The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, 21 September 2014
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Jonah 3:10: - 4:11
St. Matthew 20:1-16
Although Nineveh is depicted as a rich and power city (see the Track 2 First Reading) it was not until 3,000 or more years after its first settlement, ca. 6000 BCE, that the provincial center took on any importance. Constructed on a fault line it was the victim of many earthquakes that decimated the city built of stone and mud brick. The ruins of the city, surrounded by a 7.5-mile brick rampart, lie near the modern city of Mosul.
The city was devoted to the cult of Ishtar, and it was the recipient of many a prophetic oracle against the city that was seen not only as sinful, but was also a considerable political threat to the city states in the Levant. It’s consummate greatness came in the ninth century during the reigns of Tiglath-Pileser I, Shalmaneser, Senacherib, and especially Ashurnasirpal II. In 627 BCE, the great empire that served this grand city began to experience difficulties. It was laid to rest by its former constituents, the Babylonians and Chaldeans, and the Medes and the Persians around 616 BCE. The empire came to a jarring halt in 605 BCE.
Nineveh appears in the bible at several points. Genesis 10 speaks of its founding, II Kings 19 begins the story of the threat that Assyria posed to Hezekiah, King of Judea, and Isaiah comments on this threat as an act of God. Although Jonah travels extensively to get away from Nineveh, it is there that he preaches his great sermon, and according to the Bible the city repents.
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."
Then the LORD said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days." So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, "In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?" And Moses said, "When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him-- what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD."
Then Moses said to Aaron, "Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, `Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'" And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. The LORD spoke to Moses and said, "I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, `At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'"
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat."
This is a familiar story that has several elements that were seen in earlier stories, and will be seen again in later stories. The first of these elements is the notion of “murmuring” or complaining. It becomes a pattern in the Moses Cycle and in the wanderings of Israel. Here the murmuring turns the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt on its head. At least during their enslavement, the people reason, they had something decent to eat, every day. Now, they continue reason, God has freed them only to kill them with hunger. Other actions have antecedents that also underscore the psychological elements of this spat between God and Israel. God promises a resolve to their problem of hunger as God “rains down” upon them the quail and the manna. The same verb that appears with the rains in the Flood Story, and in the plagues of Egypt is used here to describe the agent of God’s providence in providing food to Israel. There are restrictions, however. The provisions are not provided on the Sabbath – and this rule supplies another element – that of being tested.
These patterns and themes of starvation and thirst/food and drink, murmuring/turning to God, the glory of God/the testing by God, and others will form grist for the mill of the prophets that will follow, and will become types used in the later Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian Scriptures as well.
Breaking open Exodus:
- Do you have murmurings against God in your life?
- What matters do they involve?
- How has God provided when you have grumbled?
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 Confitemini Domino
Give thanks to the LORD and call upon his Name; *
make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him, *
and speak of all his marvelous works.
Glory in his holy Name; *
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.
Search for the LORD and his strength; *
continually seek his face.
Remember the marvels he has done, *
his wonders and the judgments of his mouth,
O offspring of Abraham his servant, *
O children of Jacob his chosen.
He led out his people with silver and gold; *
in all their tribes there was not one that stumbled.
Egypt was glad of their going, *
because they were afraid of them.
He spread out a cloud for a covering *
and a fire to give light in the night season.
They asked, and quails appeared, *
and he satisfied them with bread from heaven.
He opened the rock, and water flowed, *
so the river ran in the dry places.
For God remembered his holy word *
and Abraham his servant.
So he led forth his people with gladness, *
his chosen with shouts of joy.
He gave his people the lands of the nations, *
and they took the fruit of others' toil,
That they might keep his statutes *
and observe his laws.
In this historical psalm, the author rehearses the story of Israel from Abraham to the Exodus, and finally the Promised Land. If there is a theme, it is this, “Remember the marvels (God) has done, (God’s) wonders and the judgments of God’s mouth.” Of interest to us this morning are the passages that reflect the first reading, the quail, and the “bread from heaven.” Also noted are the cloud that served not only as a sign and reality of God’s shekinah (glory) but also as a “light” and a “covering. All of this is rooted in the covenant that was made with Abraham, and from this agreement between humankind and YHWH, flows a story of salvation, event by event. At the end lies treasure. First there is “the lands of the nations,” and the “fruit of others’ toil” (a satisfying notion following years of slavery. The real treasure, however, lies at the absolute end of the psalm, “That they might keep (God’s) statutes and observe (God’s) laws.”
