Last revised: September 16, 2017
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PROPER 20 (September 18-24) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 25
RCL: Exodus 16:2-15 or Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
RoCa: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16
1. Sandor Goodhart, Sacrificing Commentary, ch. 5, “‘Out of the Fish’s Belly’: Prophecy, Sacrifice, and Repentance in the Book of Jonah,” pp. 139-167. Goodhart’s treatment of Jonah recalls a theme that I have emphasized in these lectionary reflections, a theme of Gil Bailie’s from his reading of the Elijah saga (see Violence Unveiled, pp. 169-173). Bailie refers to the climax of Elijah’s great victory over the priests of Ba’al, a climax which issues in the slaughter of all those priests, as an “anti-sacrificial sacrifice.” Using similar logic, Goodhart talks about the story of Jonah as revealing Jonah’s tendency to make an idol out of the law of anti-idolatry. His aversion to the idolatry of the Ninevites has caused him to idolize his own attitude toward them, leaving no room for the compassion of God. He would rather die than see God seemingly break God’s own law against idolatry. Jonah’s own idolatry of the law of anti-idolatry has blinded him to the fact that God can still hold firm against idolatry while having compassion on the idolaters.
The story of Jonah brilliantly brings out this point through the parable of the kikayon plant in the last scene. The most common reading is that it is an object lesson in compassion. God tells Jonah, ‘You felt sorry for this poor bush. How much more should I feel compassion for the people of the great city of Ninevah?’
But Goodhart suggests a more complex reading, having to do with idolizing the law of anti-idolatry. Jonah forgets that the Jews are themselves ex-Ninevites, people who used to practice sacrificial idolatry before giving it up. Goodhart writes:
Jonah [in having less compassion for the Ninevites than he does for the bush] is reenacting the very idolatry whose rejection enabled the Jews to give up their sacrificial origins and become Jews in the first place. To turn against the Ninevites is to turn against the Jews. It is to fall into a Ninevitian sacrificial mode of a new and more dangerous order since it is to do so in the wake of the revelation of anti-idolatry. It is to make an idol of the law of anti-idolatry itself (p. 156).
Finally, Goodhart, a Jewish scholar, places the story of Jonah within its context as the primary afternoon reading in the liturgy of the high, holy day Yom Kippur:
The story of Jonah becomes then our parable of the kikayon through which the dangers of our own idolatrous behavior may be narratively staged in order that we may stop and return to the ways of God (p. 163).
And the greatest danger of idolatrous behavior is that in condemning others we end up condemning ourselves, which Jonah pointedly, though unawaringly, states himself: “for it is better for me to die than to live.” Goodhart concludes:
In the context of the synagogue service we now understand that we must have compassion, the story tells us, in the first instance, not upon the others but upon ourselves, or, rather, upon others but precisely insofar as we recognize already in ourselves in those others. We must give up the judgment of ourselves, the self-condemnation, upon which the fashioning of kikayons [read as “idols”] is based. We must, in short, engage in self-forgiveness, and it is the lack of self-forgiveness (expressing itself first as anger against the salvation of the Ninevites) that is above all finally reflected in Jonah’s resonant words: It is better for me to die than to live (p. 166).
2. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, ch. 4, “Spluttering Up the Beach to Ninevah,” pp. 86-104. Alison reads his own story from the story of Jonah:
In my own case, the exile into which so many gay men, at least, send ourselves, as our battle between pride and shame wags our lives like some unremitting tail on a hapless dog, was a real geographical one, acted out a whole ocean away over many, many years. Like Jonah, I managed to set myself up to be thrown overboard in a storm which was at least in part my own, and like Jonah, I found that just where I thought that I had at last managed to get myself thrown completely away, I found myself caught and held through the depths in which the utterly terrifying and yet completely gentle, unambiguous “yes” of God started to suggest into being the consciousness of a son, to bring forth the terrifying novelty of an unbound conscience.I find myself having been vomited up on the shore, and wondering where on earth is Nineveh, and what on earth to say to it. As I stumble up the shore, spitting out remnants of salt water, astounded to be alive, let alone to be a human being, there’s so much to be worked out, and I come to you for help, to ask you to join me in my splutterings. (pp. 94-95)
This chapter also is one of the places where, without taking the argument head-on, Alison relates the hurtful experience of arguments against gays revolving around orders of creation.
3. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 259-60. Marr writes,
Jonah’s readers, having experienced Assyria as “the rod of God’s anger,” (Isa. 10:5) would not likely be in a sweet enough mood to imagine God forgiving these ruthless invaders. Like Jonah, they were likely inclined to sulk at the idea and go back to relishing Nahum’s prophecy. Jonah’s story ends quietly with a bit of comedy. A bush grows to give him shade, but then the bush withers the next day. Jonah grows angry about the bush that had given him comfort only to die and leave him unsheltered in the sweltering heat. God then asks Jonah: “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?” (Jon. 4:11) This book gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves over our desires for vengeance. If ever we should manage to laugh, we will have begun to let go of our vengeful desires, at least a little. This book is a challenge thrown out to a whole nation with fresh memories of a severe trauma. They, and we, are asked to choose between Nahum and Jonah. The message of love of enemies in this tale surely inspired Jesus as he read the scriptures. When asked by the Pharisees and Sadducees for “a sign from heaven,” he told them the only sign they will get is “the sign of Jonah.” (Mt. 16:4) This sign is God’s call to all people to accept God’s merciful love. The Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t seem to like that. What about us?
Reflections and Questions
1. The Jonah story is a good companion to the parable of the vineyard: both stories focus on those who would begrudge God the divine generosity.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 22, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. Paul says essentially the same words as Jonah: it is better to die than to live. But how different the context! The preacher might want to flesh out the difference between someone who is suicidal and a person of faith who is ready to die. I think that Goodhart’s reading of the Jonah story is helpful in seeing the dynamics of suicide: to seeing the kind of condemnation of others which leads to condemnation of self.
This is the second of four consecutive major parables in Matthew that begin with a double designation to introduce the main character:
- 18:23: anthrōpō basilei — “a man, a king” — Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (18:23-35)
- 20:1: anthrōpō oikodespotē — “a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Generous Vineyard Owner (20:1-16)
- 21:33: anthrōpos ēn oikodespotēs — “There was a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-46)
- 22:2: anthrōpō basilei — “a man, a king” — Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding (22:1-14)
Some commentators say that the use of anthropos before “king” or “housemaster” is a typical Aramaism. But what if Matthew is trying to tell us something? Very often in history an allegorical interpretation is applied to these parables in which this main character is interpreted as God. But what if Matthew is using the double designation to make sure we don’t do that? That this householder should simply be seen as a man and not as God? This would be most crucial for the fourth of these parables where the king is downright brutal and vicious (see Proper 23A). I have come to frame Matthew’s Gospel as a encounter between God’s kingdom, the “kingdom of heaven,” and human kingdoms. See my essay
1. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 249-50.
2. Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, Preaching Peace, Proper 20A. Very important over the next several weeks, during Matthew’s “Parables of Judgment,” is to suspend an allegorical reading that too easily sees wealthy landowners and kings as God. This will be especially true in three weeks for the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding (Matt. 22:1-14; Proper 23A). The Girardian reading of judgment in the New Testament is as a self-judgment. God judges us by turning us over to our own human judgments. This was very clear in last week’s parable (Proper 19A). The master turns his servant over to the jailers only after the servant has insisted on living in the world of human judgment by refusing to forgive his fellow servant’s debt. Offered the world of forgiveness, the servant chooses, by his own actions, to live in the usual human world of debt-keeping.
In today’s parable, Hardin and Krantz corroberate a reading that resists seeing the landowner as God, but on different grounds than the one of God’s turning us over to self-judgment. They cite mimetic theory’s other principle tenet, our human entrapment in a mimetic desire that leads to rivalry and envy. This owner of vineyard is a human model of having more. The God we meet in Jesus Christ takes his place in the human world on the cross as one of the last. Hence, Jesus’ conclusion of, “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” Here are part of Hardin and Krantz’s fine reflections:
Mimetic theory might also suggest that we might desire to become a model to another, to wish the other to have less so that I might become a model of desire by having more. What is missing here is the model for more. How might those who worked longer come to desire to have more than another unless they have had it mediated to them by another? Who is left in our parable to serve as a mediator?
