This sermon was preached at St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Orinda by first-year Ethan Lowery. The texts for this sermon are: Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; and Matthew 20:1-16. Audio available HERE.
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
I love the story of Jonah. I love it. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s moving—and it somehow manages to fit all of that into only two pages. And so last summer, I decided to teach Jonah at high school camp at the bishop’s ranch one day. And I began by asking the youth “How many of you have heard of Jonah?” and almost every had went up. And I asked “How many of you know what happens to Jonah after he gets out of the whale?” and every hand went down.
And so let me ask y’all:
How many of y’all have heard of Jonah?
How many of you know what happens after Jonah gets out of the whale?
So let me tell you the story, because our Old Testament story this morning tells us some of what happens to Jonah post-Whale.
God shows up to Jonah one day and calls him to be a prophet, and asks him to go to the people of Nineveh and tell them to repent. But Jonah doesn’t like the people of Nineveh, and so he runs away, and ends up a stowaway on a boat out at sea—he wants to get away from God so bad. But God sends a storm in pursuit and the storm threatens to sink the boat, so Jonah throws himself overboard in order to appease God and save the crew of the ship and is promptly eaten by a big fish. Jonah stays in whale time-out for three days until his pettiness cracks and he comes around, singing a song of praise to God. He goes to Nineveh, he says the things a prophet says, the city repents, God decides not to reign calamity down on the people of Nineveh.
But then Jonah remembers that he doesn’t like Nineveh and he gets mad again. God was going to destroy Nineveh but Jonah got conned into helping God save them, and Jonah didn’t want them saved. Jonah wanted them destroyed; he can’t pull even an ounce of pity for them. God asks him: “Is it right for you to be angry?” So God does this scheme-y little thing in order to shame Jonah. God kills the bush that Jonah was sitting under, and Jonah is sad about the bush and God basically rolls up and says “Oh you can mourn a bush but not 120,000 people?? Huh??”
Jonah had passed judgement on Nineveh, and Nineveh didn’t get what he thought they had coming. And he was mad about it. And I’m curious about this angry feeling—of having passed judgement on something/somebody and wanting to inflict harm on them.
All summer long I shared with these youth–at mission trips, at camp–my hypothesis that the Bible is an anthology of the most relatable stories of human experience. No matter what you are going through or what you feel, somebody in the Bible knows what that’s like. The Bible is about us. And so this drive to pass judgement and to see through punishment…it’s not cute… and we may want to distance ourselves from it… but it’s also about us.
I think we all know what that feeling feels like. Like… it starts out as early as the playground, where somebody takes the ball from you and you push them down, right? It’s like when the most annoying kid in your class doesn’t study and then gets the highest grade on the test, and you studied all night for a B. It’s like when that one co-worker—the one who is just downright unpleasant to everybody—gets the promotion that you wanted… or that one co-worker who doesn’t work as hard as you, who isn’t as charming as you, who hasn’t been at the company as long as you. This kind of stuff happens and something in our reptilian brain stem activates, and your face gets hot, your stomach goes cold, maybe your brain starts to buzz and smoke a little bit. That’s the feeling that Jonah is feeling! Nineveh is bad and I am good and why is God saving them and punishing me? That’s the feeling that the workers have in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Those lazy workers got the raise that we wanted… and they didn’t even work for it.
God has a similarly shaming question for the all-day workers: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” In both cases, in Jonah and in the Gospel, God has little patience for the judgment passed by us. There is a tension in these stories between God’s judgment, God’s righteousness, and our own judgment, our self-righteousness.
There are two things I wanna say about this and God’s question for Jonah: Is it right for you to be angry?
First, God asks: is it right for you to be angry? It’s not fun to be a Jonah, pouting under a bush. It’s not fun to be the grumbling laborers, with a full days wages in pocket and still a bone to pick. And in these readings, God is affording us the option to not have to feel that way. We don’t have to hold the burden of condemnation ourselves. Our faith practice… a deep rooted belief in the redeem-ability of all people can actually change our emotional state. Christianity isn’t exactly anger management… but it’s not far off, haha.
This is not to say that the Christian life is all rainbows and butterflies and soft harp music playing in the background. Christianity is not merely an exercise in positivity. We get to get mad… and we are encouraged to be mad when we see the dignity of all people not being upheld. But we don’t have to play God and to sit in the uncomfortable seat of Judge’s Chair and that ought to be of some relief to us.
Second, God asks: is it right for you to be angry? Jonah’s condemnation of Nineveh is in direct opposition to God’s plan of salvation for Nineveh. The laborers frustration at their common wage flies in the face of God’s generosity. This self-righteousness clashes with God’s righteousness, and that’s a tough pill for us to swallow. Our own qualitative sense of right/wrong isn’t reliable for the people of God. We are responsible for building God’s kingdom out in the world, and not our own kingdom. We don’t get to selectively condemn folks based on Who. We. Think. Needs. Condemning. For us as Christians, we have to focus on God’s work and sometimes that might feel like we are getting a raw deal, or like other people are being treated better we are… or than we think they deserve to be.
Again, for us Christians, it all comes back to the Gospel and that, for us, means loving the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength and all your mind, and loving your neighbor as yourself. That’s it. And so everything we learn from society would have us ask the question: is this good for me? Our religion would have us instead ask the question: is this good for all of us?
And this why is so much of our national discourse ought to be so frustrating to us. We’re out here talking about global nuclear conflict and climate crisis and universal healthcare and damn near all of the commentary is happening at the level of: is it good for me and for the people that look like me? Is it good for business? Is it good for the Democrats, is it good for the Republicans, is it good for my party, is it good for America? Our terrestrial allegiance is of no concern to Gospel. We instead must ask: is it good for the marginalized and the oppressed? Is it good for humanity? Is it good for the planet?
Instead of asking
“how much tax money will it cost me?”
“but how will they earn it?”
“does North Korea have it coming?”
“but how will we maintain our status as the leaders of the free world?”
“is there enough science behind it?”
I wonder what it would be like if, instead, we chose to ask:
“who is hurting and how can we help?”
“are we doing our best to reconcile?”
“is this good for all of us or is it only good for me, and people like me?”
“how many people will die if we don’t do something?”
“what’s the best way for us to take care of our planet?”
It’s so tempting to ask the previous questions—our society teaches us to ask those questions, and to challenge the veracity of every claim. But if we’re being honest, devil’s advocate isn’t really a good look for the people of God. The devil doesn’t need more advocates, Lord knows he’s got enough of ‘em already out there in the world. Jesus needs more advocates. And we [motions with hands] are the only people for the job. And when that work gets hard and we find ourselves frustrated or ready to deviate from it, we have the responsibility to ask ourselves:
Is it right for me to be angry?
Is it right for me to be angry?
Is it right for me to be angry?