The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) reading comes from Jonah 3.10-4.11, one of the “minor” prophetic books in the OT. This book is unusual for the literature in that it recounts the prophet’s story rather than his prophecy.
God sent Jonah to Nineveh, that great heathen city and enemy of Israel, to warn of God’s impending judgment upon their immorality. Jonah was more than a little reluctant, and he ran as far as he could, but finally submitted to the prophetic call and preached to that alien people.
Jonah’s mission was a success, and he was furious.
Perhaps he feared his reputation as a prophet – after all, if you threaten fire from the sky upon the city brothels, but everyone gets a soft rain on their sackcloth, it’s a good indication that either the prophet is a crackpot, or that the prophet’s God is merciful and loving. Jonah is likely more concerned for his own reputation than that of the Lord – to say nothing of all the time and energy he wasted. I know that if I were going to a strange land to make threats in public, I’d want to see a much bigger body count. It doesn’t help either that, in general, good news for big pagan cities was bad news for little Israel.
God, for his part, seems quite upset that Jonah has not seen fit to emulate God’s attitude toward the roaring pagans of Nineveh. It almost seems like he spits his words at the Lord, as beautiful words of praise are intended as a stinging rebuke “…I knew you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” If God is so capricious, so shallow and fickle, thinks Jonah, as to take the pious playacting of the pagans as evidence of real repentance, let him kill Jonah now, because that makes for a pretty untrustworthy God. Jonah, you understand, was being something of a drama queen.
But the Lord grows a plant to shade the fuming Jonah from the heat of the sun. And then he kills it. Jonah rails against God, renewing his righteous indignation against an arbitrary deity. God continues his Socratic questioning: “You care about a plant. You care about the plant because you find it useful. Those people and those animals – they’re not doing me any good at all, but I care very much for them. The cows, Jonah! I think about the cows. Which one of us is really arbitrary? Which one of us really cannot be trusted to be faithful?
Today’s words from Paul in 1:21-27 in his Letter to the Philippians offer a stark contrast to Jonah’s resentment. Whereas Jonah suffered because of his rejection of God’s love for the undeserving, Paul suffers because of his willingness to preach the good news about Jesus, the world’s true Lord, to even the Imperial Household! Jonah despaired of death because he despised the mercy of the Lord, finding it unfair and by his own standards, arbitrary. Paul, however, was a man transformed by God’s mercy through Jesus Christ and was so grateful for this that he was pleased to spend himself to share that experience with others. Paul welcomed death because of his real suffering, and Jonah’s suffering stemmed only from his choice of ingratitude.
In our gospel reading, Jesus offers us a parable of economics in the Kingdom of God – the Kingdom of which Caesar’s empire is only a parody. In biblical literature, vineyard workers usually signify the people of God living and working according to God’s rule in the land of Israel. In our story, God is represented as a vineyard owner who pays only fairly to those who work all day, and is much more than fair to those who come around later: he gives them all the same wages. Jesus’ story would have had particular resonance for somebody like Paul. Though as a Jew, his people – the first vineyard workers – were included first in God’s Kingdom project. Gentiles were hired later, as it were.
Paul himself was a latecomer to the Movement. He had persecuted the fledgling Church with vigor, and having received forgiveness was eager to proclaim the same grace to a pagan people that didn’t know the God of Israel. We could safely say that at least one purpose in the Matthean context was to place Jewish and Gentile believers on equal footing.
