Proper 20A 2017: Mercy Resentment

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For children, life is a justice issue.
For many adults that never changes.
“Did I get what I deserve?”
“Did I get my reward?
“Did I get my share?”

My mom was a bit obsessive
when it came to making sure each of her five children
had exactly, and I mean exactly,
the same number of Christmas and birthday presents.
But even on a daily basis she made sure
that at dinner everyone had exactly the same
proportion of each serving –
more than once I saw her counting the green beans
on every dinner plate.

The book of Jonah
is a hilarious one-page book of the Bible
about a bean-counter extraordinaire.

I won’t regurgitate the whole story,
pun intended,
but for those that do not know this story,
God knocks on Jonah’s door (so to speak)
and tells him to go to a distant country called Nineveh,
and then tell the Ninevehvites
they are bad boys and girls
and they need to repent OR ELSE!

The ‘or else’ is God will “smite” them.
No one wants to be smitted.
No one really knows exactly what it feels like
to be smitted, but it sounds really bad.

We should remind ourselves
that in 4th century BCE Mesopotamia,
a peasant listening to the Jonah story
would have no doubt that any one of dozens of gods
had the power to do some wicked smiting.

Try this small act of imagination.
Conjure up the horrendous images
of Texas towns under water,
or Caribbean islands after this week’s hurricane,
or Mexico City crushed by another earthquake.
Now imagine all the victims
of all that suffering
believing it was the result of a punishing God.
God tells Jonah
to go warn Nineveh they will be smitted,
unless something changes fast.

A 4th century B.C.E. peasant most likely
would have lived through one or more smiting events in his or her lifetime,
and such a threat
would surly have caused them to shudder.

“Yeah, sure thing, I’ll do that right away,”
Jonah tells God,
then runs the other way.

Now as 21st century folk who don’t believe in smiting,
we imagine all Biblical heroes are like Abraham,
who said, “Yeah sure,”
and then went above and beyond what God asked.
But not Jonah; not in this story –
and not in a bunch of other stories as well.

Jonah hops a on the nearest ship and sails away
to get as far beyond the reach of God as possible.

That is just one of the funny
and surprising parts of the story
if we were hearing it in the 4th century BCE.

In those days, everyone knew that any god
was a god of place – a local god.
So you might be able to out run a god if you had to.
If it was a god you didn’t like, it was also a god
of that place
or those people
or that country.

Escape that place
and you might find a god more to your liking.

So Jonah gives God a head fake
and then makes a mad dash for somewhere else.

To make this short story even shorter,
God follows Jonah.
God agitates the ocean
that incites the sailors
that fling him overboard
that causes a big fish to gulp him down in one piece.

Now imagine Jonah’s surprise,
and the laughter of those hearing this story,
when the big fish belches him out.
Where? On the shores of Nineveh!

So now we are caught up
with the part of the story we read today.

What we heard this morning
answers the question about why Jonah
ran away from God in the first place.

Because, Jonah whines,
I knew
you were a god of mercy not justice!

Jonah just knew
that after haranguing the Ninevehvites
about dire consequences,
God would show them mercy. Bah!

Jonah was just like us,
resentful and angry when the beans get miscounted.

Jonah is deeply disturbed
because God is going to be merciful
toward people he told, in no uncertain terms,
to change or get smitted.
“I knew it,” Jonah spits.
“I knew you were a sissy-god!
I knew you were a bleeding-heart liberal god!
Mercy, bah humbug!”

Now we can pretend,
sitting here in our very polite
and earnest Sunday-go-to-meeting mindset,
that we would not be angry and resentful,
but please, tell it to somebody else.

All of us have that juvenile penchant for justice living inside us.
4th century BCE or 21st century CE,
the Jonah story is about you and me;
a story about how we prefer justice to mercy, unless WE are the ones in need of mercy.

The Matthew story is more of the same,
without the humor.
We can bet that when the good ol’ boys
that had been working all day
heard the Line Boss paying the last hired
they were salivating for the windfall headed their way.
Who wouldn’t?

But then the Line Boss
pays them exactly what was contracted for.
They were incensed.
They were furious.

They were resentful –
all because they got paid what was expected,
while someone else got mercy.

Mercy is perfectly fine if WE are the recipients,
but if someone else gets mercy
when we only get justice,
look out!

