TEXTS: Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16
So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord … And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. (Jonah 3:3-5)
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.” (Matthew 20:1)
The Book of Jonah. One of the 12 “minor” prophets of the Old Testament—and easily the most widely-known. Even if you’ve never opened a Bible, you’re probably familiar with his story. Jonah was the guy who got swallowed by a whale. Right?
Well, sort of. The Book of Jonah is largely allegorical, and the text nowhere mentions a “whale.” However, it contains one of the most fascinating accounts in Scripture because of what it does tell us.
This is a story about somebody who really did not want to do what God was calling him to do. His name was Jonah, and he was a prophet of Israel.
We presume Jonah did not mind preaching to his fellow Israelites, warning them about sin and urging them to stay on the straight and narrow. After all, that’s what prophets do!
But now God was asking him to do something quite different. God had commanded Jonah to preach repentance to a faraway city called Nineveh —a place whose evil was so great, it rose up heavenward like a stench.
Jonah did not want to do it.
Why not? Well, you see, Nineveh wasn’t just any city. No. It was the capital of a ruthless empire that was bent on expansion, gobbling up its neighbours on all sides. In fact, within a few decades, it would obliterate the kingdom of Israel. And since Jonah was a prophet, I guess he could see that coming.
Jonah figured that, if he left the Ninevites to their own devices, God would get fed up with them and wipe them out—maybe with a Sodom-and-Gomorrah-style nuclear blast!
Jonah did not want to preach repentance to these people, because he knew that—if they did listen to him, and did repent—God would have mercy on them and spare them.
But mercy for Nineveh would one day spell destruction, death, and deportation for Jonah’s own people. I think that’s why he wanted no part of God’s plan. That’s why he got on a boat going in the opposite direction. He was trying to run away from God—or, more specifically, from this thing God was calling him to do.
Well, we know how the story of Jonah plays out. The Lord causes a storm to toss the boat violently around, Jonah finds himself in the water, and then … he is swallowed by a big fish. After three days inside the fish’s stomach, the prophet cries, “uncle!” He agrees to do what God wants, and the big fish vomits him out onto the shore.
Fortunately for Jonah, prophets are hard to digest!
Grudgingly, he makes his way to Nineveh—which, by the way, was nowhere near the Mediterranean coast. Nineveh lay on the east bank of the Tigris River, near present-day Mosul in northern Iraq.
From that beach where the fish deposited Jonah, it was 745 kilometres—or 463 miles—to Nineveh. And that’s as the crow flies. By road, it was over 900 kilometres (577 miles). Today, at highway speed, it’s about a nine-hour drive … but for Jonah, it would’ve been at least a 13-day journey on foot.
Anyway, to make a long story short, Jonah finally staggers into Nineveh and urges its people to repent … and they do! In spite of himself, Jonah has carried the salvation of God to a people that seemed utterly beyond redemption.
But the prophet is not rejoicing about this. He exits the city, and stations himself a safe distance away, waiting to see what will happen next. Apparently, he hopes that God may decide to nuke them, after all!
Of course, that’s not what happens. Instead, the Lord tries to reason with the angry prophet: “How can I not care about Nineveh? How can I not care about 120,000 people who don’t know right from wrong? I’m glad they changed their ways. I did not want to destroy them. They are my creatures, after all!”
But of course. To us, I guess, (I hope) it makes perfect sense that God cares about the people of Nineveh. Why wouldn’t he care about them?
To Jonah, though … the question sounds like this: why should God care about Israel’s enemies? Why do they deserve mercy? Why do they deserve to be saved? Where is the justice in God’s grace?
Well, where is it? Where is the justice in God’s grace? The same question is raised in another Biblical story—this time from the New Testament. In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a crazy parable about a landowner who pays all his labourers the same amount, no matter how many hours of work they actually put in. How can you run a business doing that?
Imagine the corporate executive’s reaction to this story: “If reimbursement is not commensurate with hours worked, then how will I motivate my employees? And if I can’t motivate my employees, how will I sell my product, serve my customers, and turn a profit?”