Attempts at contemporary application for the parable can be murky, however. One popular interpretation of the parable reads it in the context of conversion and the Final Judgment, arguing that it demonstrates full validity for the last-minute, deathbed conversions of raucous sinners. Without directly challenging the time-honored practice of snatching sick sinners right from the very maw of eternal hell, I will argue that we cannot use the parable for this purpose. First, such an interpretation that offers equal eschatological rewards for unequal efforts directly contradicts the previous paragraph in Matthew in which Jesus states that everybody’s going to get paid back a hundredfold for everything they left behind for the Kingdom. Second, I’m reluctant to consider this a parable of judgment, because when Jesus tells those, he’s usually alluding to his own rejection and God’s vindication: in Jesus’ parables of judgment, the owner usually comes home and burns the vineyard and kills the wicked servants. This parable is not presented as a parable of judgment, but an illustration of everyday life under God’s reign: this is what the Kingdom of God is like. After all, a denarius is a daily wage, and a subsistence wage at that. That doesn’t sound like a hundredfold return to me, or much of a “final reward.” It’s more than an little out of place to represent eschatological judgment in this fashion: “Oh, you’ve come to the restoration of heaven and earth. Here’s a days’ worth of food; do try to make it last.”
So as we put aside the usual interpretations, how do we hear this story? As Kingdom people – a community that lives presently under God’s Reign, we “tend the vineyard” by living according to his rule and carry out his Mission. Cyril of Alexandria offers his reading:
“He gives to all ‘their single denarius,’ which is the grace of the Spirit, perfecting the saints in conformity with God and impressing the heavenly stamp on their souls and leading them to life and immortality.”As we do this work, each of us is offered the same necessary grace and supply of the Spirit for faithful work.
Some of us are “early hires” in the work of the Lord. We show hospitality. We teach to any who would listen, the Christian message of God’s reign established in Christ. We are faithful to study the Scriptures, pray the Office, work the disciplines and cultivate a life of forgiveness toward our friends and blessings for our enemies. We have spent years learning to dedicate ourselves to holiness and the work of God in his world. People like us can be easily tempted to think like Jonah and the other early hires of whom Jesus spoke: ready to say how and when and why God should show generosity to others. We can be quick to consider our accolades, awards, degrees, reputations, and expect that a good God will make sure everything is fairly apportioned.
This is Jesus’ call to his faithful ones: “Set aside your symbols of accomplishment, and let go of your comparisons to others. Step away from each talisman of security and worth, and really trust me. Trust that I love you. Trust that even while I delight in your faithfulness, I don’t love you because of it. Trust that I simply love you.” We always begin to lose our way when we imagine that we can earn or deepen the love of God.
Some of us might think of ourselves as “late hires.” Perhaps we’ve only met Jesus late on our lives, or only recently began to get serious about discipleship. Maybe we’re not seriously dedicated to the Kingdom yet at all! Some of us come from alternative religious traditions in which we were told lies about God, and so we’re more than happy to keep Jesus at arm’s length for awhile. Maybe we stand at the far end of a lot of years or an entire life in which we didn’t do anything that we meant to, and find hopes and our dreams for our selves, our families, our religion and our careers to be dashed upon a rock. Nobody’s going to pick us first for kickball, vineyard tending or dog catching. Some of us strive after those accolades and degrees, looking for a rationale to talk other people into loving us, and to talk Jesus into saying we’re good enough. We desperately need to believe that Jesus really does love us and will love us and will heal us regardless of our accomplishments, because we just don’t have very many of those.
Here is good news: he offers all of us the same grace, and the same hope of transformation, whether we are 18 or 80, faithful or failing. Jesus is our host. He invites us all to the same table to get what we so desperately need: to eat his flesh and drink his blood in these holy mysteries, and to receive the supply of the Spirit in order to amend our lives and to carry on the work of his Kingdom. “Come to me, all you who are weak, and carry a heavy burden. I will place my yolk upon your shoulders, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Holiness is not a function of what we avoid, or even the good works we perform. Christian holiness means that we belong to Jesus, and seek to grow in love. We progress in that life by confessing our failings and confessing our trust in the one who can and will do a good work in us for the sake of his love. One of the most urgent questions in the life of the ancient Christian churches was how to understand the reality of the Church’s holiness through its mystical union with Jesus Christ as well as the reality of its members’ sinfulness. Some argued that the Church could only be holy if its members always maintained their moral purity, always resisted sin, and never denied the Lord through their words or actions. All of those who fall short after baptism must be put out. Saint Augustine maintained that such a stance placed the Church over against the teaching of Jesus, who entreated us daily to ask forgiveness for our sins – we would do poorly to prefer our perfectionism over Jesus’ merciful realism. 
