'When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord 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?”'
--Jonah 3: 10-4: 11
'Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”'
--Matthew 20: 1-16
The best super-hero movie I have seen, and the best movie of any kind I have seen this year, is Wonder Woman. If you haven’t seen it, go do so as soon as possible! And I don’t say that because I’m a comic book nerd but because the message of the film is powerful. It preaches. At the film’s climax, Diana of Themyskira—also known as Wonder Woman—is battling Ares, the god of war and her half-brother. As they fight, Ares justifies his crusade to end humanity by pointing out that they deserve nothing but destruction; after all, they create chemical weapons to destroy one another, they cheat one another, they steal from one another, and in the end they will only look out for themselves. Ares says to his half-sister, ‘They do not deserve us!’ Humanity does not deserve the mercy of the gods, according to Ares. And then Diana, Wonder Woman, tells him with great strength and vulnerability, ‘It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe.’ I get chills every time I see that!
GO SEE THIS MOVIE!!!
It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. This week's stories from the prophet Jonah and the evangelist Matthew both echo this sentiment. We find Jonah at the very end of his story. He has, reluctantly, accepted God’s call to be a prophet and has preached hellfire and damnation to the people of Ninevah, who were a sinful and deplorable lot in God’s eyes. Yet after his prophesy , in which he stated that God would destroy them in 40 days, something happens. God’s mind is changed when the people repent of their sins, and God decides to spare them. Jonah, understandably, goes into a rage. Not only does this make him a false prophet—which means they’ll likely kill him—but it also angers him to no need. Ninevah deserved to be destroyed. But God spared them because of what God believed in.
Fast forward to the Gospel and Jesus, once again, using a parable to try and explain what the kingdom of God is like. He compares the kingdom to a vineyard and God to the vineyard’s owner. Needing folks to tend to the vineyard—to grow the kingdom—the landowner—God enlists laborers early in the morning. Then later in the day at 9:00, noon, and 3:00, the landowner enlists more help, and then finally does so again late in the evening before dark. When it comes time for payment the folks who only worked an hour get paid first, followed by the ones who worked half of the day, and finally the ones who worked the whole day. But didn’t the ones who worked the whole day deserve more? Weren’t they more faithful, more dedicated? The landowner’s response is ‘I choose to give to this last the same as I give to the first.’ So everyone gets the same amount, everyone is rewarded, not because of what they deserve, but because of what the landowner—God—believes in.
During that final battle with Ares, Wonder Woman tells him, ‘It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.’ That’s what makes her different, what makes her story the best super-hero story yet. She believes in love. In spite of humanity’s failings, she believes in the power of love, and it is that power that ultimately defeats Ares—spoiler alert!! For a video of the full scene, click below:
That's why God saves Ninevah. God believes in the love God has for them, the love they have for God, even though it takes a near-disaster for them to realize it. In Jesus’ parable the landowner gives to everyone the same amount because he loves all those who go to work in the vineyard, no matter when they do it or how much effort they put in; that is, God loves anyone who works on behalf of the Kingdom, regardless of who they are. In neither story does God act based on what humanity deserves. Yes actually accepting this idea is really hard and flies in the face of everything we know about both achievement and punishment.
We have all been told that folks get what they deserve. If we work hard enough we will be rewarded. If we screw up we’ll get the punishment that’s due. The same is true for the afterlife; we will get what we deserve there, either heaven or hell, based on how we lived our lives here. Furthermore, like the folks in Jesus’ time, we tend to think that those who have been in the church their whole lives are somehow more special, more deserving of ministry chairs or vestry positions, just because they have been laboring longer.
Yet Jesus deconstructs this whole narrative. God’s ways, after all, are not our ways, which means God’s standards are no ours, that God does not act in relation to us based on what we deserve. Thanks be to God for that, otherwise, very very few of us would inherit the kingdom. God literally knows all the things I have done, all the hurts I have caused, and if I got what I deserved, then there is literally no hope for me. Blessedly, grace doesn’t work that way. Grace cannot be earned or quantified, and it is not handed out based on how much we deserve, how much we pray, or how long we’ve been going to church. It’s handed out freely to all of us based solely on the fact that God loves us, and God believes in that love. This is the love that was poured out in our creation, given human flesh in Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwells in each of you and enables you to show God’s love and mercy and be agents of God’s grace in the world. God believes in love, and God believes in you.
One of my closest friends, a Freewill Baptist, likes to say that when he gets to heaven he’s gonna be surprised by who he sees, and those folks are gonna be surprised to see him! He gets it. Ours is not to reason why God grants that grace, ours is to believe in that grace, that we may share it with all we meet. It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. God believes in love. I wonder what our lives might look like if we truly believe in love.