ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 24, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
AN UNJUST GOD
Jonah 3:10 – 4:11; Matthew 20: 1 – 16
Life is not fair. A young woman frequently helped at a soup kitchen. One night she called her mother to report with some excitement that a handsome charming man was also helping there. Unlike most of the men she met, this one was single. A while later her mom called to see if a romance had blossomed. The woman sighed, “No. When I asked what he did for a living he said, ‘I’m a priest.’”
Worse than life not being fair is that God isn’t fair. Howard died and was waiting in line for judgment. He noticed that some souls were invited into heaven, while others were thrown into a burning pit. But every so often, a person was instructed to stand to one side. Curious, Howard sidled up to St. Peter and asked, “Why are some people being set aside instead of letting them into heaven or flinging them into hell?” “They’re from Vancouver,” Peter replied. “They’re too wet to burn.” So now we know about Vancouverites, but what about the others? What kind of God lets some people into heaven while other souls are annihilated in a lake of fire? What kind of God allows children to get sick? Or heals some people but not others. What kind of God lets people go hungry or suffer? What kind of God lets evil run rampant? What kind of God lets wicked people live the good life and good people live in poverty? What kind of God doesn’t forgive everyone equally? What kind of God forgives people like Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot who have done terrible things to others? The answer many people come up with is: “An unjust God.” “An unfair God”. Don’t we have the right to expect more from God? After all, he is God.
We’re not alone in asking these questions. We all remember the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet whom God called to go to the pagan city of Nineveh to call the wicked Ninevites to repentance. Jonah didn’t want to go, so he hopped on a boat going in the other direction. Bad idea. A storm arose so the crew threw Jonah overboard. He was on the verge of drowning when he was swallowed by a whale. Three days later, Jonah was barfed up on a beach. God called Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh and Jonah was a little more willing. He called the people of Nineveh to repentance and from the King on down, the city grieved for their sin and begged for God’s forgiveness, which God generously granted. We might think Jonah would be thrilled. Instead, he was enraged, “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. (4:2) He sat down in the hot desert sun to sulk. God being merciful, “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” (4:6) Things were looking up. “But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered” (7). Jonah fell into a state of despair. He was so angry and depressed about the bush he wanted to die. With that, God confronted Jonah, “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?” (10 & 11)
In Jonah’s mind God was unjust in his forgiveness of the Ninevites. They weren’t Jews. They had worshipped idols and never honoured God. They had committed unspeakable sins. They didn’t deserve God’s mercy. It didn’t matter that God had also shown mercy to Jonah; “the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah…” (Jonah 1:17) God had also “appointed” a lovely shady bush so Jonah would be spared from the heat of the sun. That’s all good. What made Jonah angry wasn’t that God was merciful but that God’s mercy was too extravagant. It spread too far. It was lavished upon undeserving people. God was not “fair” in the way Jonah defined fairness.
Jesus made a similar point in his parable about the land owner who hired some workers. Early in the morning a land owner hired some migrant workers and contracted with them to pay them a day’s wage in return for their work. Off they go, thrilled to have the work and the money. The man later found he needed more help and so he did the same thing at 9 a.m., at noon, at 3 p.m. and at 5 p.m. Each group trusted the man to pay them “whatever is right” (Matthew 20: 4) At the end of the day, all the workers lined up to receive their pay. The landowner started with those who began last and going backwards he gave everyone a day’s wage. Watching this, the guys who started at 6 a.m. were expecting a nice bonus on top of their contracted wage – after all they’d worked the longest and hardest. When they got to the front of the line, the land owner also gave them a day’s wage. The early crew was livid. They formed a union and started to picket. They went on Facebook to tell the world the landowner is unfair and exploitative. The land owner replied, “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.” (13 & 14a)
Most of us would side with the early crew of workers. In the Reformed Tradition we tend to resolve any inner conflict about God’s so called “injustice” with the belief that God is Sovereign. God is King. God is Creator and we are his creation. “Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, “What are you making”? (Isaiah 45:9) Who are we to tell the Lord God what to do or to grumble about what he’s done? Much in that worldview is commendable. Our society would benefit from realizing that we’re not all gods. However, in both these stories it’s not God’s injustice that’s at issue. It’s God’s mercy. If the parable is a picture of how God works, Jesus’ point is that God’s generosity to one person doesn’t make him any less generous to another. As the Landowner said to the first group. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (13 – 15) Is it our place to tell God what he should or should not do with his mercy and his bounty? We may act differently and perhaps we think that makes us more “fair” than God (!) but, no doubt, it also makes us more petty and less generous. As Lord of All, God is merciful in ways we can never understand. Often, we’re not angry at God for what he’s neglected to give, but for what he has allowed. We’re angry that God goes the extra mile in giving to the undeserving.
Accepting God’s generosity to others depends on what we think God owes us. Does God owe us health and wealth and success and fulfillment? Does God owe us a spouse and children, a home and a job? Not really. God gives each of us the gift of life and the opportunity to receive grace. If God allows someone else a spouse or children, a longer life, more wealth or abilities or brains or better health or ease, or more opportunities for repentance, does that mean God has given us less of a life or less opportunity for salvation? Jorge Bergoglio was heading to catch a train for his school’s annual picnic, with a plan to propose to his girlfriend. He passed by his church and popped in to see the priest. While making confession he had an unmistakeable and powerful experience of the mercy of God for him and for all people. He was converted. He was called. His life was no longer about what God owed him; it was now about what he owed God and others. He adopted the motto “having been shown mercy, I am chosen to show mercy.” He never did catch the train, go to the picnic or propose to his girlfriend. In fact, he never did marry. God had given him everything – the gift of life and the opportunity for salvation through Jesus Christ. Instead of seeing God as “unfair”, Jorge saw God as merciful – as Mercy itself. Instead of looking at what God “owed” him, he responded by showing God’s mercy to others. He lived as a servant of God. He’s now Pope Francis. Is that unfair? Did he earn the position? No. He did what we all can do. He embraced God’s generous mercy and desired that abundant, overflowing mercy for others. And if God took Jorge’s willingness to show mercy and allowed him to become Pope, does that mean God has shown less mercy to any of us? No. It simply means we are loved by a generously merciful God. A God who is lavishly unjust with his grace.
We should give thanks for that God. Instead of feeling anger that God unfairly shows mercy to the undeserving, we need to see that we too are undeserving of everything which God, by grace, has given us. One day it will be us that faces judgement. At some time, we will be called to collect our pay. That will be the moment we whisper into the ear God the story of our lives as we’ve have never been able to tell anyone. And God will listen with mercy and compassion. Perhaps then we will see that an unjust God is the best God there could ever be.