Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:
“Is It Right for You to Be Angry?”
First Baptist Richmond, September 24, 2023
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16
When God saw what they 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.
Last week I mentioned that I would be starting a new sermon series today called “Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned,” in which I would be looking at the Old Testament reading and the Gospel lesson side-by-side. The next day I got voicemail from a very thoughtful stranger who suggested that maybe instead of saying “Old Testament” I could refer to it as the “Hebrew Bible,” which sounds a little less derogatory. I appreciated that, but on Tuesday I talked with an actual biblical studies professor, and I asked her what she thought. She said that she also prefers the term “Hebrew Bible.” I said, “Well, that makes sense. It is written mostly in Hebrew. But if we call it that shouldn’t we call the New Testament the ‘Greek Bible,’ since it is written mostly in Greek?” She said we could, but I think she began to see my point, that it wasn’t really about what language it was written in, but who it was written for, and why. Maybe the Old Testament was written for the Hebrew people, but was the New Testament written for the Greeks?
I said, “When I call it the Old Testament, I don’t mean that it’s been replaced by the New Testament, in the way you might throw out your old shoes when you get some new ones. To me it’s not like old shoes, but rather like aged wine. It’s good! And I think it may have been what Jesus was talking about when he said, “No one, after drinking the old wine wants the new, for they will say, ‘The old is good!’” (Luke 5:39). The old is good. The Old Testament is good. The New Testament, which is filled with the new wine of Jesus’ teaching, is a little hard to swallow, but after 2,000 years it’s gotten easier, hasn’t it? His teaching has aged some. In fact, for some of us, the new wine has become old wine, so smooth on the preacher’s tongue that we hardly hear it anymore. Maybe it will help to hold up the teaching of the older testament next to the teaching of the newer testament just to see the contrast, and to see how Jesus was re-working material that would have been familiar to everyone.
Because that’s the premise of this series: that Jesus was re-interpreting or re-imagining material that would have been familiar to everyone. In Luke 4 we are told that when Jesus was in Nazareth he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath as was his custom, and we can imagine that it had been his custom since he was a little boy, going to that synagogue and hearing the Scriptures read aloud every Sabbath. We know that they must have had a Torah scroll in that synagogue, because you couldn’t have a synagogue without one, and we know they had the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, because again, in Luke 4, that’s the one that Jesus was given when he stood up to read. But we don’t know how many other scrolls they might have had. It wasn’t like now, when the entire Bible is published in one volume and you can find it in your pew rack. Scrolls would have been expensive and hard to come by. I doubt that a synagogue like the one in Nazareth would have had the entire collection. But where they didn’t have the scrolls they had the stories, because long before anyone began to write them down God’s people had told God’s stories around the campfires of ancient Israel. There was an oral tradition as rich as any that has ever existed, and as a result there were some stories that everyone just knew.
The story of Jonah, for instance.
We know it because it has a big fish in it. It’s part of our oral tradition. In Sunday school classrooms across the country and around the world teachers tell children the story of this reluctant prophet who tried to escape his calling by sailing in the other direction, away from Nineveh and toward Tarshish, when a big storm came along that threatened to sink his ship. He told the sailors that it was his fault, that God was punishing him for trying to escape and that they should throw him overboard. They didn’t want to, but eventually they did and when they did the storm stopped. Jonah sank down deep into the water and would have drowned except that an enormous fish came along and swallowed him up. He prayed to God from the belly of the fish and three days later it spit him out on the shore so that he could fulfill his mission. It’s a wonderful story, and children love it (especially the part about the fish), but the fish is not really the point. The point, for God, is the people of Nineveh.
You need to understand that these were Israel’s enemies. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and it was the Assyrians who had come down on Israel in 722 B.C. “like a wolf on the fold,”i destroyed the capital city of Samaria, and taken its citizens into captivity. The Israelites hated the Ninevites, and when the word of the Lord came to Jonah, the son of Amittai, the word was this: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah didn’t want anything to do with the Ninevites. He went in the other direction. God had to take extreme measures to get him back on track again, but when he did Jonah went through the city shouting, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He wasn’t asking them to repent. He was simply proclaiming their impending destruction and on some level it must have been extremely satisfying. But then the King rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. He called on the whole city to repent saying, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind.” And then God did change his mind, and it made Jonah furious.
There is a kind of anger called “righteous indignation,” which I sometimes define as, “being angry for the right reasons.” Righteous indignation feels good (it can feel so good!). But the very existence of righteous indignation suggests that there is also unrighteous indignation, which could be defined as “being angry for the wrong reasons,” and that’s what Jonah was. He was angry because God had decided to spare the people of Nineveh. He 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.” It couldn’t be any clearer: Jonah is angry because God is gracious and merciful, and that’s the wrong reason to be angry. The only people who could possibly be angry for that reason are the ones who believe they don’t need God’s grace or mercy—that is, the ones who believe they have inherited their salvation from their righteous ancestors, or earned it through their own hard work. Which brings us to this morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 20.
