Ruth was 85 years old when she left this world. Her first husband had been an abusive alcoholic, so she kicked his sorry butt to the curb and raised three children on her own. She endured the gossip of the neighbors who, back in the day, were censorious of a single, divorced woman. She worked six days a week and never took a penny she hadn't earned herself. She raised her children and cared for her aging mother. Eventually, she married a nice widower who predeceased her by twenty years.
Ruth's daughter told me about the lady hospice chaplain who visited her mother in the last weeks of Ruth's life. One day, as the chaplain read from the Bible, Ruth looked up from her bed and declared, “I'm just a speck of dirt. God is everything.”
Sometimes I have to marvel at a generation who worked so hard, endured so much, and yet felt no sense of entitlement. Some day soon they will all be gone, and our nation will be the poorer for the loss.
I see the scripture lessons appointed for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost as dealing with our wounded sense of entitlement. The hilarious book of Jonah is really a remarkable writing. Not only is it a very funny story, but it is almost revolutionary when viewed in the context of its time. My friend Pastor Steve shared an interesting historical tidbit. It seems that the Assyrians, whose capital city Nineveh was, had a reputation for sadistic cruelty to the people they conquered which makes the Nazis look like unruly Cub Scouts (Not that unruly Cub Scouts can't be sadistically cruel, but you get the idea!). One can only imagine how much the people of Israel hated the people of Nineveh for what they had done to them in the days of conquest. Jonah going to Nineveh would be just like a Holocaust victim preaching to Berlin in the days of the Third Reich. This makes God's inclusivity and pity seem all the more radical, and Jonah's outrage at God's mercy seem all the more understandable.
The scandal of this story is equal parts God's profligate generosity and forgiveness and the hero's unattractive bitterness—a bitterness which makes him embarrassingly small-minded and silly.
Perhaps in our economy we are even more scandalized by the appointed gospel lesson, Matthew 20:1-16. I can't imagine a single union member who would be shouting “Amen!” to this parable. The guys who worked only a few hours get the same pay as the long-time employees..? That sucks! That's totally unfair—in our small-minded and silly way of thinking, perhaps, but not in the Kingdom of God.
“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them the equal of us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” says a grumbling laborer in verse 12. God's answer? Yes. Yes, I have made the least of you as important and special in my eyes as the greatest. That's called grace.
To me, the great pity of this story is for those guys whom the landowner hires at five o'clock. When he asks them why they're standing idle, they reply, “Because no one has hired us.” When I was a teacher in the Los Angeles schools many years ago, I used to see groups of Mexican guys standing on street corners in the mornings, waiting for some gringo contractor to come by and hire them for a day of manual labor. I often wondered what happened to the guys who weren't picked for work that day. Did their families go hungry?
Anyone who has ever been out of a job for any period of time can sure sympathize with the guys who get hired last. They spent the whole day wondering if their families would eat that night. They must have felt like crap, and they would be grateful for anything that was offered to them at the end of the day. But imagine their joy and relief at being given a full day's pay! Contrast this with the bitterness of the guys who were given a full days' pay for a full day's work. They should have been grateful for the work, but their inflated sense of importance robs them of contentment.
The joy of the Lord comes only, I think, in acknowledging God's awesome goodness and mercy, and our own unworthiness. Like Miss Ruth who called herself a “speck of dirt,” Martin Luther's last written words were “It is true: we are beggars.” This was his testimony to the unconditional and unmerited grace of God. I get the feeling he died happy.
May you both live and die in God's mercy and goodness. It's so extravagant! Thanks for reading.