The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Reverend Ashley Mather, Curate

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

“The Scandalous Nature of Divine Grace”

Our scripture readings from Jonah and Matthew are stories about the vastness of God’s grace. They are also readings that make us uncomfortable, because the way in which God’s kingdom operates isn’t the same as the rules, expectations, societal norms, and so on of the world we are living in. I recently read that today’s parable can specifically cause us to be-come defensive, because “God’s generosity often violates our own sense of right and wrong, our own sense of how things would be if we ran the world.”

I also heard this week that these readings are “the scandalous nature of divine grace.”

All of this to say, these are tough readings that can cause us to put walls up if interpreted in the literal sense. However, if searching for the deeper meaning, our hearts and minds can begin to do the difficult work of breaking down barriers that divide us.

This morning, I’d like to specifically focus on our reading from Jonah, and in order to faithfully do that, we need to know the context of this book as a whole. The entire book is very short, just four chapters and it only takes up about two pages, but there is more to this book than Jonah being swallowed be a fish. It also has a certain literary style…it’s meant to be read as a satire. It contains exaggerated humor, extreme circumstances, scorn, and potential sarcasm. I’m going to give you an overview, but I encourage you to read it for yourself. It’s a quick read and very worth it.

Chapters one and three are about his encounters with non-Israelites – the sailors on the boat when he is fleeing to Tarshish and his enemies, the Ninevites. Chapters two and four are Jonah’s prayers – the first is a sort of prayer of repentance, and the second is Jonah be-ing angry at God for having mercy on the Ninevites.

Now back to the beginning, God calls out to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh, but he disobeys God and flees in the opposite direction. So Jonah boards a ship full of sailors who appear to worship other Gods, but when God brought on this large storm, the sailors are crying out while Jonah is fast asleep in the hold of the ship. The sailors come to realize that Jonah is the reason God is causing this storm, so he tells them to throw him over-board, which they do but the repent to God and ask that is life may be spared. God hears their prayers and sends a large fish to swallow Jonah up. If you read between the lines, it’s an obvious attempt to further avoid going to Nineveh, but God foils his plans by providing a place for Jonah to dwell. While in the belly of the fish, Jonah sort of repents by thanking God for not abandoning him and he promises to obey God from now on. God hears Jo-nah’s prayer and has the fish spew him on to dry land.

God then wastes no time in telling Jonah to go to Nineveh to proclaim God’s message to the people there. Jonah had just promised to obey God, so he (probably begrudgingly) goes to Nineveh and preaches the worst sermon ever: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Even though he does the bare minimum, the people of Nineveh (and appar-ently their animals) repent, and God finds favor with them.

We are now at the end of this book, which is the reading that we just heard. Jonah is angry at God for having mercy on his enemies, and he begins to throw (for the lack of a better word) a temper-tantrum: he asks God to take his life, he storms out of Nineveh and pouts under a booth that he has made. God provided a bush for Jonah to give him shade, and then he sends a worm to eat the bush. Jonah is furious that God would destroy his bush, and God responds by saying: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

And that’s how the book ends. We don’t hear how Jonah responds, but it causes us to laugh, because of how outrageous it is that Jonah is more upset about a bush than he is about the lives of more than a hundred and twenty thousand people. It’s truly outrageous, but there’s a sting there too, because it feels all too real right now.

When you look at the individual chapters of the book of Jonah, it might look like it’s a sto-ry about God’s grace on the sailors or on the Ninivites, but when we step back and look at its entirety, we see that this is a story about God’s ability to extend grace to Jonah. To take this a step further, it’s really a story written to cause us to examine the worst parts of our-selves…the Jonahs in all of us. God asks Jonah if he’s ok with God having mercy on his enemies and extending love and Grace to them just like he has done for Jonah. And so we must ask ourselves: are we okay with God loving our enemies?

Reading this book, although comical in style, is like looking into a mirror to the parts of ourselves that we wish to hide: to hide from God, from other people, and from even our-selves. The good news in all of this is the vastness and scandalous nature of God’s divine grace. That if God can extend grace to Jonah’s enemies and to the worst parts of Jonah, then God can do the same for each of us, AND for each of our enemies. Looking into this mirror, should challenge us to be vessels of God’s grace, and it should challenge us to our core. AMEN.