The last few weeks
we have been stuttering on mercy and forgiveness
because that is where the readings have pointed us.
It is a kind of worldview
rising up in the mist between the verses of the Bible
from the book of Genesis all the way to Matthew.

It is a worldview that claims
the Economy of God
is guided by the invisible hand of mercy.
That is different than our economy.

Anyone who took Econ. 101 knows
that our economic system is guided
by production and scarcity – not even justice.
That is radically different from God’s economy.

The Economy of God,
if the Bible is to be believed even a little,
is guided by the laws of
profligate mercy.

If we stopped to think about it,
if we even believed it,
it would make us angry enough to spit.
It is almost humorous how infantile we can be
when it comes to justice and mercy.

Let’s take an esoteric and abstract example,
to give us a little emotional distance
from our penchant for justice,
so that we can see it in better focus.

When human beings have imagined
the other side of death,
invariably it is a scheme built on justice, not mercy.
Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity
all assert an intimate relationship between
how we live this life
and the quality of another life.
No matter which religion, or whether
it is an Afterlife or the Wheel of Life,
there is always a relationship between
here and now, and then and there.

Heaven and Hell,
whatever, are all based upon a connection
between our behavior (or consciousness) now,
in this life, and the next life or dimension.

But what if there is no connection?

What if God really is as radically gracious
as indicated in the parable of the Generous Employer?

What if God’s mercy bears no relationship to justice?

What if God embraces good guys and bad guys
with the same joy and tenderness?

If the Economy of God really does operate
by the invisible hand of mercy then…
well, then what?

Well then, we will have to find new reasons
to do what we think is right,
instead of trying to motivate ourselves
with fear, guilt, or shame.

So imagine no fear.
Imagine no fear of the law.
Imagine no fear of punishment.
Imagine no fear of being caught.
Imagine no fear of Hell.
Imagine no fear of judgment.

Suddenly, we would need to find another motivation.
Suddenly, we would need to find
additional drive and impulse
to live our lives by the core values we claim.

Imagine spirituality with no guilt and no shame:
no guilt that we did not live up to expectations,
and no shame that we have failed.

Imagine religion with no guilt that we did not do
whatever it was we were supposed to do,
and no shame that we are not what we had hoped.

We would need to find new motivations
for resisting the temptation to forsake our principles.
What would those motivations be?
What could possibly be more powerful
than fear, guilt, and shame?

Just this:

  • That the values we have chosen are the ones we love.
  • That the principles we acclaim,
    we believe deep down in our bones,
    are the best ones to live by;
  • That we are convinced of our core values because we have experienced their wisdom, rather than because someone else or some other authority told us they should be ours to hold.

No fear,
no guilt,
no shame; and instead,
because our values, principles, and beliefs
are the ones we love
and the faith we hold
and the principles we have discovered
are the right ones to live by.

Without fear, guilt or shame,
when we violate our principles, values, or faith –
which we will always do because we do not have a snowball’s chance in Hell of perfection –
we will fall into the arms of God’s mercy
and recover there.

And if we do that,
instead of dwell in the valley of fear, guilt, and shame,
we will be more merciful to others,
and let them off the hook
so they can keep trying too.

We could call a world like that, a Life-giving Cycle
in contrast to the current one,
which is a Vicious Cycle.

The Viscous Cycle is a downward spiral
of fear, guilt and shame
that actually makes it harder for us to recover
and live our core values and faith.
A Life-giving Cycle is an upward motion
healing us and empowering us
to live out our values and faith
even as we stumble over our failures.

A Life-giving Cycle
rests upon our embrace of mercy more than justice,
of loving-kindness more than reprisal,
of humility more than vindication.

And the good news is, the best news really,
it is our choice!

It really is our choice
whether we live by mercy or justice.
All of us have been raised in the justice-system,
and we have been infected with or wounded by,
fear, guilt, and shame.
But the great thing about growing up
and spiritual maturation,
is that we have choices to make.
We get to choose
whether to live in the kingdom of mercy
instead of chasing justice.
To be sure, it is a learning curve
and it takes a lifetime to learn and re-learn,
but it all begins with our choice.

We can be sitting here, even now,
like Jonah under the shade of resentment
and pouting about things we don’t like
or changes taking place,
and decide – actually, choose – to be different.

Lord, have mercy upon us.