I have a CD (that’s a compact disc that plays music) in my car of Camp McDowell songs. Mary Katherine requests that I play the CD anytime she is in the car. She also requests that I not sing along because she can’t hear how the song is supposed to go. Regardless, it warms my heart to know that Mary Katherine will grow up listening to the same camp songs that Jamie and I grew up listening to.
However, there is one song that I purposely skip. The song is an all-time camp favorite called “Unconditional Love.” And yes, I can already hear you thinking, this poor little girl is going to be censored by her priest-father knows best her entire life. I’m sure the joke will be on me soon enough.
The reason I skip the song is because it contains a line that borderlines on heresy. I know, right? – she’s too young to hear heresy! Jokes aside, the line in question says, “Give me your unconditional love. The kind of love I deserve.”
Call me old fashioned but this song seems to cater to our sense of entitlement. While ours is a God who gives us unconditional love even if we have entitlement theology, ours is also a God who is in the business of humbling the entitled or prideful.
As we see in two of our lessons for today, God humbles those who think deservedness has something to do with God’s favor and goodness toward us. In Jonah and Matthew, we encounter characters who are disappointed in God exactly because their relationship with God depends on who is deserving and who is not.
The story of Jonah presents the dilemma of deservedness in a satirical kind of way. The book of Jonah uses humor and outrageous images to bring out the part of our human nature that wants to classify people as either deserving and undeserving. This book also shows us a God who is funny and who humbles the prideful again and again and again.
Jonah is a reluctant prophet who God has chosen to call the people of Nineveh to repentance. In order to put this into context, this might be like asking a Jewish person to go to Nazi Germany and call the people there to repentance. So of course, Jonah tries to run away from the job. Who wouldn’t?
As he tries to flee from God, Jonah flags down some local sailors who allow him on the ship but things get worse – a storm arises. When the sailors find out that Jonah’s disobedience from God caused the storm, they resolve to throw him overboard. And like a scene from the popular Disney movie Moana, God serves up a big fish to swallow Jonah – talk about humiliating.
For three days, Jonah prays to God and asks for deliverance. Finally, the fish spits Jonah back onto dry ground. Apparently, fish don’t like it when their food pray so remember that the next time you find yourself inside the belly of a whale!
Again, God tells Jonah to preach to Nineveh. So, he goes to Nineveh and preaches the worst sermon on record, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” But for whatever reason, the people of Nineveh are inspired. They repent and return to the Lord and have a big celebration.
Now, one might think Jonah would at least be proud of himself for giving a sermon that turn the hearts of this people. I know I feel good about myself when someone compliments me on a terrible sermon (but remember to humble me from time to time). But Jonah has a different response.
When Jonah learns that God will not destroy the city after all, he says, “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.”
Jonah is mad at God because God doesn’t give the evil people Nineveh what they deserve – that is the wrath of God. Jonah is mad because he wants to see the people who killed and oppressed his people suffer. So, Jonah goes off and pouts by himself – in his little booth - because God isn’t being fair. Jonah even says he is angry enough to die.
The story concludes with a funny story about a bush and a worm and a sultry wind. The story leaves us with the thought, if we are still bent on fairness and deservedness, then we will end up like Jonah – a sour man who spends the rest of his life in a scorching heat, pouting in a timeout chair of his own devising. Sounds like hell to me.
Ultimately, the lesson tells us that God isn’t ruled by the law of fairness. Rather, God is ruled by the law of mercy – a law that isn’t interested in deservedness, a law will go to any measure to rescue the lost and wayward, a law that will make the righteous swallow their pride or else.
God’s governing principle of mercy and generosity is highlighted even further in today’s lesson from Matthew. The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard emphasizes even more that ours is a God who is done wasting his time on the law of fairness or deservedness. As the long arc of our salvation history tells us, everyone will eventually fall on the wrong side of deservedness.
If the law of Moses could have saved us from sin and death, then why Jesus? If the warnings of the prophets could have saved us, then why Jesus? if self-help books on how to live a long and prosperous life could save us, then why Jesus? But as Christians, we believe Jesus is the only one who can save us from sin and death. Jesus, the only one who is righteous under the law of Moses, makes us righteous because he is merciful.
And Jesus makes us righteous not by demanding we fulfill a law that cannot be fulfilled, but by giving us work in the harvest that he himself sows through God’s goodness and mercy. Like we hear in the Gospel of John, we reap what we do not sow.
In Jesus, our reward is to be laborers in a field bought by the goodness and mercy of God in Christ. Our reward is to be laborers in God’s kingdom – not because we have earned it or deserve it – but because it is God’s good pleasure that we enjoy the fruits of God’s labor.
As far as I can tell, work in God’s harvest, work in the kingdom of God is without end. So, whether you come at the first hour or the eleventh hour, you are stepping into a realm where the only concept of time is eternity, you are stepping into a realm where all of time and space is redeemed, you are stepping into a realm where the laws of fairness and deservedness are dead and the reward is that God’s goodness and mercy endures.
Episcopal priest and writer, Robert Capon talks about this realm of God and says something like, heaven is when all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who just gave up on winning simply waltz up to the bar of judgement [with their ticket paid for by Jesus] and get down to the serious [partying] that makes the new creation go round…a party [so divine] that it drowns out all the party poopers of the world.
In other words, this party doesn’t have room for the Jonah’s of this world – for the proud who refuse to be humbled. This party doesn’t have room for the laborers who are ruled by the law of deservedness. This party doesn’t have room for the Elder Sons of this world. Rather, the work party of God’s kingdom is reserved for those who were never first in this world and for those who have given up trying to be first – those who are willing to be humbled. The only requirement to join the party is to drop the pose and find the fullness of your identity in the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last – Jesus Christ our Lord.
May you know the power of God’s unconditional love, a love that humbles the prideful, a love that makes space for anyone and everyone who is willing to be considered last. May you know the power of a love that cannot be earned or deserved – for yours is a heavenly Father who doesn’t believe deservedness has anything to do with the measure of God’s love, for you – God’s beloved sons and daughters. Amen.