Christians do not grow in holiness because they avoid everything that’s bad for them, and make all of the right choices. If this were true, we’d simultaneously be growing in pride. It’s not about checking off all the right boxes and obeying all the rules. Holiness comes through ongoing exposure to truth – the truth about ourselves and the truth about Jesus Christ. As the Lord and the Christian Community reveal our sins to us, we confess them and place our trust in the forgiveness and generous mercy of Jesus Christ. We are made holy through our receptivity to the truth, and our admission of our own need for healing and forgiveness, and continual trust in God to restore us.
Last week the Church commemorated one of her martyrs, a pastor named Cyprian. Cyprian was made bishop of the Church at Carthage in the year 250, just in time for a short but vicious persecution of Christians at the hands of the Empire. In the face of torture, exile, and loss of property, many Christians kept the faith, and refused to deny Christ. Some lived and some died. Others gave into the pressure of the persecution and denied the Lord. When the persecution ended, there was great controversy over the fate of the lapsed who wished to rejoin the Christian community. Rigorists insisted that the lapsed had committed the sin against the Holy Spirit in denying the Lord, and should not be re-admitted to the community. Cyprian was one of the bishops who insisted upon modeling the Lord’s mercy, and maintained that He welcomed all who repented and turned again. The lapsed were required to undergo a long period of penance before admission to the Lord’s table – a period of fasting and spiritual disciplines, in order that they would be strong enough to confess the Holy Name.
AD257 saw a new persecution in North Africa, at which point Cyprian re-admitted all of the lapsed to the table of the Lord. He entreated other bishops to do the same, for reasons he describes in a letter to the Bishop of Rome:
“…Now peace is necessary, not for the sick, but for the strong…. And, as the Eucharist is appointed a safeguard to those who receive, we need it in order to arm, with the protection of the Lord’s abundance, those whom we wish to be safe against the adversary. For how do we teach or provoke them to shed their blood in confession of his Name, if we deny to those who are about to enter warfare the Blood of Christ? How do we make them fit for the cup of martyrdom, if we do not first admit them to drink, in the Church, the cup of the Lord by right of Communion?”Jesus Christ and his Church call us to be faithful workers in the vineyard by cultivating holiness and growing in faithfulness to mission. In baptism, we receive a work of grace by which we no longer belong to ourselves, but to Jesus Christ and one another. In this initiation sacrament there is spiritual power as we are made alive in Jesus to stand against sin and death, both in our own lives and the culture around us. In the sacrament of Holy Communion we receive “the medicine of immortality” by which we overcome fear, addiction, selfishness, and all the snares of the evil one. In study of the Scriptures, we learn the truth that sets us free from all the lies we may have believed about God and ourselves. Steps of obedience in the life of the Christian community and faithful study of the Christian tradition will teach us to walk with integrity and wisdom, and to be more faithful to our identity in Christ.
All of this, of course, leads us on in mission as we seek to be vineyard workers faithful to the vision of the vineyard owner. We have been sent to speak and enact an alternative story of love and forgiveness in the midst of a people who are determined that everybody should have just what they deserve. We are a people who will bless our enemies, pray for those who use us, and lavish forgiveness on those who want to hurt us. We will offer people what they need regardless of what they deserve: a relationship with Jesus Christ and a place in his new humanity.
So draw near to God by making faithful and honest confession of your faults. Come to the table praying forgiveness for those who have wronged you, and blessing for those you can’t stand. Come and share mystical communion with the risen Lord by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Receive power to be Jesus People.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 This paragraph is adapted from a great discussion in the second chapter of Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church, Eerdmans, 2005.