Breaking open Psalm 114:
- What has God given you that you really didn’t deserve?
- Have you done the same for others? How?
- How does the Law help us to love our neighbor?
When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? 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. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?" Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die than to live."
But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die." Then the LORD said, "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?"
Is this a psychological study of the prophetic mind, or is it a sermon delivered to expound on the universal mercy of God? Perhaps it is both. To get into the mind of Jonah, it might be good to read the entire book (it’s short) and discover Jonah’s attitudes toward God, toward Nineveh, and toward humanity in general. Perhaps Jonah is merely a misanthrope, or perhaps he is merely pushing against a universalistic trend that was seen in the post-exilic period.
It appears that Jonah is a very effective preacher, for the city repents. It is then that we become acquainted with the peculiarities of Jonah. He leaves the city, but not entirely. He does not leave in the direction of his home, but instead moves toward the east, perhaps emphasizing that it is not proximity to Israel that saved Nineveh, but rather God’s mercy. There he and God have a contest of wills and perception. Sorry for the plant that had shaded him and is not destroyed by the sun’s heat, Jonah displays a forgetfulness (or perhaps regret) for what God has done for Nineveh. Jonah’s sympathies seem ill placed and inappropriate. Jonah seems not to acknowledge God’s final question, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city?” Perhaps the question is not directed at Jonah, so much as it is directed to us, the readers or hearers.
Breaking open the Jonah:
- Was Jonah being reasonable in his objections?
- What would you have done?
- How would you answer God’s question at the end of the pericope?
Psalm 145:1-8 Exaltabo te, Deus
I will exalt you, O God my King, *
and bless your Name for ever and ever.
Every day will I bless you *
and praise your Name for ever and ever.
Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
there is no end to his greatness.
One generation shall praise your works to another *
and shall declare your power.
I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty *
and all your marvelous works.
They shall speak of the might of your wondrous acts, *
and I will tell of your greatness.
They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; *
they shall sing of your righteous deeds.
The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
Like the psalm coming immediately before this one, and the ones following after, this is a true psalm of praise, that rejoices in God’s greatness and power. The verse that ties it to the first reading (Jonah) would seem to be verse eight, “the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.” It is unfortunate that verse nine is omitted from the liturgical reading. It’s text, “The Lord is good to all,” really seems to underscore the message of Jonah.
Breaking open the Psalm 103:
- What does the phrase, “the Lord is good to all” mean to you?
- How do you make that a reality in your own life?
- Who is it that needs your love and compassion?
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God's doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well-- since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Paul writes to the church at Philippi from the belly and heart of the beast – Rome. He is imprisoned there, and so his comments about life and death are quite poignant. He observes the economy of faith, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” It’s a reversal of the usual thought. He knows the tentative nature of his own living in the flesh and calls the Philippians to see the certainty of living in Christ (dying is gain!) We are on the horns of a dilemma. Apparently even every day life was difficult for the Philippians. Their opponents did not appreciate these distinctions about life and living. To them gain was, well, gain – it had nothing to do with this new spiritual reality. For them it had only to do with faithfulness to the gods and the state. Paul moves his hearers to an understanding of life’s difficulties and dilemmas, “For (God) has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” This suffering is something that Paul knows well, and he is glad to know that in his own suffering the Philippians can see an aspect of faith.
Breaking open Philippians:
- How have you suffered for your faith?
- Do your neighbors support you in your belief?
- Do others see you as a person of faith?
St. Matthew 20:1-16
Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, `You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, `Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, `You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, `Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
There is in this text a sense of urgency, perhaps because this is the harvest of the vintage. Workers were needed at all times to bring in the precious harvest of grapes. For Jesus, the urgency was to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, and for Matthew the urgency was for his hearers to understand that those called earlier (Israel) and those called later (the Gentiles) were entitled to the same benefit in the Kingdom. I am reminded of St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Homily:
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast,
and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
This would have been an issue for Matthew’s readers. For some, their acceptance of Christ was an affront to family and tradition. Perhaps they wondered why the invitation was given to those who hadn’t suffered as much. Were the Gentiles Nineveh, and is Matthew warning us to not be a Jonah?
Breaking open the Gospel:
- Is the kingdom of heaven about fairness or equality?
- Is there someone more deserving of salvation that you?
- Is there someone less deserving of salvation than you? Who?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller