The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2023
Fr. Larry Parrish
I keep calling attention to my age, but do any of you remember the old tv series, “Mission Impossible”? That was loooong before Tom Cruise and the current movie franchise! Remember that it always started with one of the characters receiving a tape—as in reel to reel audio tape (are you still with me?) When played the tape would voice, “Your Mission, should you desire to accept it, is . . .” Then the message, “This tape will self destruct in 10 seconds . . .” and “Poof!”
Jonah received such a message. There was no “if you accept it”—God was the voice on the tape. “Your mission is to get on a boat, land on the beach of a country that hates your country, walk inland to its major city, and tell people that they are evil and that if they don’t repent they are toast.” And when the tape ended, Jonah almost self-destructed! He immediately bought passage on a boat—going the opposite direction! For the country was Assyria and the city was “that wicked city” Nineveh. Let’s not be too hard on Jonah. If God appeared to us in some unmistakable way and said, “I want you to go to Moscow, and when you get there, walk into the city until you get to the Kremlin, then stand at its entrance and say, All of you people are doomed! God said so!” We would be buying a plane ticket to Sydney!
Well, you probably know the rest of the story. Jonah fled, was thrown overboard by the ship’s crew, was swallowed by a large fish, was thrown up by the fish after three days onto the shore of Assyria and walked to and into Nineveh.
When he got not the middle of the city, he pronounced his message—perhaps as quietly as he could, to avoid being noticed: (whispered) “Repent or you are doomed.” And to his surprise—and chagrin—the whole city repented, its King repented, and even all of the animals repented! Jonah should have been elated. Instead he became angry with God, and went into a major sulk. “I knew it!” he says to God, I knew you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. I’m so angry at you that I could just die!” I endure an ocean storm, almost drown, spend three days in the belly of a stinkin’ fish, and risk my life in a hostile country, and you FORGIVE these people without making them pay for what their foreign policy has done to MY country! I KNEW you were going to be merciful!”
I can easily get why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. I have faced situations where there was such hostility that I would eagerly have taken ship in the opposite direction if I were able. What I have trouble fathoming is why Jonah is angry that God made his mission successful. The people of Nineveh did not jail him or stone him to death. They heard the call to repent and did. They and all their animals! Most people would have been ecstatic that things worked out as they did. But Jonah wasn’t. He was angry. He had stepped up—probably forgetting he had been thrown up—by a fish—onto an Assyrian beach after reluctantly agreeing to act like a prophet—and said what God told him to say, though probably not very loudly and not very long, and he had 100% results. And he was angry at God for not destroying every last person in Nineveh!
Well, maybe I do understand. It sometimes makes me cranky to hear of someone on the lecture or TV interview circuit that has done illegal, maybe even awful, things and then repented of it and amended their life, and are now getting appearance fees and book royalties—and worse yet, public acclaim!—for their turned-around new lives! I have been reasonably moral, and faithful, and reliable, all my life, and I never received a book deal! Or someone I know who I expect the worst from, surprises me with a great act of kindness, or an apology. Instead of being delighted, I want to go on disliking them, and I find myself justifying why I can do so!
But the Jonah story is about more than just human behavior, it is about who God is and how He works. It is an Old Testament mirror image of Jesus’ parable in our Gospel reading for today.
Jesus tells the story of a landowner who needed grape harvestors and went to the unemployment office in the town and hired some guys at the beginning of the day to work in his vineyard. He made an offer of fair wages for the day, saying that he “would pay them whatever is right.” By 9:00, he needed more workers, so he went back downtown and signed up more. At Noon, same thing. He needed still more at 3:00, so he hired them. Finally, with the sun getting low in the sky, and the job still not finished, he went back at 5:00 that afternoon and employed another group. Those who came to work closest to sunset were paid first: a full day’s wages. All of the other shifts got the same amount. Including the guys that had been working hard in the hot sun all day! And they were livid about it! The landowner shrugged his shoulders. “I paid you going daily wage. That’s what you agreed to. I chose to give everyone who came to work today the same amount. Can I not choose what to do with what belongs to me? Are you envious because I am generous?”
“Are you envious because I am generous?” Exactly. Jonah was. He wanted to be on a different standing with God than those folks from “the Wicked City.” In a world filled with pagan gods, he had worshipped the True God. The God of Abraham and Isaac, etc. He had even endured hardships to do his will (forgetting that he would have avoided those hardships if he hadn’t been running in the opposite direction from where God wanted him to go!) But these people who had scoffed at God and even did bad things to Jonah’s people now had the same standing just because they turned their hearts to God—and in response to the threat of extinction even! It just wasn’t FAIR!
So while he was outside of Nineveh sulking in the hot sun, God gave caused a bush to grow up over him to give him precious shade. Jonah was thankful. Then the next day, God caused the plant to die. Jonah was angry again! Angry enough to die! So God said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Any question about who the landowner in the parable represents?
The parables of Jesus—and many of the Old Testament stories-- can’t be made to represent humanity’s “business as usual.” We can’t box them in, anymore than we can box Jesus in, or God, WHO Jesus is the human face of. We can’t build a tidy ethical system from them in the complications of our world. We can’t build an economic system from them, or a system of government from them. We can only stand before God without status, without standing, without merit, and let Him/Her love us as we are, and usually in spite of who we are—and to admit that He loves all people (and all of his creatures?) just as much as he loves us.
The parables not only unravel our preconceptions about God and ourselves, they leave us with questions we can spend the rest of our lives struggling to answer. This parable does not say that good works are fruitless, that we cannot disappoint God, that there is not evil in the world and in others. It does not say that because we are equally loved by God we can do whatever we feel like doing, or that we can suck our thumbs and do nothing. We have a mission from God and St. Paul hints at the shape of it.
St. Paul, speaks of “fruitful labor,” but the work he speaks of Christians doing is not keeping busy, but living “in Christ” and striving “for the faith of the gospel,” which is the recognition by us and telling others that God loves us dearly and steadfastly, and loves everybody else in the same way. Loves us so much that He was willing to come in our shape and form and die on a cross to prove it. It is our mission, it is the Church’s mission, it is St. Mary’s mission. It might seem to be our “mission impossible.” However, is work that God will do in us and through us: through His Holy Spirit; through the Sacrament of His Body and Blood in which “we dwell in Him, and He in us.”; and through the company of the saints, and the company of each other. It won’t be through our power alone. It won’t be without struggle. Life will continue to happen. We will encounter people who don’t want to be loved by God, or by anyone else. We will get in our own way, and in God’s way.
I can only promise you that you won’t be swallowed by a big fish and that God won’t abandon you. And while I can’t promise it 100%, I believe that you will find joy.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!