SUMMARY Paul, the notorious persecutor, was surely disqualified for the Lord’s service. But through frequent dangers he proved God’s grace so much, he didn’t really care whether he lived or died.
Jonah was a failed prophet, sent to preach Nineveh, but he ran away. When God got him back he still thought these enemies of Israel deserved to be destroyed — but learned that God saw them as people who needed the chance to respond to His love.
Jesus told the story of the vineyard owner who hired extra hands for harvest throughout. the day. At the end of the day he instructs that everyone — including the workers left till last, who no one wanted to hire in the morning – should receive the full day rate. This picture of God shows Him treating people so much better than they deserve — with His special favour for the least, the last and the lost.
For the linked article, exploring this theme, go over to Explaining… How God’s grace doesn’t work by our rules
And here’s this week’s Just a Minute video introduction
Theme: God’s grace is perplexing to us at times
Sunday, September 20 set readings (Revised Common Lectionary)
OT reading: Jonah 3:10-4:11 — Jonah is angered by the Lord’s priority of saving souls, even Israel’s enemies
NT gospel reading: Matthew 20:1-16 — Jesus teaches God’s grace in the story of the vineyard owner who gave late starters he hired the same wage as others who had worked a full day
NT letter reading: Philippians 1:21-30 — Paul knows that whether he is released or executed, his life is with the Lord
Jonah 3:10-4:11 — Jonah is angered by the Lord’s compassion
God’s priority is saving souls even though they are Israel’s enemies
3:10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, He relented and did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened.
“He relented” — there are other instances of God postponing, or saying He would withhold judgment, where He finds repentance; like the wicked king Ahab, and Jeremiah’s word at the potter’s house, 1 Kings 21:28 – 29, Jeremiah 18:7-10.
4:1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.
“He became angry” — distraught that God should show compassion to an enemy of Israel. As a someone who may have heard Hosea’s messages, he knew that in a generation or two, the Ninevites would overrun the northern kingdom of Israel, Hosea 9:3, 10:6, 11:5.
2-3 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
“By fleeing to Tarshish” — Jonah explains his motive, quoting the key passage about Israel’s covenant relationship with the Lord, Exodus 34:6-7.
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
“Is it right… to be angry?” — expecting Jonah to agree it was not, and the object lesson (v.8) reinforces this. Jonah cannot reconcile God’s character with his narrow understanding of blessing and judgment.
5 Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.
“Waited to see” — still stubbornly expecting God to destroy the city. But this was God’s main issue with him, Psalm 58.
6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.
“A leafy plant” — perhaps a castor oil plant, a tall shrub with large leaves.
7-8 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
“Provided” — or “prepared”; the three-times repetition is a hint about God’s sovereignty in these natural events, speeded up and intensified for Jonah’s lesson.
“Scorching east wind” — the Scirocco that blows from the desert is a hot drying wind that causes plants to wither, Isaiah 40:7-8.
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10-11 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?”
“You have been concerned about this plant” — Jonah and his fellow Israelites rejoiced in God’s special mercy but expected God to show wrath to enemies like Nineveh.
“People who cannot tell” — ignorant about God, therefore errant.
SUMMARY Jonah is upset that the Lord did not bring destruction on Israel’s enemy Nineveh, but instead showed characteristic kindness and compassion. The Lord questions Jonah’s anger, and asks him why he is more angry about the death of a leafy shrub which had shaded him, than he is about the thousands of spiritually lost people in the city.
APPLICATION We don’t see people the way God does. We see them as like us or unlike us, for us or against us, true worshippers or pagans, part of our circle or outsiders. God the Father sees people created in His likeness who are either living independently from Him, or won over by His love.
QUESTION Where is your love for those that don’t “fit” most challenged?
Matthew 20:1-16 — Jesus teaches God’s grace in the vineyard story
The landowner wants to give late starters the full wage others have worked all day for
1-2 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“Landowner” — in parables, the rich and powerful represent God.
“Workers for his vineyard” — this parable is only in Matthew and it is about God’s generosity to the ‘latecomers’ of society i.e. the poor and outcasts, and those recently repenting. Many agricultural labourers were hired by the day. A Roman soldier also received a denarius a day.
3-5 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the market-place doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“Others standing in the market place” — he went back for additional hands to speed the harvest.
5-6 “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“He went out again” — unusual but not implausible.
7 ” ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9-10 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.
“Each one… also received a denarius” — the message about God’s grace begins to come out. The story hints at ‘unworthy ‘ people, and even Gentiles, now entering the kingdom.
