Lessons from a reluctant prophet and a harvester who wanted to know about his paycheck
READINGS: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16
“Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm” (Jonah 4:2).
God has ordained preaching to be the means by which He saves men (cf. I Corinthians 1:21; Romans 10:1-17). Two of our readings for today, Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16, make this point, though each does so in a different way. To these texts let us now turn.
Our Old Testament reading features Jonah, the only Old Testament evangelist to the Gentile world. Our Gospel reading provides an answer to a question asked by Peter, that great fisher of men, whose preaching ultimately led to the first draught of both Jewish and Gentile converts in the Christian era.
Jonah was a selfish man who needed a severe attitude adjustment. Peter was an apostle who asked about the apostles’ reward for following Jesus. While the lessons from our Jonah reading point to one thing and the lessons from our Matthew reading to another, what our texts have in common is a summons to consider our saving mission to the fallen world. With this summons in mind, let’s look first at Jonah, the reluctant prophet. After that we will briefly turn our attention to Peter, the harvester that asked about his paycheck.
THE RELUCTANT PROPHET
Jonah was a reluctant prophet who fled from his call to preach to pagan Nineveh. We know the story. Fleeing west by ship to the other side of the Mediterranean from Nineveh’s Middle Eastern location, Jonah was tossed overboard and swallowed whole by a great fish.
Jonah’s ordeal suggests that if you don’t fish for men a fish just might eat you. Translation: A Church that fails to evangelize will itself be swallowed up by the fallen world it refuses to conquer.
Be that as it may, the thing I want to focus on here is the deep conflict Jonah’s fallen nature had with God’s essentially merciful nature.
Rehearsing the story
In the belly of the great fish, Jonah came to a measure of repentance. At that, the fish spit him out whole onto the shore. Having thus chastened Jonah, God again charged him to go to Nineveh and warn her of His coming judgments. This time Jonah obeyed his call. This time the reluctant prophet went fishing.
Nineveh was a large city whose wickedness had brought it to the verge of divine destruction. Unless she repented, her days were numbered. Jonah’s charge was to proclaim God’s impending judgments in Nineveh.
Now, Jonah was a Hebrew, so he knew that God had previously judged corrupt civilizations. Had not God justly destroyed all but eight of the world’s inhabitants in the great Flood? Had not God severely judged Pharaoh and wicked Egypt when He set Israel free from Egyptian bondage? Had not God commanded the destruction of the unspeakably evil people groups in the Promised Land when Israel took possession it?
Despite this knowledge, Jonah knew also that his preaching would result in Nineveh’s repentance. Jonah knew his history, but he knew God better. Jonah, you see, knew God to be a “gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm” (Jonah 4:2).
As the episode in the belly of the fish illustrates, Jonah’s knowledge of God didn’t result in his obedience to the divine will. It had quite the opposite effect. We must conclude that Jonah simply did not want to be an instrument of mercy in a city that he believed deserved destruction.
The thing Jonah feared happened. His preaching led to Nineveh’s repentance; and when Nineveh repented, God withdrew His judgments. At this Jonah was “exceedingly displeased” and became “angry” (4:1). The reluctant prophet that fled his call to preach to Nineveh in the first place became the resentful prophet after Nineveh repented.
Jonah’s knowledge of, and conflict with, God’s merciful nature thus become a central theme in Jonah—perhaps the central theme. In many ways, the great fish and repentant Nineveh are props in support of this great theme. I don’t mean by this that the fish and Nineveh’s repentance are imaginary fictive tools. They are not. But I do mean they serve to highlight the struggle Jonah’s fallen nature had with God’s holy and compassionate nature.
Jonah’s story calls us to examine our own motives relative to the evangelization of the wicked. Are we reluctant prophets too? Would we rather see Nineveh burn than see her repent and be forgiven? Do we run from the call to evangelize our world because we despise it more than we esteem God’s mercies? Do we complain when God’s mercies are revealed on those whom we may have had just cause to despise? If so, we have some repenting to do.
It was God’s very being that moved him to launch a saving mission in the world. If we fight that mission, we fight God and Jesus and the whole saving purpose of the gospel.
Jonah’s revelation of God predated by centuries the following words of the Lord Jesus, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16-17 NKJV).
Jonah’s revelation of God needs to be our own. God doesn’t want to condemn sinners. He wants to save them.
But we need more than the revelation of God’s mercies. We need also to extend them. The thing that moved Jonah away from Nineveh (i.e., the knowledge of God’s mercies) is the very thing that should move us toward our sinful world with the proclamation of the gospel. But if we act as Jonah did, we may expect a life lesson in the belly of a fish.
The rest of the story
Jonah’s selfishness was adjusted by degrees. In the end he obeyed God’s command and preached in Nineveh, which led to the merciful results we already noted. Still, Jonah’s displeasure over Nineveh’s repentance, and God’s pardon of it, indicate he hadn’t yet subjected himself to the merciful will of God.
Given Jonah’s bad attitude, God might well have blown out his candle. But He didn’t. In His mercies, God sought to instruct Jonah and bring him in line with the divine will.
The Book of Jonah does not tell us the rest of Jonah’s story. It does, however, suspend over our lives the question of whether or not we are in line with God’s merciful aims for fallen men? Jonah calls us to ask and answer this question, and to do so honestly, for we, like Jonah, are called to take the gospel to a fallen and wicked world.
THE WAGE-SEEKING HARVESTER
Pointing as it does to a grape harvest, our Gospel reading points us outward as much as our Jonah passage does.
The text in context
To be fair to the context of our reading, we must begin with the verses that preceded it. In Matthew 19:16-26 we find the story of the rich young ruler whose love of money decided him against selling all, giving to the poor, and following Jesus. He wanted the life he saw manifest in Jesus and the apostolic company, but not enough to pay his tuition payment—which was all that he had. After he walked away, Jesus began to instruct his disciples on how difficult it was for rich men to enter the kingdom (vv. 23-26). When the Lord finished this instruction, Peter asked, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” (v. 27) Clearly, Peter wanted to know about the paycheck the apostles could expect to receive for following Jesus.
Jesus began his answer to Peter’s question in vv. 28-30, and then continued it in Matthew 20:1-16, which tells the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. The parable is an answer to Peter’s question.
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
The parable features a vineyard owner, the harvest of his vineyard, and the laborers with whom he contracted to collect the harvest. The harvest points metaphorically to the harvest of souls that the apostolic company, and others, would be called upon to gather. The parable therefore speaks of evangelical mission.
The overarching point
Clearly, the apostles wouldn’t be rewarded for merely following Jesus. They would be rewarded for going into the vineyard and gathering fruit! The doctor isn’t paid for completing medical school. He’s paid for practicing medicine. Likewise, the apostles would be rewarded only when they fulfilled the job for which Jesus trained them.
Furthermore, there would be more than just the apostles gathering fruit, because more than one wave of ingatherers would be sent into the vineyard. The apostles would be paid, yes, but not before the harvesters that followed them were. In fact, those who followed the apostles would be rewarded first.
There is certainly more to mine in this parable, but the overarching point bears repeating: The apostles would be rewarded only after they collected the harvest. The lesson is plain: The Christian that “stays home” will not earn his wage. When the harvest is ripe, brethren, we must go into it to collect its fruit.
Both our Jonah and Matthew readings point us to mission. Jonah deals with our motives and Matthew with our reward. Both deal with duty. May God grace us to be faithful prophets and fishermen in the pagan city, and useful harvesters in the vineyard of the Lord. We are His evangelists to the world. Let us do our job. Amen.