Sermon in CR Chapel on Sunday 18 September 2011

Proper 20    Year A

“For me living is Christ and dying is gain”

If your pub quiz team is asked, ‘Which book of the Bible ends with a question?’ you will have been glad to have heard Jonah read in Mattins this morning: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?” God is concerned with the conversion of Nineveh (and we’ll return to that concern in a moment) but also, in that polished miniature which is The Book of the Prophet Jonah, God is concerned with the conversion of his own prophet. It is part of the pleasure and wonder of the book to find that Jonah, the man of God, proves far harder-hearted than all Nineveh’s brigands, militarists, speculative bankers and riotous assemblies – all who “do not know their right hand from their left”.

Jonah is an angry man. He is not just ‘Jonah the Moaner’, as one animated version of the tale memorably dubbed him – he is a man filled with righteous wrath. This could be mere chauvinism: – God for Jonah is the God of Israel and has no business showing concern for Israel’s enemies. Yet I think it is more likely that Jonah feels affronted by God’s arbitrary ways: where are God’s justice and equity if God acts on a whim? It is an anger we hear also in Job and in the psalmist. In a world seemingly without moral meaning, Jonah can say, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

God does not dismiss Job’s anger, however petulant. To effect Jonah’s conversion God pulls out all the stops, so that Chapter 4, which we heard, reads like a version of the Benedicite orchestrated into comic opera. The vegetable world, the world of creeping things, the meteorological world all move at God’s appointment to get Jonah’s attention, to place him in a position where his anger is patently absurd and self-serving but also a position where he has to admit concern for another living thing, the unfortunate castor-oil plant.

Because The Book of Jonah ends with a question we don’t know whether God’s cosmic mini-drama works; we don’t know whether Jonah repents of his judgmentalism and self-centredness. The point of the book, of course, is not to satisfy our curiosity about Jonah but to test our hearts – hence the question, “should I not be concerned about Nineveh?”. Nineveh, I suggested earlier, is all those many people, the one hundred and twenty thousand, the great city, whom we place outside the pale, whose attitudes and actions we feel as threatening us.

It might equally be a church unlike our own; a church such as that in China far off and with 60 million at worship every Sunday, as we heard on Radio 4 last week, largely untutored in the history and theology of Western Christianity, a Church which values experiences above learning, which has arisen from of healing and exorcism. That’s powerful and potentially a rogue element, upsetting our careful and wise balance.

However, if we define God and make his justice conform to our measure, we have already accommodated God to our ways, trapped God into a game whose rules we play to our own advantage, like the prodigal Son’s elder brother, like Jonah. Can God’s people be so wrapped up in a morality tale of our own inventing, that we fail to hear the cry of God’s heart for God’s whole creation ... or, like Jonah, if  we hear it, refuse to listen; become ourselves the rogue element?

Jesus shows us otherwise. Without denying God’s justice, he continually draws us to see – to receive – God’s abundant overflowing compassion. He shows us this in his own life and, as we were reminded on Wednesday, above all when lifted up on the cross. He shows us this compassion in this never-ceasing engagement of eternity with creation, which is the sacrament of the eucharist. He shows us this same generous care of God in the parable he tells which is today’s gospel – shows it and, in renewing us in hope and open-heartedness, bestows it. It too is a parable to convert the hard-hearted people of God and it comes in Matthew’s gospel after discussion on who can be saved and what reward Jesus’ followers will receive and just before the entry into Jerusalem; a time when Jesus literally and symbolically opens blind eyes.

How fresh this parable seems; how applicable today, as in every age. This landowner is like no other. We admire the inner freedom which enables him to disburse his money without being cramped by convention. We admire the persistence which brings him from home again and again to hire labourers. Especially, we admire the largeness of vision which brings him to pay the day’s wage to the eleventh-hour workers. We admire all this, while prudently reminding ourselves to be a little careful with our own money ... and while feeling some of the disgruntlement of the earliest workers. It hardly seems equitable – and yet we’re stuck: we cannot argue it is unjust.

What is it which drives our sense of injury (which the parable terms ‘envy’ or ‘giving the evil eye’)? There is on our part - on the part of the early labourers - an instinct to measure out, to apportion: some more, some less. “You have made them equal to us,” they complain. Yes, indeed. This is God’s equity. God, who does what he wills with his own. God who, as we have just heard with Jonah, takes concern for the whole creation. In this end-of-the-day accounting, the landowner imparts a new understanding of our common humanity, that for all to be paid the same daily wage is for all to be paid what is right.

Is this good? To ask ourselves that, we might also ask: who would you rather be? - The early labourer? The latest comer? Those hired in the middle of the day? The answer isn’t necessarily as obvious as we might at first suppose. Through our own lives there will be times when we have been in each of these places. The Christians who come later, such as those Chinese Christians today, are they to be accounted of less worth? Their Church as of less value than ours? Indeed, we do not know what time of day it is. We know we were not the first to be hired and we esteem those – the apostles and martyrs - who have borne the burden of the first hours of the day but are we the nine-o’clock labourers? Or those hired at three? Or among the five o’clock intake, those who have endured the long hours with ever-decreasing hope? We can’t be sure. We rely on the generous nature of the landowner and on his freedom to do whatever he wills with his own.

In the Church of God, there are none who are more or less; we are brothers and sisters, each of whom is valued as if of a full day’s worth. We, who are companions of the risen Christ on the way, whose steps are always overtaken by the life of the new world to come, with its uncanny ability to re-cast our minds and lives, we above all know we depend on this astonishing divine equity, this God-given  equality. Because it is with that first of labourers, the Son of God himself, that we are made equal, his brothers and sisters, co-heirs with him and the wage God so freely gives is life, his own life.

So St. Paul can say, in the text we started with (and he knew, none better): “For me living is Christ and dying is gain.”

Oswin CR