Sermon: The Price of Success

September 24, 2023

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Matthew 20:1-16

Let’s sit with Jonah for just a minute and consider the price of success. God called Jonah to urge the residents of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, to repent their evil ways. Assyria was one of the great empires of northern Mesopotamia, and had a reputation for great military power that would be used ruthlessly, even cruelly. It was an Assyrian army that ended the existence of the Kingdom of Israel around 700 years before Jesus’ birth, scattering the population so badly that we call them the “Lost Ten Tribes of Israel.”

When the Assyrian Empire eventually fell about 600 years before Jesus’ birth, the prophet Nahum wrote:

 “Woe, city of bloodshed,
    utterly deceitful, full of plunder—
    no end to the prey!
The crack of whip and rumble of wheel,
    galloping horse and bounding chariot!”


“There is no assuaging your hurt;
    your wound is mortal.
All who hear the news about you
    clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped
    your endless cruelty?”

(Nahum 3:1-2, 10)

Jonah, therefore, had every reason to fear his appointment to preach in Nineveh. There were two great dangers: first, that they would reject his message and kill him. God would punish them for that, but it wouldn’t have done Jonah much good. Second, they would accept his message, and God would forgive them. Which is what happened, and it made Jonah angry.

As Debie Thomas writes at, “Of course he has a right to be angry. Isn’t it right to be angry that God’s mercy extends to killers? Isn’t it right to be angry when people who break the rules don’t get the comeuppance they deserve? Isn’t it right to be angry that God’s grace is so reckless and wasteful, it challenges our most cherished assumptions about justice?”

The story of Jonah is about evil people not receiving what one person believes they deserve. The story of the laborers in the vineyard is about hard-working people not receiving what they think they deserve. As Karl Jacobsen writes at Working Preacher, “This parable is perfectly matched in the lectionary to the parable of Jonah, who has run away to avoid delivering the message of forgiveness that God has sent him to proclaim. Jonah complains (complains!), ‘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,’ and surely this cannot be for them? It is ironic that Jonah, who had earlier declared that ‘deliverance belongs to the Lord’ (2:9, a deliverance he himself has experienced), has rejected the good news of who God is for others.

“The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is about coveting, about our frustration with the grace of God as it applies not to us, but to others.”

Dr. Jacobsen’s interpretation of the story is that the day-long workers want to make the decision about what’s right and fair, a decision that the landowner has reserved to himself. Other commentators… have a lot of trouble with that.

Richard W. Swanson, in his commentary Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, writes, “Matthew’s story seems to beg for someone, anyone, just once to respond, ‘No, perhaps it is not appropriate.’ Until someone finally responds appropriately, the abuses of power will just pile up and pile up.” (Swanson, Richard W., Provoking the Gospel of Matthew (Cleveland, Pilgrim Press), 2007, p. 226) D. Mark Davis points out in his blog LeftBehindAndLovingIt that, according to property law in Leviticus 25, there shouldn’t be people lined up looking for work in the fields of large landowners. Each family should have its own land. “The mere presence of a place where the landless gather in search of day labor is itself a testimony that the imperial economic structure is contrary to the Sabbath Economics of the OT. So, one question facing the interpreter of this text from the get-go is, ‘How are we to encounter a parable that is built on a structurally unjust scenario?’” Stanley Saunders writes at Working Preacher, “We are tempted to see the landowner in God-like terms because he is powerful, he hires workers all day long and pays them all equally, and he declares his own goodness and justice. We should remember, however, that at the end of the day the workers are all as vulnerable and powerless as they were at the beginning of the day, except that, we will see, they have lost their dignity, and probably their unity.”

The story doesn’t give us a good model for industrial and labor relations. It won’t solve the writers’ or actors’ strikes in the film industry or the auto workers’ strike, either. It doesn’t help us with the struggles of migrant farm workers or the problem of our minimum wage being considerably less than a living wage. In the story, those who worked a partial day had enough for their families to live on for three or four days. In the United States, a minimum wage worker can’t afford the basics of food, shelter, medical insurance, transportation, and communication.

Where are we in this story?

Debie Thomas writes, “It embarrasses me to admit this, but ever since I was a little girl, I have always assumed, when hearing or reading this parable, that I would have been one of the 6:00am workers in the landowner’s vineyard…

“But consider this: the parable reads very differently if you situate yourself at the end of the line. The workers who got more than they expected to — the ones who received twelve times the pay they knew they deserved — they were ecstatic at the end of their workday. Ecstatic, stunned, thrilled, and grateful. Their experience was one of utter blessing, and I’ll bet that what went on at their end of the line was one big raucous party.

“But all the other stuff? The envy? The bitterness? The grumbling? The dissatisfaction? All of that murky stuff belonged to the ‘deserving’ folks at the front of the line.”

I guess that’s why I read this parable the way I do. Forty-five and more years ago, I found my Christian faith after rejecting it. In the span of my life, I have to say the time without faith was a short period. In my mind’s eye or my memory’s perception, however, that time stands out as more significant than what came before or after. With nearly thirty-five years behind me as an ordained minister, I still think of myself as newly come to the faith, one of those last hourly workers, one who is overwhelmed to receive the full day’s wage for a fraction of the work.

People tell me I work hard. Perhaps I do. Perhaps I’m trying to get eight hours effort into an hour’s worth of time?

“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,” complained the workers. “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” complained Jonah.

“Abounding in steadfast love.” That’s how I read this story.

If that wage is not a wage, but a stand-in for the love of God (and I recognize that there are real problems with this interpretation), how can there be any difference between what one receives and another receives? The love of God is the love of God. It’s not going to be quantitatively different. Oh, God’s relationship with one person will be different from another – I know that because I’ve been called to ministry and some of you were called into nursing and others of you were called into accountancy and some of you have been called into music and some of you have been called into parenthood and some of you have been called into something else. “There are varieties of gifts,” Paul wrote, “but the same Spirit.”

There’s only one love. It can’t be greater for me than for you, or for you than for me. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been forty years a Christian or forty minutes a Christian – for that matter, I think God loves us across the boundaries of religions. I think Christianity can make a closer relationship with God easier, but heaven knows I’ve seen Christians make heavy labor of that relationship, so maybe not.

But there’s only one love.

For Jonah, the price of success was the frustration of mercy. For the laborers, the price of success was to see everyone’s needs met. For us, the price of success in sharing the faith is to recognize that God loves everyone else just as much as us.

Maren Tirabassi wrote this week in a comment on, “we basically want God to be generous with us and no one else.”

But that’s not how it works, is it? God has been generous. God is generous. God will be generous whether we like it or not in grace, in mercy, and in steadfast love.


by Eric Anderson

Watch the Recorded Sermon

The image is The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard by an unknown author – Byzantine gospel (11th century). Paris, National Library., Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on September 24, 2023

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