On my way to the lections for today, I happened to pass by a marvelous short thread by Kevin M. Young–excuse me, Dr. Kevin M. Young–my favorite progressive on the app formerly known as Twitter. Initially, I was disappointed. How could I ever shove these brilliant tweets down the gullet of the Sunday lectionary? I asked myself. But then I got all the way to the readings, and labored through them, as a hard worker in the vineyard, there since the break of day, is inclined to do, and I discovered that they’re basically perfect, or, at the very least, can be made to fit well enough.
So here’s the wonderful first Tweet:
I’m sorry to be putting in screenshots, but somehow I can’t embed them for some reason. Here’s the next one and half of the last:
You were probably just having your early morning oolong, your daily dose of caffeine, and therefore hadn’t considered the astonishing piece of information that YOU, of all people, are the all-caps GOOD NEWS, the Gospel. I know, you might be saying, the Good News is the message that Jesus proclaimed, recorded in the gospels and preserved for us on the scriptural page. Ah, see, you weren’t awake enough to account for the fact that, because you are a Christian and (checks notes) have the Holy Spirit, you are basically literally Jesus. I hope your life is completely changed by hearing this important piece of information.
So anyway, let’s go check on some of those people in the Bible who must also have been literally Jesus. The first one is my favorite, Jonah, who acts so much like our Lord and Savior, who is so full of the lovingkindness and mercy one expects to find in a messenger from God (I’m kidding, obviously) that when Jesus typologically likens his own task to the “sign of Jonah” all his disciples who are also basically Jesus with no distinction or anything, because category errors are the way we live now, scratch their heads and don’t get it.
We meet Jonah this morning under his vine. He’s recovered from the trial of running away from the presence of God, of being swallowed by the fish, being spat on dry ground, and then finally choosing to obey. He’s told the people of Ninevah that, in forty days their city would be destroyed. If you read closely–or actually, not that closely, it’s right there on the page if you’re only skimming–you will observe that Jonah did not impart one important piece of information. What would happen if the people of Ninevah forsook their sin and turned to the Lord. He knew what would happen. That’s why he sailed away to Tarshish (or tried to sail away to Tarshish) in the first place. He didn’t want them to forsake their sins because they were so wicked and should all die.
That’s really the crucial issue. People–all of them–are wicked. They are bad. They do vile things that are contrary to the purposes for which God designed them. This would be a good time to use the word “we” that all modern writing is so addicted to. “We”–or rather, we with not scare quotes–all sin. But the ancient Assyrians sinned in particularly wicked and hideous ways. Jonah knew what sort of people they were, how cruel, how apt to conquer all the nations around them and grind them to dust.
Of course he didn’t want them to turn to the Lord Most High to be forgiven. But he knew God too well to be comfortable about this little excursion. God had forgiven him for his sins. If the Ninevites heard about this God, they would probably also desire this forgiveness, and God, who never desires the death of the wicked, would certainly forgive them. Jonah banks on the Ninevites not connecting all the dots and so only tells them about the destruction part, and leaves off the crucial part about how they are welcome to say sorry and be welcomed into eternal life. But the Ninevites aren’t dumb. They get it. They immediately repent–all of them. They even make their animals bear the sign of repentance, covering them in sackcloth.
Chapter three would have been a nice place for the book to end. But, as so many people like to point out, usually without really observing the irony of such a declaration, God has a sense of humor, and so we have chapter 4 where Jonah, angry and despairing in his inner being, sits on a hill and waits for God to keep his promise and destroy that hated city. He makes a little booth, the way people still do when they remember how God made his home with them in the Wilderness, and sat there and waiting in the heat.
Let’s leave him there and pop over to see how the work is going far away, in Israel. Jesus who, again, remember, is basically YOU without any shadow of variation or difference in character, inclination, person, being, or anything like that because not being able to use the English language and its many-faceted metaphorical and literary illusions is a big thing for us in these latter days–is telling a story to all the people who feel like listening to him. It’s a horrible little parable, designed to get under your skin and make you angry, angry enough to sit at your kitchen table in a dark wroth, bitter about what kind of God you are having to obey. The story goes like this.
There is a master of a house who needs workers for his vineyard. He goes early in the morning to hire as many as he can find, agrees with them that he will pay them for the work of the day, and sends them off. This first set of workers is happy for the work and for the coming remuneration. But the work isn’t going fast enough so the master goes looking for more workers and sees “others standing idle in the marketplace.” The hearers of the story will obviously know that these are not the sort of “workers” you want in your vineyard. If they wanted a job, they would have gotten there early in the morning. But the master hires them for “whatever is right” and sends them off. And then he does it again, and then again. The long day, as it were, wears on. Finally, the evening comes and the workers gather around, ready to receive their just reward. The master has the foreman pay each group, but he begins with the last group, thereby increasing the suspense. Those last workers, who worked maybe a half hour, get a whole day’s wage. The other workers look around, pretty amazed and full of hope. If those last ones get a whole day’s wage, they will certainly be getting more than a day’s wage. But then the foreman gives the next group the same amount. And the next. And so grumbling and disappointment abounds. The master asks those angry workers a similar question to the one the Lord posed to Jonah, “Do you begrudge my generosity?”
To which I would be inclined to say–of course not, as long as you are more generous to me. Or, to put it another way, as long as it appears fair from my angle. I do well to be angry, and I will sit here waiting for God to make it right according to my own measure of what that means.
The problem, just to complain in a Christian kind of way, is that “we” are not literally Jesus. We aren’t the good news. That’s not what those texts mean. To be found in Christ, to be remade into his likeness does not mean that you can “be his hope and be his peace, etc.” To be found in him means that you have discovered, in the depths of your being, that you aren’t God and never were, that you were wicked, that you were no better than the Assyrians, and then were so utterly grateful to be accepted into the vineyard that you were delighted when any other worker came in. You cease, finally, to begrudge God his way of doing things. You admit that you don’t do well to be angry. You admit that all the works of the Lord deserve your praise.
I’m glad that Dr. Kevin M. Young mentions the cross, though, because that is where all this points. Jesus stood in the place of Jonah and the Ninevites and you too, if you will accept him, and paid not just a day’s wage, but for the immeasurable heap of vile corruption that we accumulate every day by our grudging anger against the God who made us for himself. And now, if you will excuse me, I have to go to church and practice being literaleigh Jesus and berate some people for not doing the things the way I want them to be done…just kidding, I would never do that, I’m not that kind of person.
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