Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost  /  September 18, 2005                  

Message by Rev. Carol Kniseley                                      Text:  Jonah 3:10 – 4:11

Resurrection Lutheran Church                                                        


Unfair Grace


If we stop to think about it, the story of Jonah and the whale may be one of the best known Bible stories in the world.   Children all over the world can tell you the story from start to finish of how Jonah tried to run away from God only to be thrown off a ship and swallowed by a whale.     When the whale finally spit Jonah out onto dry land…he suddenly found himself right where God wanted him to be in the first place.      It is then, that Jonah finally goes and tells the folks in the town of Nineveh what God wanted them to hear.   Namely, that they were going to be “toast” in exactly 40 days…IF…they didn’t stop doing what they knew to be wrong, and turn toward God.      In other words, God wanted them to repent, which means to literally ‘turn around…and go in a different direction.’     Now here is where today’s story really begins.


Beginning at chapter 3, verse 10:   ‘When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways…(please underline these next four words)God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them;   and he did not do it.


Everyone in this story repents…except Jonah.    The Ninevites repent, God repents, even the cows and the goats repent, but Jonah…does not repent.    He slinks off to the outskirts of the city and hopes that God will destroy it anyway, because he can not accept the possibility that God’s idea of justice might not coincide with his own.   According to Jonah, there is no reason why God shouldn’t do what God had intended to do all along.     To make the city of Nineveh an example of just how powerful God’s wrath can be…so that everyone would come running to God, shaking in their boots for fear that they would be the next victim on God’s list.    (pause)   If we think for a moment, that that is the message that God is trying to deliver…that people should come running to God’s house “out of fear”…then folks, we have sadly misunderstood what God is trying to say.


And to prove it, God even throws into the story a divine sense of humor.    Picture in your mind for just a moment, Jonah…sitting on a hill…high above the city….sulking…because it is beginning to look like he’s not going to see the fireworks display that God had promised him.       While Jonah is sitting there waiting for the laser light show to begin…God appoints a castor oil bush to grow up over his head and provide some much needed shade.    Jonah begins to smile…and he begins to feel better.   


But then, on the very next day, while Jonah is still enjoying the shade…God sends a worm to attack the bush…and before long, the bush is dead and the shade is gone.    And once again, Jonah…is ticked at God.    So much so that he says:  It is better for me to die than to live’, as if by saying such a thing would somehow ruin God’s day.    


If you or I have never felt like that ourselves, then we probably won’t get the punch line of this story…nor of the one in today’s Gospel lesson about the laborers in the vineyard who arrived last and were paid as much as those who arrived first.     Both stories poke a hard finger into the ribs of those of us who want God’s mercy for ourselves…and God’s justice for other people.   We delight when undeserved blessings come our way…like the bush that just happen to appear out of nowhere to offer Jonah some much needed shade.   But when we see that same bush springing up next to someone that we really don’t think deserves it, then we, like Jonah, become very good at keeping score…and our mantra quickly becomes:   “That’s not fair!”


No, it’s not fair.   There is something inherently unfair about this thing we call grace.    The truth be known, God does not keep track of things the way we do.    God does not spend a lot of time deciding who is worthy and who is not.   The point being, God…does not give any of us what we truly deserve…but instead, God gives us what we need.   And believe me, there are days when it is hard…very hard…for any of us to trust God’s judgment on that score.


No, it’s not fair.    But, it is grace.    And if we find ourselves so easily offended by the divine distribution of it, then just perhaps, we are the ones who have forgotten who we are.      When we get right down to it…the truth is, we are all Ninevites…who more often than not do not even know our right hand from our left.         And yet, from where God sits, we all look like the hurt…sick…lost children we’ve been watching on TV over the last couple of weeks.      Children whose lives will never be the same because of a storm called Katrina.     Displaced human beings…in deep need of mercy.


Is it right for us to be angry?    If Ninevah is spared…who wouldn’t shout hallelujah?    And if those who show up at the end of the day open their paychecks to find a full day’s pay…who wouldn’t rejoice?    Only those who do not know who they are.    As for the rest of us, we’ll be down in Nineveh at the party…whooping it up with all of the other folks who do not know their right hand from their left.    And (I love this last line from today’s scripture)…and also many animals.     Amen