11-12 “When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“They began to grumble” — if they hoped to be hired again, probably not, but exaggeration makes the point: they had a false sense of entitlement.
13-15 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“I want to give… the same” — everyone received the agreed sum, but the early hires were envious of those who worked less, and resented the landowner’s generosity.
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
“Last shall be first” — the kingdom of God overturns many aspects of the established order of things. Some, like the rich young man of Matthew 19:16-26, saw themselves as of higher standing with God. The twelve, a mixed bunch including a tax collector, and others who followed Jesus were like those chosen later in the day, for the same kingdom reward.
SUMMARY The vineyard workers who started early in the working day resented the generosity of the landowner, who decided to give the same reward to those who started later.
APPLICATION This parable swings the axe right at the root of the Jewish sense of exclusivity from being Abraham’s descendants, and entitlement from following the law’s minutiae. And it challenges our attitudes to those we regard as outsiders, or those who have found salvation in Jesus apart from the ordinances of the established church and our sense of respectability. God’s amazing grace overturns our social rules.
QUESTION What does this teaching tell us about the way we invite people to share responsibility in the church? As a reward for long attendance, or in recognition for God’s grace that is on them?
Philippians 1:21-30 — Whatever happens, Paul knows God is in it
Whether he is released or goes to his death he knows he is with the Lord
21-24 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
“To live is Christ and to die is gain” — a conundrum: Paul found the meaning of his life and joy in Christ, but like all believers, viewed death positively and without fear.
“What shall I choose” — the rhetoric of this age often debated alternative opinions with the reader or hearer.
“Depart and be with Christ” — teaches that when believers die, they are with Christ, if not with the body, 2 Cor. 5:6-8.
25-26 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.
“I know I will remain” — Paul was convinced he would be released (and may have been, Acts 28:30-31) and he wanted to visit Philippi again.
27-28 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved – and that by God.
“Conduct yourselves” — used also of the obligations of Roman citizenship. Living in Philippi, a Roman colony, automatically brought the privilege of Roman citizenship. Paul uses this to demonstrate heavenly accountability, Philippians 3:20.
“Stand firm in the one Spirit” — Christian life post-resurrection is not just trying to keep commands, but being empowered to live well, in fellowship with others and with an inner confidence.
29-30 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
“Granted to you… to suffer for Him” — counted a privilege by Christians, to suffer for the One who suffered for us.
“The same struggle” — both Paul, in prison, and the Philippians, being persecuted, faced strong opposition.
SUMMARY Paul, writing from his imprisonment, is ready to die and be with Christ, seeing it as a gracious promotion, or to have a further stay of God’s grace to complete his work and see the young Christians in Philippi again.
APPLICATION Paul, having been plucked from his course of sin and rebellion against God as the chief persecutor of followers of the Way, was strongly aware of God’s grace in his call. Then, in a roller coaster of seeing amazing kingdom growth in new churches along the Mediterranean coastline, and also surviving every kind of danger and threat, every day of life was clearly God’s gift. Now imprisoned in Rome, the prospect of death is another dimension of God’s grace to anticipate eagerly, his long-awaited promotion to be with Jesus. Few of us have been tested to anything like that extent, and so we don’t hold our lives and choices so lightly. Paul had seen God’s unexpected and undeserved favour from the day he knew he was forgiven and accepted by Jesus, through shipwrecks and beatings and even being stoned and left for dead. He knew that God is good — unpredictably good at times
QUESTION Why do we still feel we need to do things for God, when He has done it all for us and simply wants us to return His love and live fruitfully?
PRAYER O loving God, why do we resent Your love being shown to others? Forgive us for thinking of ourselves more highly than we should, and for our pride which leads to feelings of entitlement.
You see the true worth in everybody, whether they have been a Christian for decades or are just turning to You now.
Fill me with Your Holy Spirit that I might have Your grace and love for others, free of judgment and comparison.
And I praise You, for seeing me that way. Amen.
Psalm 145:1-8 — A psalm of praise, of David.
1 I will exalt You, my God the King; I will praise Your name for ever and ever.
2 Every day I will praise You and extol Your name for ever and ever.
3 Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; His greatness no one can fathom.
4 One generation commends Your works to another; they tell of Your mighty acts.
5 They speak of the glorious splendour of Your majesty — and I will meditate on Your wonderful works.
6 They tell of the power of Your awesome works — and I will proclaim Your great deeds.
7 They celebrate Your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of Your righteousness.
8 The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.
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