The story of Jonah finds its way into the Revised Common Lectionary only on this day and on the Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year B). It is too good a story to hear so seldom, and today, preachers, is your chance!
Jonah’s resentment of Nineveh’s repentance, coupled with the aggravation of those in the Matthew story who are angry about the pay they’ve been given, offer plenty of latitude for the preacher to consider vocation, calling, work, envy, and God’s never-failing love for those who come last and those who “do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals…” (probably one of my favorite phrases in all scripture).
Those animals! We forget them easily. But God does not forget them. Today could be a time to talk about creatures other than humans! If that is your choice, consider not a law-oriented diatribe on what we all ought to be doing to save the planet (important as is that concern), but tell us, rather, how much this entire creation is beloved by its creator and how grieved God is to groan with its plants, elements, and animals when they struggle for life. Help us to care and to turn toward nourishing all our neighbors.
Might we see in the readings for this day a pattern for living that extends love to all “others”––not just our families and friends or even human neighbors, but to all.
In the middle of these stories of being first or last, the parable of the workers in the vineyard stands adjacent to Jesus' third passion prediction. The whole sequence of stories seeks to undermine ordinary human aspirations of being first. Because God in Christ has given believers everything that matters, striving to be first in status or wealth profoundly misses the point of living. The only “first” that matters is to be first in serving, which finally means taking one's eyes off of self so as to tend to the needs of another.
– Aaron J. Couch
The book of Jonah tells a tale of divine generosity and human stinginess. That God would extend mercy to a nation renowned for its cruelty and brutality strikes the prophet as scandalous, causing him to feel betrayed and angry. Telling God “I told you so,” Jonah appears much more like a cartoon character than a real person. God prepares a living parable for Jonah: a bush that grows to provide shade, then withers and dies after being attacked by a worm. Absurdly, Jonah feels such great loss at the death of the plant that he wishes himself dead. God invites Jonah to imagine how God might feel about the living creatures of Nineveh, both people and animals. Those living creatures have been, in a sense, invisible to Jonah. Dismissing the people of Nineveh as the enemy, he had not seen them as possessing any value. The story ends without revealing whether Jonah was surprised to discover God was concerned for the fate of the city, and its people, and even its animals. By remaining open-ended, the story invites the listener to consider whether there are people he or she may have dismissed as strangers or enemies, who may yet be precious to their Creator.
– Aaron J. Couch is co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church, Portland, Oregon.
Paul’s admonitions echo these same themes of last being first: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…” The vision Paul calls us to follow is one in which Christ Jesus is foremost, and that is the vision this day needs explicated.
What does extravagant over-abundance look like in our lives? We see it on the cross and in the empty tomb. Where do we see it in our own communities, families, friendships, state, and nation?
Some questions to ponder:
In what ways do we currently live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? What does this life look like?
How is Christ exalted by our living?
What tools do we have for living in the present—in the world but not of the world?
– Beth Herrinton-Hodge, Presbyterian minister
Homily Service 41, no. 4 (21 July 2008): 26-36.