Or imagine the reaction of the committed workers who put in the long hours. Well, we do not really need to imagine this, since Jesus tells us what they said: “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” (Matt. 20:12).
They are indignant. And who can blame them? It’s just not fair. If that’s how it’s going to be, why shouldn’t we just laze around all day long, and then punch in at four o’clock?
Well … look. This is a parable. Personally, I think the story of Jonah is a kind of parable, too. Parables aim to teach us important truths—and often, they get our attention by setting up the most bizarre situations. When Jesus tells us about the landowner and his workers, he’s not trying to answer questions like: “How should I run my business?” or “What kind of wage should I expect as a farm labourer?”
No. He’s dealing with another question altogether: “What is the Kingdom of Heaven like?” And in describing the kingdom to his disciples, he has to use human categories and analogies. It’s “like” this; and it’s “like” that. No single parable—not even all the parables—can fully capture the kingdom of heaven for us; but we can learn something about it if we listen carefully.
If this parable is about Jesus’ kingdom, then it is really not at all about “reimbursement” or “fair wages.” In fact, it’s not about any of the principles we normally associate with hired labour. Rather, it is about a gracious and undeserved gift. It is about what Jesus brings to the world and how he transforms it.
It is about the economy of heaven.
Notice that even the workers who were hired early in the morning—the ones who later complain about their employer’s fairness—roll out of bed un-employed. But the landowner finds them and gives them work. I imagine they were, no less than the nine-, or three-, or five-o’clock-hires, “standing idle in the marketplace.”
Whatever they were doing, they weren’t getting paid for it. They had no livelihood prior to the vineyard owner seeking them out. But, by the end of the day, they seem to have forgotten this. Or perhaps they never really understood. Clearly, come payment time, they are thinking only in terms of just reward. Pay must be commensurate with the hours worked—as if the work itself was not the real “reward.”
Jesus’ parable is not so much about a landowner looking for help from others as it is about a landowner who looks to help others. More to the point: it’s about an employer who gathers up idle people and gives them a purpose. Indeed—given that this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven—what we’re talking about here is the purpose of our lives; the purpose we’ve been looking for all along. Or, if we’re like Jonah, the purpose we’ve been avoiding all along … namely … God’s purpose for us.
The landowner’s rationale for payment is extraordinarily simple: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
I’m reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7). How easy it is, over the course of the day, to forget that every good thing comes to us as a gracious gift from God! And yet, God is not required or compelled to do anything for us at all—not even to give our lives a purpose.
Atheists tell us that life has no inherent purpose—even as the universe itself has no purpose, no grand reason for existing. And if you take God out of the picture, that does appear to be the truth. However, God is in our picture, and God knows that our lives need a purpose. We need a purpose. The work God gives us is his gift to us. It’s not about us doing God a favour. It’s not about working for a wage or a reward. It’s about receiving a gift of divine love.
Yet, how often we seem to miss that point! Maybe that’s because answering the call of God—doing the work God gives us to do—is seldom easy, or convenient, or even appealing. Most often, it causes us discomfort—like when it demands that we go out of our way to do good to our enemies, or face up to our own prejudices … or to be reconciled with someone who’s wronged us. Jonah was given an opportunity to become not just a prophet, but also a saint. But it seems to me that he missed it. He missed the point of God’s grace, just as we miss it when our ideas about “fair play” keep us from recognizing the will of God.
When does that happen? Well, unfortunately, in the church, it happens all the time:
- It happens when old-timers resent newcomers taking leadership positions.
- It happens, sometimes, when we resist change.
- It happens when someone decides to sulk because they feel their hard work has not been properly acknowledged.
- It happens whenever Christians—who should know better—refuse to forgive someone for a real or imagined slight, or fail to embrace a repentant sinner.
In other words, it happens whenever we turn away from the grace-work God has given us to do. Christian discipleship is challenging. Confronted by God’s boundless love—especially when we witness it being poured out on people we think do not deserve it …
When that happens, we must choose how we’re going to respond. We should choose carefully, for the Lord is watching. And the way we respond shows how we view our own labour in his vineyard.
May God help us live according to the grace we have received.