Sermon for Sunday September 21st
25th of Ordinary Time
Whilst I’m not the greatest watcher of the TV, just occasionally I’ll sit down beside my family out of curiosity. And of late I was interested to see what the new Dr Who, Peter Capaldi, a man more of my generation would bring to this institution. And I wasn’t disappointed for in the episode I saw, he grappled with the question of ‘Goodness’ Asking his companion, ‘please tell me, be honest with me, Am I a good person?’
As the episode unwound, the Dr found himself once more confronted by his oldest enemy The Daleks – but one which rather than trying to ‘Exterminate the Dr’, wanted to exterminate the other Daleks. This particular Dalek had had a bit of short circuit and had decided that life would always triumph so it was futile trying to destroy it, better to destroy those who would destroy life. . . . Now of course if we’re at all alert to what is going on here we’ll recognise there is a problem, one that as a whole the world never addresses at a deep level. ‘Is it good to do evil to destroy [a greater] evil?’ . . . Of course we have to call it ‘a greater evil’ as if there were gradations of evil, for otherwise how could we live with ourselves??
Later in the episode Dr Who comes to horrible realisation, that deep within him lies Hatred. Beneath all the beauty and goodness, there is hatred, hatred for the Daleks. And the Dalek, tapping into this hatred sets off to destroy the other Daleks. After all if Dr Who hates, it must be OK, mustn’t it?? The Dr is left in an existential agony, and I think this is a pretty good set up for the series.
The question ‘Am I a good person?’ is answered at once indirectly and also very directly by Jesus. We will remember the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus, with his question ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ But, perhaps trying to curry favour with Jesus, or perhaps because he sees something in Jesus he doesn’t possess (and this incident is all about what we possess . . .) he addresses him ‘Good teacher’ to which Jesus responds with words that we tend to gloss over, but which demolish the way we are taught to think about the world. Jesus says ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’!!! WHAT????
[At this point I could make an extended excursus into why within a Platonic philosophical understanding this is a perfectly reasonable assertion and that we find it shocking because for the last 1000 years or so, Aristotle has been our philosophical father, even for those who’ve never heard of him 🙂 . . . but I won’t]
‘Am I a good person?’ Asks Dr Who . . . of course we all want him to be good . . . but Jesus would say ‘No, but you’re missing the point. This isn’t about you and your goodness, it is all about God and His goodness. To enter into the Life that is eternal, you must enter into the life that is good, to participate in it, to lose your self in the Life of God’
And our readings today point us very clearly in this direction, as indeed the gospel readings have been doing for the past few weeks.
Today we hear once more the old familiar story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet who runs from the Word of the Lord, but without success. God’s purposes will not be thwarted by his people, however unwilling they might be.
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’”
And as we all know, Jonah runs off in the opposite direction and then there’s the whole ‘Big fish’ thing, before most unwillingly he travels to Nineveh. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. “And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. . . .” Which brings us to today’s reading – “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. . . .”
Now we may well ask, Why did Jonah run off to Tarshish? Why was he so reluctant to do what God had called him to do?? We might think ‘ Well it seems like a lot of hard work! He might have been lazy.’ But no, it wasn’t that. Or, we might think ‘well Nineveh was a big city with a terrible reputation and you want me to go into the midst of it and shout out God’s judgement??’ Imagine doing that in Dunedin!! Imagine doing it in the middle of a city which was a byword for violence and wickedness, the seat of the cult of the warlike god, Nimrod, the home of thousands of armoured chariots. Perhaps Jonah was scared . . . but no. Indeed Jonah tells us precisely why he went to all that trouble to flee from the Word of the Lord.
“Seeing the people repent of their wickedness, God relented from what he intended 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.”
Here is the prophet of God shaking his fist at God because he knows him to be a God of mercy, not operating to Jonah’s standards of justice . . . in Jonah’s eyes, they deserve to be destroyed . . . but not in the eyes of God . . . in Jonah’s eyes . . . Jonah was reluctant because deep down, he didn’t want to take part in the Life of God . . . I’ll return to Jonah in a minute
Our gospel, like the gospels of the previous weeks, faces us with a similar challenge. The landowner pays everyone the same. Some have born the heat of the day. They get what they agreed on, but he is generous to those who were employed late in the day, and worked but an hour.
