Have you ever had that stumper of a question put to you? How can a loving God send people to Hell? How can a loving God send people to Hell? What I find interesting in today’s readings – especially our Old Testament and Gospel reading is a different question. The question – how can a loving God NOT send people to Hell?
Our Old Testament reading tells a bizarre account of a prophet named Jonah. He was sent by God to an evil country called Nineveh. His message to them from God was that in 40 days God was going to destroy them because of their evil. Jonah didn’t want to go there and jumps on a ship going in the opposite direction to Tarshish. But God, instead of finding someone else, sticks with Jonah to teach him a valuable lesson.
God sends a storm to cause the ship to almost sink. Jonah, realising that he is at fault offers to be thrown overboard. The crew do so and he is swallowed by a giant fish for 3 days and then spat up onto the shore.
He goes and delivers the message and as a result Nineveh repents and God changes his mind about destroying it.
Now we have in our reading a sulking Jonah. And why is he sulking? From Jonah’s own mouth: 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. Jonah wasn’t afraid of the Ninevites and what they might do to him. He was afraid of God’s love and mercy and that he would not follow up the threat if Nineveh became aware of their destruction and asked for God’s mercy. That’s why Jonah didn’t want to go – he wasn’t afraid of what Nineveh would do to him; He was afraid what God would actually do to Nineveh- forgive them.
We have a similar situation in the Gospel reading where Jesus tells a parable about workers in a vineyard. There are the lucky ones who were given a full day’s employment with full wages. During the course of the day he went out 4 more times – 9am, noon, 3pm and 5pm – offering work. And when it came time to pay them he paid them all a full day’s wage. Even though the ones hired first received what they had agreed to they were furious because the owner paid even those who had worked just one hour the same amount of money – a full days wage. The owner responds: Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?
I have to admit that sometimes my comfort comes knowing that there is a judgment day and that those who have caused an injustice in the world will need to give an account before God. But in reality that is no better than Jonah or the workers who grumbled against the landowner’s generosity. The stories of Jonah and the generous landowner challenge us when we try to evaluate what is fair or not fair in life. When we evaluate fairness we usually evaluate from our perspective and how a situation affects us. What God is trying to teach us here is to consider a bigger picture when evaluating fairness.
God speaks with a very angry Jonah who believes God has acted in an unfair way. Nineveh were evil people and they deserved to be punished – probably very true. But God wants Jonah to see it from a different perspective. In the heat of the day as Jonah sat and waited for God to destroy Nineveh, God appointed a bush to give shade over Jonah and 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 died 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, 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?”
Jonah was considering fairness from his own perspective and failed to see that even though Nineveh were evil they were still God’s people whom he created. People whom he loved so much that he would send his own Son to die for their sins. And that’s the same with our Gospel reading. It was not about fairness but about God’s love and care for all people. Yes the ones who worked only an hour received exactly the same as those who worked the entire day and maybe it seemed unfair to those who worked all day. But God was fair to everybody giving them what they needed and not what they deserved. God was fair in that he gave what he had promised – a full day’s wage.
And that’s the lesson for us. That we received from God not what we deserve but what we need. And God will honour his promises to us when it comes to eternal life in Heaven. Let us ever be thankful that we do NOT receive from God what we deserve but from the gracious love and mercy of God. Let us be thankful that for us God is a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. So as we reflect on God from that perspective let us also reflect that outward and not gauge life as to whether it is fair or not from OUR perspective but from God’s perspective who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
As Christians who know that we are saved by grace this should also be our perspective throughout life.
Life is often unfair. For some it is mostly unfair when we look at how some people prosper in life and yet have no regard for God in their life. Paul could easily had seen life as unfair from his perspective. From the moment he became a Christian it seemed like his earthly life became so unfair. From a respected and influential Pharisee Paul was now subject to persecution, ridicule and imprisonment. But Paul did not see life from that perspective. Rather he saw it from God’s perspective: He says: To me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 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. So Paul saw the difference in perspective. If he were to die he knew he would go to Heaven and how great that would be. But to continue to live, even though it meant imprisonment, threats to his life and all sorts of hardship – it meant that he could keep working for God and spreading the Gospel for other.
Maybe life sometimes seems unfair but this is where faith comes in. We know God is loving and gracious and will give to us eternal life as he has promised. If we want to consider unfair, how unfair that he who had no sin became sin for us so that we should become the righteousness of God. As we consider Jesus’ parable today let us remember that those who worked all day, knew all day that they and their family would be able to afford a meal that night. But those who were employed only in the last hour did not know until that last hour that they might be able to put something on the table for their family to eat even if it was just one hour’s pay as they presumed. Let us continue to pray for the godless so they too may be able to experience the joy we have knowing that whatever life presents us, our present suffering is not worth comparing to the joy and glory that awaits us. And let us remember that today that reality is one day closer that it was yesterday.