I wonder whether some truths are so familiar to us that we can’t hear them anymore. As I preacher, I find myself saying the same earth-shaking theological truths over and over yet wondering whether the congregation really notices. “God loves you no matter what. No, really, he does. Seriously, I mean it; he really, really does.”
That’s when it’s time to speak in parables, and this week’s lessons (Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16) provide the perfect opportunity to do it. The princaiple at play, here, is the belief that God’s mercy extends to those who do not deserve it. In Jonah, the title character is angry because God has seen the Ninevites repentance and has decided not to destroy them all. In Matthew, the laborers who worked all day resent the equal pay given to those who only worked an hour. As Christians, we resent that God’s love and grace and mercy and forgiveness belong as much to the wicked as to us. But how do we get that point across?
Parables. It’s time to preach a parable.
Once upon a time there were two sisters. The younger daughter remained close to her childhood home, and the elder moved across the country, where she raised a family of her own. As their parents grew older, time and time again, the younger daughter stepped in to help. The storm that blew a tree down on the roof—the younger daughter helped. The time that the pipes froze and burst—the younger daughter took care of it. The day their mother fell and broke her hip—the daughter stepped in and made sure everything was ok.
As the years went by, the older daughter came in for Thanksgiving and Easter—the two times of the year that she visited her parents—and called every week or two. She voiced concern when her mother was in the hospital, and shared her worries when her father’s health began to decline, but the burden of care always fell to the younger daughter. Still, the parents doted on their older child. When their father died, the mother clung to her older daughter—even though she left to go home after two days. When her mother was bedridden and moved in with her younger daughter, all she wanted was to see the girl who lived out of town. Finally, when the older child arrived at her dying mother’s bedside, the mother said, “At last, I have seen my beloved daughter. Now, I can die,” and she breathed her last.
And, two days later, the older daughter left town to go back home, where she waited for her half of the estate to come as a check in the mail.
We’re supposed to be angry when we read these stories. We are supposed to seethe when we read of God’s willingness to spare the Ninevites. Those barbarians had tortured the Israelites for generations. They would raid the northern towns, burn the farms, and kidnap the women and children. They were terrorists. To faithful Israelites like Jonah, they were the ISIS of their day. And yet God spared them? But the story of Jonah, we protest, is a story of a giant fish who swallowed a man who wouldn’t listen to God! Really? That’s bull****. Read the story again. It’s a terrible tale of God’s forgiveness of even the worst possible sinners.
When Jesus told the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, he was being controversial. His hearers were supposed to listen to that story and think, “Wait a minute! That’s not right! You can’t do that!” We’re supposed to hear the parable and get angry at the landowner and at Jesus for telling it. “That can’t be what the kingdom of heaven is like! That’s not fair! I don’t want to be a part that upside-down, backwards, socialist place Jesus is speaking of!”
But we’ve heard these stories before. And we’ve heard preachers deliver sermons about how upside-down the kingdom of heaven is and how provocative God’s mercy really is. Well? It’s time for a parable. Find a story that will make the congregation angry—really, deeply angry at how God’s kingdom works. Is it forgiveness for murderers? Is it a communist manifesto? Is it selling the altar guild’s silver and giving the money to drug addicts? What will push us over the edge? The bible is supposed to do it, but I worry that it’s familiarity has made us immune to its power. Preach the word with gloves off. Make the people squirm. Make them want to throw something at you right in the middle of the sermon. Then, you will have done your job.