Homily for Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020-Wayne Sigelko
At first glance, there are few more pathetic and less likeable figures in the bible than Jonah in today’s first reading. Partly, I suppose this is because of the style in which it is written. Jonah is like the 5th century BCE version of the graphic novel. It puts before us wonderfully dramatic and, as in today’s reading, even comic scenes. I have a friend who loves this little book so much he takes twenty minutes every week or two to read through the Jonah story because, in his mind, it captures so succinctly the experience of faith for many of us.
The opening lines of the book, themselves, sum up what many of us experience when we encounter God:
“This is the word of the Lord that came to Jonah, son of Amittai: ‘Set out for the great city of Nineveh and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me.’ So, Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish away from the Lord.”
Now, to be fair to Jonah, what God asks is NOT a trivial task. In the story’s setting, Nineveh is not only the largest city in the world, it is also the capital of the ancient kingdom of Assyria, the nation that later would utterly destroy the northern kingdom of Israel.
Well, as so often happens, Jonah’s attempt to flee from the task God has appointed fails spectacularly. After being thrown overboard in the middle of a raging storm and spending three nights in the belly of a monstrous fish, Jonah relents. He agrees to preach God’s message of conversion to the Ninevites, however hopeless he believes it to be.
And, then, if being swallowed up by a giant fish and being spewed out safely on shore three days later wasn’t enough of a miracle, God has more in store for Jonah: The enormous city of Nineveh takes three days to cross on foot. After only one day of Jonah’s preaching, all of the people of Nineveh, the great and the small repent and God relents in destroying the city. Great success, right? Jonah should be ecstatic. But, of course, he is not. In the final verses of the book, which are today’s reading, we learn that Jonah is angry with God.
Why? Because while Jonah, under duress, agrees to do what God has asked of him, he has never taken God’s message into his own heart. Remember, he is preaching to those whom he sees as enemies. He expects his preaching to fail and looks forward to seeing the enemy destroyed-at which point, I guess, he can also turn to God and say, “See, I was right about this hopeless mission you sent me on.”
So, in his anger, Jonah sets himself up outside the city hoping God will change his mind and he will still be able to see his enemies get what they have coming. And, then, of course God sends the bush that provides shade and comfort to Jonah, only to take it away and leave him sitting blistering in the sun. God then uses the care that Jonah comes to feel for this plant to help him to understand the care that she feels for the inhabitants of the city. For God has no enemies, only children created in her great love. And that love, connects each of us to every person and creature that we encounter.
In her blog “Mindfulness and Psychotherapy,” author and clinical psychologist Elisha Goldstein quotes Thomas Merton: ‘Compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.” She then expands on his words:
“Merton’s quote strikes at the fundamental delusion that underscores much of our dis-ease.
We walk around life with this belief that we are somehow separate from one another and this growing feeling of disconnection leads to a state of imbalance. When we’re mentally imbalanced it’s a lot easier for our buttons to get pushed sending us into states of stress, anxiety, depression and addictive behaviors.
What would be different if we flipped it around and we walked around day to day with a fundamental belief that we are all connected, that there’s an interdependence of all being and that my actions reverberate in an interconnected web that cause ripple effects?”
Jonah is a perfect example of the belief in separateness leading to a profound state of mental imbalance.
The landowner in today’s Gospel, on the other hand, is a model of what can happen when we walk around with a fundamental belief that we are all connected.
Now, like the book of Jonah, the story does hold up a mirror for us to examine our own religious attitudes, as the workers hired early in the day grumble about the landowner’s generosity towards those hired later in the day. That’s certainly worth reflecting upon. But, in my reading of this Gospel these last few weeks, that isn’t what jumped out for me.
The thing that strikes me in this story is the number of times the landowner goes out: Early in the morning, at nine o’clock, noon, three o’clock and five o’clock. Five times, the landowner goes out and five times finds people who have not been hired by anyone else. And, who are the most likely to be left looking for work as the day goes along. The weak, the elderly, the disabled and those marginalized by race or status. The landowner values all of them, hires all of them and compensates all of them just as fully as the first hired.
Note that the complaint of the early workers isn’t that they have been cheated, but rather, “you have made them equal to us!”
New Testament scholar Matthew Skinner sums up the meaning of the parable this way:
“It’s not the generosity or the extravagance that makes them angry. Rather, the issue is this: By dealing generously with a group of people that no other manager in town considered worth the trouble of hiring, the landowner has made a clear declaration about their value, their worth. The landowner’s undue kindness thus denies the full-day laborers the bonus they think they can claim: a sense of privilege or superiority.
You don’t have to read much of the Bible before you notice that it is God’s preference to show uncommon compassion to those who don’t have it so good, who have been denied a dignified place in the system. We get that. What chafes me about it, especially in response to this parable, isn’t that I want extra doses of compassion for myself. Rather, I wish that God’s modus operandi didn’t make me and countless others look so cheap in comparison, through our own sad inability to allow benefits to go to the people who need them the most.”
As I pray with all of you today, after reflecting on these readings, I pray that I might become more like the landowner: less impressed by outward appearance and more aware of the intrinsic value of every person, especially those whom our world fails to value and leaves standing idly on the sidelines of our economic and social life.