Introducing the readings
Paul, the notorious persecutor of the first Christians, should never have been chosen for the Lord’s service, especially as a church-planting apostle. And he should never have survived the attempts on his life, beatings, a stoning, shipwrecks, riots by fellow Jews and prison in Rome. He experienced God’s grace personally — in his call, and in every day God gave him to serve the gospel.
So did Jonah OT reading Jonah 3:10-4:11, who had a miraculous escape from shipwreck. But Jonah’s problem was that God has sent him where he didn’t want to go: to preach and urge repentance on Israel’s sworn enemies in the city of Nineveh. And if they didn’t repent, he expected to see God destroy them. But God confronted him about this, and about the pagan inhabitants who needed to hear that the Living God was merciful and generous.
Jesus NT gospel reading told a memorable story about a man who owned a vineyard and needed to hire extra hands at harvest time, so he signed some up from the market square. Later in the day, he went back and signed up some more, who worked what remained of the day. But at home time he instructed his foreman to give everyone the full day rate — even those who had been in the field the shortest time. Those that had done a full day were upset by this generosity. The teaching point is about God’s generosity, choosing to give us way over what we deserve — because He is like that.
The vineyard workers were the ones nobody wanted to hire at first. The Ninevites were God’s enemies. And Paul’s record should have got him barred. That is what God is like, in our lives and our world.
And coming back to Paul, writing to the Christians in Philippi NT letter Philippians 1:21-30 his whole perspective is about the goodness and forbearance of God, treating him better than he could expect or deserve. That’s very different from the sense of entitlement we can so easily slip into — as if our long church service, or charitable giving or other efforts could entitle us to anything. Paul writes, saying that to die and be with Christ would be what he has always looked forward to. But for him to be released from prison, and granted some more time to finish his work, would be a mark of God’s grace as well.
There’s a common misunderstanding that runs through all these stories. It is a misunderstanding because we expect God to work the way we think, and He expects us to grow into the way He thinks, and they are different.
So this is the learning point: God, out of His love and mercy — it is the very essence of His nature, Exodus 34:5-7— treats people who really don’t deserve special favour, with special favour.
God, in His grace, does it differently
Jonah was the all-round worst prophet on the team. He got a call from God and promptly took ship as far in the opposite direction as he could get (which wasn’t very far, as it happened). To cut a long story short, God got him back on track and in Nineveh, where he was to preach repentance to the pagans there, who were some of Israel’s most determined enemies. It was a large city and it took him a day to find his way to the centre. The Ninevites listened, and repented — even the king repented and issued a proclamation to that effect. Most preachers would be overwhelmed at such a response!
“And when God saw what they did, and how the turned from their evil ways, He relented and did not bring on them the destruction He has threatened.” What a result for the anointed man of God who courageously brought this word… “But Jonah became angry… He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said… what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity… now take away my life.'”
Jonah was expecting God to treat Israel’s enemies as enemies, not to love them into become friends. This wasn’t on Jonah’s script at all.
But God, in His grace, does it differently
Jesus’ story of the vineyard owner is another example of God upsetting all the usual rules. ‘A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ — but here the vineyard owner goes back and hires the men who were not the fittest and best chosen earlier in the day, sets them to work for a few hours and then insists that they are paid the full amount. We find that hard to understand. The men who had done a full 12 hours in the heat found it hard to understand, but they received what they expected — it was just that they didn’t get preference over the late-comers. This is always the grumble of the religious mind-set. However much the Bible spells out that we cannot earn salvation and we cannot do anything to get God to love us more, we persist in thinking we can. Then, when someone whose life has been all messed up turns to the Lord and in an instant finds the grace and love and new start He has without working for it at all, we dare to feel to a bit cheated. Instead of rejoicing for the soul saved.
And praising God, who in His grace, does it differently.
Paul’s teaching reflects on the grace of God in his own life, and places this in the post-resurrection world that we inhabit. There is always opposition to the gospel, because the gospel is about surrender to Jesus, and that is a threat to man’s desire to control. So intimidation ‘comes with the territory’, but Paul shows us the Jesus way of having God’s heart of love for those who present as His enemies — and ours. It’s a generosity of spirit and also a togetherness of spirit, that focuses on faith in Jesus, and ignores the fear that tries to put us down.
God, in His grace, shows us and empowers us, to do it differently.
Back to September 20 post