Lesson: Jonah 3:10-4:11
3:10 When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6 The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
The Book of Jonah is one of the shortest in the Bible and is included in the Bible with the 12 Minor Prophets. Even though Jonah is never described in the Book as a “prophet,” he is a “reluctant prophet” who speaks for YHWH (translated as “LORD” in the NRSV) by urging the Assyrians to repent (3:4). Ironically, although Jonah initially rejects YHWH’s call, he is — according to the story – the most successful prophet ever.
The Book of Jonah was written during the “Persian Period” (539 BCE to 333 BCE). The story, however, was necessarily set hundreds of years earlier in the period of Assyrian power – a time of Assyrian conquests and threats against Israel and Judea (850 to 650 BCE).
Sending Jonah to convert Nineveh (the Assyrian capital, and modern-day Mosul) at the height of Assyria’s power would be seen by everyone as a “Mission Impossible” task. When told by God to go to Nineveh, Jonah got on a ship for Tarshish (the end of the earth for a Mediterranean person, namely, Spain) – about as far from Assyria as he could possibly go.
Notwithstanding his attempts to avoid his mission to Nineveh, the story recounted that Jonah was thrown overboard by the sailors, swallowed by a fish, spit out by the fish on the shore and went to Nineveh. Once there, he warned the Assyrians of impending destruction if they did not repent. To Jonah’s amazement, the Assyrians and their king repented. God’s mind was changed, and God decided not to punish them.
Today’s reading recounts Jonah’s anger with God for being merciful to the Assyrians. Echoing YHWH’s “self-description” in Exodus 34:6 that God is merciful and abounding in steadfast love, Jonah told YHWH that he fled to Tarshish precisely because he knew God would be willing to relent from punishing the Assyrians (4:2). Jonah wanted Nineveh to be punished and was so angry about God’s relenting that he preferred to die (4:3, 4:8) rather than see the “enemy” repent and receive God’s mercy.
The Jonah story is not history. Nineveh never repented in the 8th Century BCE. The Assyrian Empire destroyed the Northern 10 tribes (Israel) in 722 BCE. Assyria put Judea under siege for many years around 700 BCE. By the time of the writing of this story, Nineveh had long since been destroyed by the Babylonians in 612 BCE.
The Book of Jonah emphasized the inclusivity of God’s love and mercy for all, not just the people of Israel and Judea. Similarly, the Book of Ruth (in which a Moabite woman – the Moabites were a hated enemy of Judea — became the great grandmother of King David) and portions of the Book of Isaiah convey the message that God’s mercy and love are inclusive.
Other books of the Bible, such as Ezra and Nehemiah (written around 450 BCE), required the Jewish people be exclusive. Some of the Jews who remained in Jerusalem during the Exile had intermarried. After the Exile, they were required by Ezra to send away their foreign wives and the children they had by them (Ezra 10:3).
The tension (and disagreement within Judaism) between inclusivity and exclusivity continued into the First Century of the Common Era. In opposition to the exclusivist Sadducees, Jesus of Nazareth was clearly presented in the Gospels as an inclusivist.
Epistle: Philippians 1:21-30
21 To me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well—30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Philippi was a major city in Macedonia on the Roman road to Byzantium (Istanbul). Most of its inhabitants were Roman citizens. Paul had deep affection for the Jesus Followers in Philippi and thanked them for gifts sent to him in prison (4:18). Paul wrote this letter from prison, but it is not clear if he was in Rome, Caesarea, or Ephesus.
Today’s reading reflects Paul’s tension between living in the flesh and seeing dying as “gain” for living in Christ (v. 21). In his epistles, Paul used the phrase “living in the flesh” in two different ways – to denote a life that is governed by the values of the world and, in other contexts, to simply be alive as a human being. Here, he used it in the latter sense.
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”