This is the well-known parable of “the Laborers in the Vineyard,” and it is so well known that we [probably] didn’t even need to read it this morning. The owner of a vineyard goes out to hire some workers to help him bring in his harvest. He goes out early in the morning, again at nine, again at noon, and again at 3:00, each time hiring a few more workers. But when he goes out at 5:00 and finds still others he says, “Why are you standing around doing nothing?” And they say, “Because no one would hire us.” He says, “I’ll hire you,” and they, too, begin to work in the vineyard. But an hour later, when the harvest has been brought in, the landowner is feeling generous. He whispers some instructions in his manager’s ear, including the instruction to pay the workers beginning with those who were hired last (because this is a parable of the Kingdom, right? Where the last are always first?).
They line up, and those who worked only an hour get a full denarius—a day’s pay—which gets all the others excited. They figure that if this crazy landowner pays a full denarius for an hour’s work, then those who worked three hours will get three denarii; those who worked six hours will get six denarii; those who worked nine hours will get nine denarii; and those who worked all day will get twelve denarii, the equivalent of two weeks’ pay! But when they stand before the manager each worker gets exactly the same pay—a single denarius—and it makes them furious. One of them complains to 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 the landowner replied, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me to work for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to these last ones hired the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I want with what is mine? Or are you jealous because I am generous?” In other words,
“Is it right for you to be angry?”
These who worked all day are full of unrighteous indignation. They are angry for the wrong reasons: angry because they think they deserve more than they got (or maybe because they think those others deserve less). But this is a parable of the Kingdom, and the Kingdom it illustrates is the Kingdom of God, and Jesus knows some things about God, not only because he is God’s beloved Son, but also because, when he was only a boy, he had heard the story of Jonah. At the end of that story Jonah is sitting outside the great city of Nineveh, sulking, and maybe wishing that God would change his mind and destroy the city after all. But while he is there the same God who appointed a fish to rescue Jonah from the deep appoints a bush to grow up over Jonah’s head, to protect him from the sun, to provide a little shade. And that makes Jonah happy. But at dawn the next day God appoints a worm to attack the root of the bush so that it withers and dies. And when the sun beats down on Jonah’s head he becomes angry. God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry?” And Jonah answers, “Yes, angry enough to die.” And God says, “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?”
Jesus seems to understand that the story of Jonah is a parable of grace, in which God gives to the prophet something he does not deserve: a little shade on a hot day. It makes Jonah happy. But when God takes that shade away Jonah is angry, angry enough to die. God is trying to teach Jonah a lesson: that it is his divine prerogative to give or to withhold grace. When he chooses to give it to people who don’t deserve it, Jonah must learn how to be happy, as happy as he was when God gave him a second chance. Because Jonah was sinking down into the depths, remember? Some might say he was “sinking deep in sin.” He was on the verge of drowning, of losing his life forever, when love lifted him. The God who saved Jonah also saved the Ninevites, and why? Because, as Jonah said, “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
Jesus knew that, and when he told parables about the Kingdom that was often the point: that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are his ways our ways. We might think the destruction of the Ninevites was justified, especially after what they did to God’s chosen people. And we might think it was fair that those who worked twelve hours in the vineyard should get more than those who worked only an hour. But the God of Jonah’s story is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And the landowner in Jesus’ parable is generous, giving to those who worked only an hour much more than they deserved. It’s easy to get angry about that, to feel ourselves swelling up with righteous indignation, until God asks the question: “Is it right for you to be angry?” That’s when we realize that, like Jonah, God has given us far more than we deserved.
God says to Jonah, “You were concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow. Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also many animals?” Persons who do not know their right hand from their left are little children, aren’t they? God is appealing to Jonah’s sense of justice as well as his sense of mercy. If these little children didn’t know their right hand from their left they couldn’t be guilty of sin, could they? And I love it that God’s last word in this book is a word about animals, those gentle beasts who grazed in the fields and never harmed a soul. God says to Jonah, “If you were concerned about a silly bush that you didn’t plant and didn’t cause to grow, should I not be concerned for Nineveh, that great city, in which there are so many innocent children and so many helpless animals?”
This is a God who shows mercy to children and animals, but one who also gives to his people and to all people so much more than they deserve. He gives us more than we deserve. He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Jesus knew that, and he shared it in the parables he told, but he may have learned it first from an old, old story about a man who was swallowed by a fish, because, honestly, aren’t the old things often the best?
—Jim Somerville © 2023