“Accepting Grace”Dr. David Rutledge Exodus 16:2-15. Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45. Psalm 145.1-8. Jonah 3:10-4:11. Philippians 1:21-30. Matthew 20:1-16. Proper 20 (25) – Year A - Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
One of the basic patterns of divine-human interaction is shown early in the Bible: God gives abundant goodness, and in response human beings complain about some feature of that gift.
Whether it is Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden of Eden,
Noah’s drunkenness after being saved from the great flood,
the Israelites worshipping the golden calf after receiving the law at Sinai,
or David committing adultery and murder after God has given him the kingship of all Israel.
The pattern is depressingly repetitive and all too familiar.
Today’s scripture readings give us the opportunity to examine this pattern closely, and to consider why it is so hard for humans to accept the grace of God.
In Exodus 16, the dramatic events through which God liberated the Israelites from Egyptian slavery — the plagues upon Egypt, Moses demanding “Let my people go!” and Pharaoh refusing, culminating in the escape at the sea — have ended, and the descendants of Abraham are marching into the forbidding desert of the Sinai Peninsula.
Understandably, conditions are harsh, for the Egyptian delta the Israelites had left behind was for thousands of years one of the greenest, lushest places in the ancient Near East because of the dependable waters of the Nile.
Sinai offered only sand, rock, a few scrub plants, bare mountains, and little water. The Israelites forget, however, that they had been slaves as “the Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter…” (Ex. 1.13-14);
and they forget that they had “groaned under their slavery, and…cried out” for help. God had remembered his covenant with Abraham, and responded by sending Moses to lead the Israelites away from their misery into freedom.
At this point we hear their predictable response to God’s gift of freedom: “‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill…’” (16.3). To their leaders, Moses and Aaron, they wail ‘you are trying to kill us!’ Such drama, such exaggeration!
Was their situation in Egypt comfortable? Did they really eat their fill? If so, why did they cry out for deliverance? No, what we see here is the familiar forgetfulness of human beings, whose concern is too often ‘what have you done for me lately?’
They are focused on satisfying their immediate problem of hunger, forgetting the larger meaning and purpose of their desert march. The story makes clear that God’s eye is on the everlasting covenant he had made with Abraham’s descendants, on calling them back to their role as ‘the people of God.’
The text shows that their complaint is not really with Moses and Aaron, but with God, which elevates the episode beyond a dispute among the Israelites, to a fundamental theological lesson.
To summarize the episode:
humans respond irresponsibly, even childishly, to God’s saving act.
They focus on their material comfort and pleasure, their desire for food.
They attend only to their immediate need, with little thought for the larger significance of what is happening.
God, on the other hand, responded with care and concern for the Israelites in freeing them from slavery, and is concerned to preserve the covenant, an “everlasting” agreement that will determine Israel’s well-being forever.
Finally, God is gracious and forgiving in granting their request, sending them ‘bread’ and meat for the journey.
In a second illustration of the pattern of divine grace met by human selfishness, we have the fascinating story of the prophet Jonah — or perhaps we should call it the story of the anti-prophet Jonah! In contrast to the typical prophetic response to God’s call — “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6.8) — Jonah runs in the opposite direction as fast as he can, away from God!
Rather than going east to Nineveh, he goes west to Joppa, and quickly takes a ship to Tarshish, “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jon. 1.3). God sends a powerful storm to batter the ship, threatening to sink it, and in keeping with Jonah’s unexpected behavior, the sailors on board the ship reveal themselves as extremely devout, which is not what one usually expects from sailors!
The crew immediately recognize that the storm is divinely sent, “and each cried to his god,” while Jonah, the prophet of Israel, goes below and falls “fast asleep.” They eventually wake Jonah and tell him to call upon his god, but this does not quiet the storm, so they cast lots — a religious act, since God controlled all things, including the lots cast.
When the lot falls on Jonah, he finally confesses that he is running away from his god, which terrifies the sailors. When Jonah urges the men to throw him overboard to satisfy God and quiet the storm, the sailors initially decline to do this, and try to get the ship back to shore and save Jonah.
The storm continues, so Jonah’s shipmates finally given in, but instead of just throwing Jonah to his death, they beg God to forgive them for what they are about to do.
So, at every stage of the drama, it is pagan sailors who are sensitive to the divine, and not Jonah. Though he is clueless, Jonah is spared by God, who sends a “large fish” to swallow him up, and then “spew him out” upon the land.
In chapter 3, we find that God has repeated his call to Jonah to go and preach repentance to the city of Nineveh, and this time, Jonah goes and warns the city that God will destroy them for “their evil ways,” though he does not preach repentance as prophets normally do. What follows has elements of both satire and humor, for the pagan city performs the most amazing, total repentance in the Bible: not only does the king demand that everyone fast, put on sackcloth as a sign of mourning, and pray to God for forgiveness, but even all the animals must participate!
In light of such a great repentance, “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring,” and spared them (Jonah 3.10). Again, pagan non-Israelites have responded to God in admirable ways, and it drives the point home that Ninevites were Assyrians, one of the most brutal and hated of Israel’s enemies.
And how does Jonah respond to the overwhelming success of his preaching? He “became angry;” he is not at all happy that the people of Nineveh have repented, and he actually has the audacity to give God a self-serving account of why he fled from God when first asked to go to Nineveh!