Once again, the character in our text who first appears to stand in for God exposes our culturally conditioned notions of the identity of the one Jesus knew as Abba. This owner gives out of his great wealth. He gives because he has the more that the resentful workers have been led to desire. They resent what he has paid them because he could have paid them more, because he is NOT the God made visible as described in Philippians 2.
Their resentment is perfectly justifiable in the world of the parable. It makes no sense at all in the world of Philippians 2, the world of the God of kenosis, of self-emptying.
It is important to keep in mind the setting of this parable, among so many other parables whose focus is forgiveness. We have noted recently that conditional forgiveness is no forgiveness at all. Today’s reading would add partial forgiveness is no forgiveness at all. In the world of the parable, more forgiveness seems possible, as the owner is the owner of so much more than he has given to the workers. In the world of Jesus Abba, there is only forgiveness. Everything else has been relinquished as the Creator enters into the abyss (thank you Tony for these wonderful images and metaphors). In what world does the worker of the first hour complain about an owner who has given up ownership of everything but love, but forgiveness?
The owner who is our God pays to each of us the whole of what there is to give. It is not until we make God into another owner who behaves as we do that resentment might grow up in us.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 18, 2005 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. “Are you envious that I am generous?” Perhaps a more loaded question than first appears. We usually think of stinginess as the opposite of generosity, but maybe the true opposite is envy. Isn’t envy the root cause of stinginess? In mimetic theory it is easy to see the relatedness. When we come to desire the same objects as our model/obstacles, those objects appear scarce to us, even when they aren’t. The children playing tug-of-war over a toy in a room full of toys, even duplicate toys, perceive that one toy as scarce. Thus, they want to horde it; they become stingy.
The question even takes us deeper in seeing that sin itself can be described as being envious over God’s generosity. When we properly focus on God as our model of desire, what we find is generosity. But the mimetic nature of that modeling can still lead to envy. The serpent convinces the man and woman in the garden that God’s generous setting of boundaries (forbidding only one tree among many) is actually stinginess: God is trying to horde the divine knowledge. An envious perception of generosity turns it into a perception of stinginess. The man and woman buy into it and thus condemn themselves to living in a world marked by stinginess and scarcity instead of a world of generosity and abundance. This parable once again invites the hearer to step into the latter the world, God’s world (like the unforgiving servant was invited to step into another world last week). See the 1996 sermon that continues the theme from last Sunday’s Gospel text, “Living in the World of Forgiveness, Part II.”
2. Another element of this parable that has become meaningful to me is that of the owner’s persistently going out in the vineyard to invite more laborers. There’s never a mention about needing more laborers. Rather, the parable makes note of a need in those invited as the owner notices their idleness. As such, this parable is about, as I highlight in the 1999 sermon, “The Grace of Fruitful Labor.”
3. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Jesus calls us to look after the least, the last, and the lost. Last week (2002) during the first anniversary of September 11, we repeatedly heard and saw the slogan, “We will never forget.” Is this “never forget” in the sense of, “Remember the Alamo!” — in other words, as revenge? Or is it in the sense of, “We will never forget the Holocaust”? With the latter, it has generally been a compassionate remembering that looks out for the least, the last, the lost, who are most likely to become the next victims of a sacrificial slaughter. If in remembrance of September 11 we say, “We will not forget,” can we say it in the latter sense of caring about the innocent people of Afghanistan and Iraq, who may become the victims of our “Remember the Trade Center!” sort of military actions?
4. Contrast our “We will never forget” over September 11 with a line that white folks can often be heard saying to African-Americans: “Forget about slavery already. That’s way in the past!” It’s easy for the first to tell the last to forget about it, isn’t it?