who sinned Jim, you or your wife?” When James asked what he meant by that question the pastor said, “Well one or both of you must have sinned at some point to have caused this to happen.”
Do you see where that question is coming from? It comes from the belief that if you are good then God will bless you and if you are bad then God will punish you. So if you are being punished then you must have done something bad.
This false view of God is in many world religions and sadly in much of the church. And we embrace this view because we want things to be fair and blessing the good and punishing the bad seems to be fair. Additionally, as we see in today’s parable, we also don’t want to see people get more than they deserve because that also would not be not fair.
But the great problem of expecting God to be fair is that eventually you will be forced to conclude that He is not good. I say that because you don’t have to live too long to discover that life is anything but fair. Beth’s father was one of the best men that I have ever known and one reason that I fell for her was because she is so much like him. He was very careful about his health and could still wear the same size pants that he wore in high school. But just after when he was 68 he got pancreatic cancer and died right after turning 69. Meanwhile Fidel Castro, who stole a nation and exiled, killed and imprisoned tens of thousands of his own people, lived to the ripe old age of 90. Life isn’t fair.
However this demand for God to be fair is so ingrained in us that Jesus tells numerous stories and makes numerous statements in order to paint a different picture than that of a fair God who blesses the good and punishes the bad. And when Jesus paints this picture He paints WAY outside of the box. Jesus changes our focus froim the fairness of God to the grace of God. The grumbling laborers were unhappy because they did not get what they thought that they deserved. Jesus tells us that the good news is that we don’t get what we deserve because we don’t truly want what we really deserve because it’s not more denarii.
This understanding of God did not start with the New Testament. We see grace all through the Scriptures. It wasn’t fair that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. But by God’s grace he became the second most powerful man in Egypt. It wasn’t fair that Ruth’s husband died. But by God’s grace she met and married Boaz and became an ancestor of Jesus. It wasn’t fair that King Saul in a fit of jealousy drove David into exile. But by God’s grace David became the greatest of kings. I wasn’t fair that Paul was beaten, stoned and imprisoned just for sharing his faith. But by God’s grace his writings have held the Church together for 2,000 years. It’s not about fair, it’s about grace! The only fair you are going to get in this life is the kind that sells funnel cakes.
In telling this parable of the generous householder Jesus is illustrating both the grace of God and how misguided our thoughts about fairness truly are. The laborers that the householder first hired agreed on one denarius, which was a typical day’s wage for agricultural work. So there was no ill-gotten gain by either party. What caused the rumblings was when those who had only worked an hour received a denarius, those who had worked throughout the day were sure that they would receive more. After all, that’s only fair. But when they only received the one denarius they were insulted and cried foul.
The landowner makes two very important points. First they received what they had agreed upon so their perception of fairness was distorted. Second, the householder has the right to be as generous as he wants to be because it all belongs to him in the first place. He is free to be as generous as he chooses. And in terms of the laborers, as it says in the Message, “It”s no skin off your nose.” (Actually it doesn’t say that but it should).
What Jesus is preparing these first listeners for is the shock that they will experience when they begin to see salvation come to the Gentiles. Here God has been in a covenant with Israel for centuries and these Johnny come lately pagans are receiving the grace of God just as they are? How is that fair? Answer, it isn’t. It’s called grace.
We see can see also that one person’s idea of fairness is actually prejudice, as in this story of Jonah. He was running from God precisely because he knew that God would have compassion on these wicked pagans who don’t know their right hand from their left…. “and also much cattle.” They weren’t Jews. They weren’t a part of the covenant people. What did they do to deserve the mercy of God? Answer…nothing. It’s called grace.
I love that line….”and also much cattle.” Did you know that is the very last line of the Book of Jonah? It seems to leave you hanging but it is a great technique to have you finish the story. God asks Jonah if Jonah had pity on a plant that lasted only one day shouldn’t God have pity on these 120,000 pagans and even on the cattle?
What a great snapshot this is of the grace of God. No matter the level of our wickedness, no matter what we have done in our past, God responds to our repentance, as He did with Nineveh, and showers us with such grace that even the animals benefit. “And also much cattle.”
So how do we apply this truth that Jesus is teaching us? How do we move our thinking from focusing on fairness to focusing on grace? Several suggestions.
First and most obvious is to abandon all hope of this life being fair. As author Dennis Wholey bluntly put it, “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is a little like expecting the bull not to attack you because you are a vegetarian.”
But for heaven’s sake don’t stop there. Just abandoning hope would only lead to depression. In his new book Anxious for Nothing, Max Lucado suggest four positive things that we can do to focus on God’s grace. He draws his insight from a famous passage in Philippians 4.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.
Max suggest this acronym, C.A.L.M. St. Paul says we are to rejoice in the Lord so C stands for “celebrate.” We celebrate God and His goodness. Instead of complaining that we worked all day and only received one denarius we celebrate that God is so generous and good that He even blesses the guy who only worked one hour. Rather than complaining that life is not fair we celebrate a God who is so compassionate that, as Jesus said, He causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
A is for “ask.” St. Paul said that in everything we are to let our requests be known to God. First he tells us not to be anxious and then he tells us to take it all to the Lord in prayer. And Jesus taught us to be specific in our prayers. It is not selfish to ask for daily bread. That is what He taught us to do.
L is for “leave.” Once we take our concerns to God we need to leave them there if we are going to have God’s peace. It doesn’t do us any good to take our burdens to the Lord and ask for His help and then pick them back up again. How do we leave them with the Lord? By doing the last step that is M for “meditate.”
St. Paul says whatever is true and noble and lovely we are to meditate upon. As Max put it, “you can pick what you ponder.” The Scriptures call on us to take our thoughts captive because we become what we think about. If your thoughts are all about regrets from your past you will be filled with despair. If your thoughts are all about “what if’s” in the future you will be filled with anxiety. But Isaiah 26 says of God, “You will keep him in perfect peace, Whose mind is stayed on You.”
One final thought about our wanting life to be fair. While some of that desire may be rooted in selfishness as we saw with the laborers I believe that some of it comes from God. We have been created in His image and since He is a just God there is a longing in the human heart for things to be made right. There is a difference between justice and fairness but that is another sermon. But follow me.
We certainly see the Psalmist struggle with the injustices that he sees all around him and how often he calls upon the Lord to set things straight. It is also a frequent call of the prophets. The insight that the Scriptures give us is the timing of things being made right. It will not happen until the kingdom comes in its fullness. So while we should pray for justice and work for justice we should not set up ourselves for disappointment and discouragement if we do not see it in our lifetime. It will come as surely as Jesus will come again but it will not come until He does.
The Book of Job is most instructive here. In this story some very bad things happen to a good guy. His religious friends give him the kind of counsel that James Bryan Smith received from his pastor. To paraphrase their counsel, “Just figure out where it is that you have sinned and repent so that God will stop punishing you.”
Job knew that wasn’t the answer so he searched deeper to understand why these bad things were happening to him. Towards the end of the book He is granted an audience with God and Job calls God into account. The Lord in essence tells Job that there is an answer for why bad things happen to good people but that Job would not be able to understand it. Job repents that he had called on God to give an account for Himself and Job says. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”
Trust was the lesson for Job and trust is our lesson as well. On this side of glory life will not be fair. We will have many things happen that we will not understand and many things will be well beyond our control. But one thing that we can take charge of is in whom we trust. We can decide like Job that we will trust the Lord even if it kills us. And why should we? Because of this good and extravagantly generous God that Jesus came to show us. We trust in Him because it is this God who on the great day will make all things right…..for you and for me “and also much cattle.”