In effect, Jonah says, ‘I knew you were too gracious and merciful to destroy the Ninevites, so why should I go and preach to them about their punishment — I knew you would never do it!
What would be the point of my preaching?!’ Jonah is so upset at the way God forgave Israel’s enemies that he wants to die: “for it is better for me to die than to live” (vs. 3).
God is not fooled, however, by Jonah’s melodramatic speech, and simply asks him, ‘why are you so angry?’ because he recognizes that Jonah has not acted out of sensitivity to God’s ultimate purpose for Nineveh, but out of his own selfishness.
Jonah confirms the accuracy of God’s judgment by pouting, and by stalking off to sit down outside the city to watch what God was going to do. Here the story takes a final poke at Jonah’s pride: Jonah is sitting outside in the hot sun, and God causes a plant (a small tree or large bush?) to grow up and give Jonah shade.
Jonah “was very happy about the bush,” but then God sent a worm to attack the plant “so that it withered” (4.6-7). God sends an even hotter sun, and Jonah is angry again, “angry enough to die.” The moral of the story finally is pointed out to Jonah: he is angry because the plant that gave him shade has died, but Jonah had nothing to do with the plant growing up, or dying.
His mood changes based on whether or not he feels good. God, on the other hand, was concerned about the Ninevites, because he was responsible for them, because he had compassion on his creatures, even though they were not part of the covenant people Israel. Rather than rejoice at the pardoning of some of God’s creatures, Jonah is ‘ticked’ because God has not acted in the way Jonah wished.
A final exhibit in our survey of the biblical pattern of God’s grace and human selfishness is the parable of the generous landowner in Matthew 20. Jesus here continues his teaching about the kingdom of heaven, challenging the usual views of his day, and ours.
The landowner begins hiring workers early in the day, and continues to hire throughout the day, promising each worker the daily wage. At the end of the day, the landowner begins paying them, and gives each one the same amount, which, understandably, angers those who have been working all day. ‘Why,’ they ask, ‘do those who have only worked one hour get the same amount as those who worked many hours?’
The landowner replies that he is free to choose how much to pay his workers, and those who complain are simply envious that he is generous. Though the early workers have received what they were promised, they selfishly think that no one else should receive as much as they have.
The landowner, of course, represents God, and the workers are the believers who follow him. Those who began in the vineyard early assume that this gives them special status, that they are somehow worth more than the later workers. The “work” they do could be any kind of task that Christians engage with as they live their lives; it is not the kind or amount of work one does, but God’s grace alone which determines one’s unity with God.
The grace of God is generous beyond human imagining, and granting that grace reflects God’s sovereignty, not human merit. Just as in the case of the Israelites in the wilderness, or Jonah’s prophecy in Nineveh, the early workers here focused on their own needs and desires, and not on the larger vision of God which includes every creature, and not just humanity.
“It’s not all about us” is another way this theme could be expressed, and of course this is as relevant for hearers today as it was for Jesus’ original audience.
Having looked at Exodus 16, Jonah 3, and Matthew 20, we might conclude that a person’s obsession with himself or herself is the root problem in the human relationship with God, that we are so focused on ourselves that we are unable to look beyond ourselves to a greater reality.
While this flaw may seem insurmountable, another of our readings, Psalm 145, affirms that it is possible for people to rise above their limitations to enter into a genuine relationship with God. The psalm is a beautiful song of hope and praise to God, acknowledging his presence in every aspect of life, his goodness and love for “all that he has made:”
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable….
The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.
The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing….” (145.9)
In this recital of God’s justice and compassion, we see no hint of the self-love that is so apparent in the passages discussed earlier. Rather than seeing ourselves as deserving special privileges, we are called to accept our place as creatures of tremendous potential whose nature is distorted by a lack of self-awareness, by a self-centeredness that crowds out true humility and genuine awe toward God. While human beings must give up pretensions to complete freedom and absolute power, they may still find deep satisfaction in being God’s servants in the world.
About the Writer:
Dr. David Rutledge retired from teaching at Furman University as the Reuben B. Pitts Professor of Religion. He is an elder in Westminster Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC (PCUSA), and a former board member of the Phillis Wheatley Association, and the Interfaith Forum of Greenville. Rutledge received his A.B. in philosophy from the College of William and Mary, his M.Div. from Duke Divinity School, and his Ph.D. from Rice University.
He is the author of Humans and the Earth: Toward a Personal Ecology (Peter Lang), numerous journal articles, and chapters in books. He is past President of The Polanyi Society, an international scholarly organization. His religious interests are in religion and science, religion and ecology, classics of spiritual devotion, and the work of Michael Polanyi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wendell Berry, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dante.
Scripture and Music:
Psalms 105:1-6, 37-45
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken
All My Hope Is Firmly Founded
Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken
Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy
There’s a Wideness in God s Mercy
God Be Merciful to Me
In Thee Is Gladness — Daniel Kallman
How Firm A Foundation
The Eyes of All Wait Upon Thee — Jean Berger
Go Down Moses — Mark Hayes
Jesus, Lover of My Soul
Find Us Faithful – Joseph Mohr
Through It All — Andre Crouch