Now there is an entirely coherent account of godly economics underlying this, that people need to eat. For those who live in poverty, a days wages covered your necessities and no more. People need to eat. A days wages will provide what they need . . . and perhaps we can hear voices, perhaps our own saying ‘well this will only encourage laziness’, or finding ourselves with those who have laboured long hours criticising the owner for paying those who had worked but an hour.
Not seeing that people need to eat and perhaps there is not enough work that all can eat . . . the landowners ways seem unjust to us . . . but Jesus seems to suggest that this is the way of God, the only one who is Good. Just like Jonah, those who have worked a whole day find the ways of the Lord indigestible, uncovering their profound hatred of their fellow men. Not seeing the need that they had for food . . . not seeing . . . the landowner says ‘are you envious because I am generous?’ In the very graphic literal translation of the words ‘Is your eye evil because I am good?’ Is your eye evil because I am good?? What do we see?? Jonah sees God’s mercy and he hates it. The workers see some receiving enough to live on although they haven’t worked all day, and they hate that . . .
In other words, does the goodness of God revealed to us what is the truth of our own hearts? Like Dr Who, confronting the terrible truth that deep down he was filled with hatred, what do these parables confront US with?
These stories, Jonah, Jesus’ parables confront us with what is deep within us.
Two weeks ago we heard the challenge that ‘when another member of the church sins against you’ Go to them, like the Good shepherd take no thought for your loss, rather seek to bring them back. Love them! Mercy triumphing over judgement!! but we might say ‘but you have no idea what they did to me!!’
Last week the gospel was the parable of the servant who was released all his debt, yet refused to live in the same generosity towards others . . . each week we pray ‘Forgive as we have forgiven’ . . . God who forgives according to mercy not deserts. Again the same response, ‘but can’t you see what they owe me??’
And Jonah, ‘I know that you are full of mercy, and to be frank I can’t stand it . . . How can we make the world a better place if you insist on having mercy every time someone repents?? There has to be an end to all this mercy . . .’
An end to mercy?? What then would we have??? Who then would have mercy on us??? Of course we can only call for an end to God’s mercy, because we do not think we need it. We can only call God too generous, because we are very nicely off and don’t require anything of him. we don’t see our life in the light of His.
Today, we are challenged about the nature of what we call generosity in the light of the generosity of the Kingdom of Heaven, who gives according to need not to deserts. ‘But if we all lived like God did, the world would go to hell! . . .’ How easy it is to tell the poor that they deserve to be . . . Perhaps this is the only way we can protect ourselves from the realities of our own comfort when others struggle so . . . What IS God’s Generosity?? Brothers and Sisters I believe we are a very long way from knowing this as yet . . . as yet
These stories uncover what lies in our hearts . . . BUT, the Life that is eternal Always triumphs. If we are baptised into Christ, then this is NOT the last word about our condition. We are not eternally condemned either to lives of meagre generosity, self serving forgiveness or self centered love, like Jonah and the ones who worked through the day. NEITHER are we condemned to be like Sisyphus, eternally rolling the rock up the hill – eternally trying to do a better job of living our lives like God, which seems all too often to be the only remedy preachers offer. ‘Try harder next time, and don’t worry, God is forgiving’, as if it was all about you . . .
When we are baptised into Christ, God by the Holy Spirit goes into the depths of our hearts and there plants something truly wonderful. His Life. His Life becomes the foundation of our existence, the Good Life – however buried under old hurts and the rest. It is there. And we do truly have a choice, to live out of that new life. To live by the Spirit. To reveal who we truly are, children of God.
Christian life is not fundamentally a set of beliefs, or indeed practices – rather it is a new life. The Life of the eternal God within us. This is what we have been given . . . but perhaps we haven’t heard the Good News
We say ‘I find it so hard to love as you love’ God says ‘ I know’
We say ‘I find it so hard to forgive as you forgive’ God says ‘I know’
We say ‘I find it so hard to be truly generous, for my eye is evil and I am only generous to those I think deserve it’ and God says ‘I know’
But I am the eternal God, I alone am Good – let me dwell among you. Let me live in and through you, let me give you my life. Let MY love and justice and mercy and generosity, My goodness live in and flow out through you
This is the invitation to Jonah – it is God’s good invitation to us all