25th Ord • 9/24/17 • Jonah 3:10-4:11, Phil 1:21-30, Mt 20:1-16 • Leora Weitzman
As Father Jerome said at this weekend’s retreat, If you insist on what you deserve, you will get… what you deserve.
Jesus tells this story after Peter has said, “We have left everything to follow you! What will there be for us?” The disciples have also been asking who is greatest in the reign of heaven, and Zebedee’s partner is about to ask that her sons sit at Jesus’ right and left in that reign. These are the kinds of questions that have a teacher realize that the lesson needs to be reframed somehow.
I didn’t use to think I was one of the envious laborers, but it hit me the other day that I’ve been feeling jealous… of people who are retired. How can they have so much free time to do things I would like to do too, including sleep in sometimes, while I have to work such long days? It’s not fair!
Many of you will be quick to correct me. I’m not looking at the whole story, which often includes long years of hard work put in before retirement, and then during retirement intense unpaid labor in service of others through volunteer work / grandchild care / elder care, plus sleep lost to worry or pain or insomnia. Not to mention that I enjoy my work!
In the same way, the all-day laborers are not looking at the whole stories of the eleventh-hour ones, which may include visible ethnic affiliations or disabilities that got in the way of their being hired earlier, and certainly included a need for income that kept them hoping against hope all day in the hot marketplace. Also, notice that the all-day workers had no quarrel with their own pay until they saw what others were getting.
When I look at my own case—and here I’m indebted to a story Camille shared at the retreat—I see a deeper lesson. Not only does jealousy fail to respect the wholeness of another’s story; it also fails to take responsibility for my own.
If I let go of comparisons with other people, the essence of my complaint—the part that’s between me and God—is: I’m tired, yet afraid that slowing down would jeopardize my daily bread, now or in the future. (Give us this day our future bread?) Once I name that and recognize it as my own issue, I’m in a position to receive God’s answer for me. As long as I remain obsessed with other people’s business, I won’t be able to hear it. As Father Jerome pointed out this weekend, murmuring (or grumbling) blocks out listening.
In The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis has the Christ figure, Aslan, say to the boy: I tell each person only his or her own story. The boy is mollified about his own tribulations when told the purpose of them, but upset about what his friend has had to go through. Aslan’s lesson is like the parable’s, seen upside down: Just as we’re not to hold another’s good fortune against God, neither are we to hold another’s suffering against God. That is between them and God; that is their story, written in symbols personal to them, and they and God alone know what it means.
Now, this isn’t a simple message of live and let live. It’s not that we aren’t to care about each other’s stories. And that’s where Jonah comes in.
To understand Jonah’s story, we need a little background. Think of a person or people your life would be much easier without. Not someone you’d relish a showdown with; you just wish they’d go quietly away. And now you find out that they are in fact doomed—unless they hear and believe an unflattering message that you, of all people, have been appointed to deliver.
That’s who Nineveh is for Jonah. As Assyria’s capital, Nineveh was an old frenemy of Israel, sometimes ally, more often foe, now winning, now losing, always competing. On top of that, Nineveh was known for intense cruelty to its captives—and might not a bringer of unwelcome news become a captive?
So it’s understandable that Jonah is reluctant to tell Nineveh, in person, that they need to reform if they want to survive. And it’s understandable that once he delivers the message, a part of him would prefer to see the city destroyed, leaving Israel a lot more breathing room and making Jonah look good for predicting the city’s end. These parts of Jonah, his fear and vanity, are examples of what Father Jerome called unseen masters. They control him, and he doesn’t even realize it.
So God devises a plan to set him free. He causes a bush to give Jonah shade, not for Jonah’s comfort but for his instruction. Not realizing this, Jonah’s upset when it withers. He reacts to the impact on him. God pretends not to notice Jonah’s selfishness. Surely, he says, if you can care so much about one little bush, you can care about the hundreds of thousands of people and animals of a great city, who are as much God’s creation as you are? Surely your fear and vanity are not your masters, and you are free to be compassionate?
Are we free to be compassionate, even to those we have reason to fear and dislike? Can you think of a time you were so overcome with fear and dislike that it kept you from helping someone in need, perhaps someone close to you? What are some of your personal unseen masters?
Father Jerome suggests that behind these unseen masters is a lack of trust in God. I can vouch for that in my own case. I’m quick to assume God has put me in an impossible position, and I’d better take care of myself as best I can. The worries and resentments that then begin to drive me are the unseen masters I invoke to try to take care of things myself. Also, it’s easier to dwell in resentment of others than to take responsibility for my own situation and listen for God’s calling in it. The easy grumbling distracts me from the necessary listening.
Such mistrust of God is as deadly to our growing relationship as the worm was to Jonah’s bush. If I want to know the love of God, I have to trust God with my cares, surrender my superficial preferences, and take up the assignment God sets before me, which may appeal to me about as much as Jonah’s did to him. In so doing, I am surrendering only my false masters. On the other side of that surrender is freedom.
Paul exemplifies this inner freedom when he acknowledges his preference to “depart and be with Christ,” yet willingly surrenders to the needs of the Philippians, for whom it’s better that he stay. This beautifully illustrates the “mutual obedience” of monastics, or people who’ve dedicated themselves to God, we’ve been hearing about this weekend.
It looks like a sacrifice, and indeed it isn’t easy. Surrendering bondage to unseen masters, becoming free to love our neighbor as ourselves in practice as well as in principle, is an unglamorous yet real experience of the “suffering for Christ” that Paul mentions. When he says that to him, “living is Christ,” I hear it as living the way of the cross.
Yet the way of the cross leads to resurrection. For it’s only our false masters, our fears and distastes and attachments, that make us unhappy. Free of them, we can live in the joy of serving those we love without interruption, because nothing will seem more important, and those we love will include all creation.