This past Sunday we read the second half of Jonah’s story (Jonah 3:10-4:11) as well as the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). The Gospel message is one I struggle with, but I’ve always loved the story of Jonah; I think because the whole thing is just this outlandish, hyperbolic story of a crazily resistant prophet who keeps throwing tantrums and saying “I just want to die!” and the God who keeps on following after him. I imagine the grandfather, who would gather the families up to tell the grand tale of Jonah, back before any of these stories were actually written down. In the light of the Hearth, this master community storyteller would act out the larger-than-life proclamations of Jonah and the humorous responses of an equally larger-than-life God. We see Jonah called by God to Ninevah to preach against it, but Jonah wanted nothing to do with that, so he boarded a ship in an attempt to run from God. When a great storm comes, he convinces the Pagan ship captain and crew that his God has sent the storm and to throw him overboard. A reluctant and fearful crew do just that, and immediately the storms subsides and they become followers of God, offering sacrifices and vows. Meanwhile, Jonah is swallowed by a whale where he pouts for 3 days and nights before appealing to God’s salvation. The fish then spits Jonah out on land right by Ninevah. So Jonah finally agrees to enter the city, proclaiming the word of God and saving the inhabitants of the city he tried to avoid. And this is where our reading picked up on Sunday. Jonah is in a full blown tantrum against God because he did not think it was fair that Ninevah was saved after all the evil they had done.
So Jonah sits pouting just outside the city, and our loving God comes to him, like a parent to a petulant child, and asks him “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then God lovingly grows a sheltering plant above Jonah so that he is comfortable while he thinks this over. However, after a day and night with no response or change of heart from Jonah, God sends a worm to wither the plant and a scorching sun to blaze on Jonah. So, in typical fashion, Jonah falls to the ground with his “let me die'' tantrum narrative. God explains to Jonah his blindspots and asks him if He (God) should not have concern for all the souls in Ninevah. And the story ends with that lingering question! There is no answer from Jonah! I think that just means there is a Jonah sequel. Maybe Jonah was a classic character in ancient stories, and kids would run to the community storyteller and beg for another story of the antics of Jonah. And Jonah would show up in the bellowing voice of the narrator with more examples of our resistance to follow God’s call and to see justice the way God sees justice - as a pathway to spiritual liberation, not human fairness.
When we consider this story in light of our gospel reading, we would compare Jonah to the workers who had tended the field all day, and Ninevah to the workers who tended the field just in the last hour - yet they were both given the same. Both are metaphors for a God intent on the liberation of all. This is not surprising in the New Testament, but it does seem out of place in the Old Testament. We tend to see the God of the Old Testament as vindictive, compared to the God of the New Testament, post-cross and resurrection. But Jonah is a beautiful story of the unchanging nature of God, who loved us the same and timelessly. This is a God who saw the people of Ninevah through the lens of the future cross and salvation of all.
What we are looking at is a God not of equality, not even of equity, but a God of liberative justice. A God who isn’t trying to make things “fair” through equality - everyone getting different results but the same resources - or equity - everyone getting the same results but different resources. No, we are looking at a God of justice. A God who liberates all of us to enjoy the same results with a new system. This system is not one of retribution (punishment and reward) but one of restoration (healing into right relationship).
The overthrowing of the old, human system of retribution in favor of the justice of restoration invites all of us, no matter who we are or how we got here or when we got here, to be restored back into the love of God. We have very human, earthly ideas of justice because we want to see someone pay for what they’ve done. But the point of paying for what we’ve done is that we will come out on the other side having paid our dues and be folded back into the community. But eternal damnation does not allow for an end that then folds people back into the communion of God. It is a child’s weak understanding of death because she doesn't understand its permanence. Do we really want someone to not inherit the kingdom of Heaven? Do we really want people to suffer eternally? Because that is the line we stand on when we’re Jonah and wish for the destruction of the city or we’re the worker who doesn’t believe that others should receive the same pay. These are parables, not of our own understanding of earthly justice but of God’s restorative gifts to all humanity. The reframe is critical to reading these stories in the spirit they were intended. The spirit of telling the story of the radical, triumphant, Divine love of God that covers over a multitude of sin to realize God’s true, liberative justice.