“That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful…”
Jonah 4:2, NRSV
This coming Sunday, we read part of the story of Jonah (3:10-4:11), a curiously unique little story of a different kind of prophet, one who is reluctant to serve and sulks when God generously forgives the sinners of Nineveh. Jonah’s attitude captures much of our human nature and reveals a common human problem: namely, that sometimes it is hard to praise God. Sure, it’s easy enough when things are going our way to thank God for His blessings and generosity, but just let one of our co-workers get some reward we think we deserve and that they don’t, and we can become angry, resentful and feel betrayed.
Certainly Jonah responded with all these emotions when God spared Nineveh. He was grateful for the plant that sprang up and shaded him, but he resented God’s deliverance of Nineveh from the hot fires of destruction. Jonah believed that the people of Nineveh were unrighteous sinners and he wanted them to get the punishment he believed they deserved. His plan was based on merit and, in his mind, Nineveh merited destruction. And in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew (20:1-16), the workers “who had borne the heat of the day” resented the generous payment the latecomers to the vineyard received. It is human nature, fallen human nature, to resent someone receiving anything—blessing, forgiveness, reward—that we believe they haven’t earned. Yet, in our resentment and jealousy, we forget that God deals with none of us—none of us—as we deserve. In God’s Kingdom, the last will be first, the least will be great, the lost will be found and the humbled will be honored. God’s Kingdom works on the principles of Grace and on the basis of God’s mercy.
In the world, there will be tribulation and struggle, Jesus tells us. According to the world, we are Nineveh and we deserve destruction, but the Good News is that we are—all of us—the workers who have nothing to offer. We are all the least, the lost and the last. And saving the least, the lost and the last is God’s specialty. The logical result of this teaching is that all plans depending on merit are wiped out. As followers of Jesus, we are expected to give ourselves over unreservedly to God’s will (“thy will be done”). Then God on His part will lavish Grace on us to a degree that cannot be merited.