Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Phil 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
When I worked in the University of Glasgow, every year it was up to each of us to decide whether or not to apply for promotion or an extra increment or whatever we thought we deserved. In short, in order to get on, you had to blow your own trumpet loudly and often.
Applications were filtered by the head of department, who wrote a supportive (or otherwise) statement before passing it on to the relevant committee who ranked them and made awards within the cash limits they had.
I had a colleague who did this every year and was generally successful in getting something – until the head of department changed. Under the new management he didn’t get anything and he wasn’t a happy bunny. You see the new head of department didn’t think that the system was fair – especially for those who worked hard and achieved good results but when required to ‘puff up’ what they’d done, just couldn’t do it. The new boss coached them in ‘selling’ their contribution and insisted they submit an application from time to time.
Well after being knocked back a couple of times, my colleague declared that what was happening was grossly unfair, resigned and took up a job at another University at a lower salary.
I was also knocked back under the new regime and since I wasn’t in the habit of applying, I was rather cross and went to see the head of department and she said (yes in case you hadn’t guessed the old HoD was a man and the new one a woman) “I can see why you’re angry, I would be too, so go on have a good yell at me”. I said “no you tell me why and I’ll decide whether or not to yell”. So she told me that from her perspective, three other people had been deserving of promotion for some time, but not applied and once they’d been dealt with it would be my turn.
I’ll let you figure out whether I yelled or not.
Fairness isn’t an absolute, it depends on both the situation and a person’s perspective. The colleague who left had a very different perspective from the new head of department, those who didn’t apply for promotion and from me – lots of different perspectives.
Today’s readings are all about fairness and perspective. First we have Jonah. Jonah is a prophet and God’s told him that he is going to smite Nineveh and its people unless they mend their ways. Jonah takes great delight in proclaiming this and quite contrary to expectation, they do exactly what they’re told, mend their ways and go around in sackcloth and ashes.
“When God saw what they 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. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
Jonah isn’t happy that they’ve listened to what he’s said and mended their ways, he’s worried that he’s going to look a right idiot, because he’s forecast destruction and it hasn’t happened. From his perspective, he’d rather God sent judgement than mercy, even if it calls into question his skills as a prophet.
In our Gospel, we meet an employer who takes on workers and offers them a fair wage. Three times he decides that he needs more workers and offers them a fair wage too. The first set start at the beginning of the day and the last ones just an hour before evening. The employer pays them all the same wage, starting with those who’ve only worked an hour. The other groups then expect to get more, more than they agreed when they were hired, since after all, they’ve done more work.
Those who started early aren’t complaining that they didn’t get what they were promised and what they agreed to, but that they didn’t get extra because they worked longer, than those taken on later. They’re not happy for those who finally got work later on, but grumpy that these folk get the same wage.
Was is the fault of those who spent most of the day without work? The short answer is we don’t know, but when I hear politicians say that the unemployed are all lazy scroungers, I do become a little uneasy. There may be some that are, but there’ll be many who aren’t and whose lack of work causes them and their families much pain, anxiety and stress.
One thing that the present pandemic has thrown into sharp relief is the many inequalities and unfairnesses in our society.
The Book of Jonah is wonderful in that it tries to get us to understand how God tries to work with us in spite of our resistance! God even provides a shady bush so that Jonah can have a grandstand view of this wonderful transformation of Nineveh, but he just can’t take pleasure from it. Jonah’s in a massive sulk! It’s easy to blame Jonah for being so petty, none of us do that sort of thing do we, not even my ex-colleague? But it’s about putting aside our own concerns, just long enough to see the things that God’s doing, right in front of our noses.
When God tries to reason with Jonah, comparing his suffering to the much worse suffering of many thousands of others, Jonah simply doesn’t want to hear. He’s locked in the perspective of his own misery and self-pity. God’s ways are not our ways, God’s perspective is not our perspective.
Both the parable in the Gospel and the story of Jonah make the same point: they show us our tendency to see the world through the lens of our own self-centredness. We are generally moved by the fate of starving millions or those caught up in hurricanes or earthquakes, or those killed in horrific accidents or terrorist outrages, but if something relatively trivial happens in our own lives, our suffering can eclipse all of theirs.
Our faith urges us to try to love others at least as deeply as we love ourselves, to feel their pain at least as acutely as we feel our own. And it can be done – some of the most truly inspirational (and coincidently happy) people I’ve ever met were people who could escape from their own perspective and empathise with the situation that others have found themselves in.
It’s worth remembering that whatever new restrictions come in over the next week or two, some people will be affected in perhaps life-changing ways, whilst others will be merely irritated – an important distinction for us all to recognise.