Friday, September 16, 2005
The Early Gourd Gets the Worm
He must have been quite a sight, when he finally walked into Nineveh. Stinking like rotting fish, his flesh bleached white with acid, his prophet robes mottled with seaweed and sand. And when he carried that homemade placard that read: “Repent the End is Near!” they did. There was crying and gnashing of teeth and sackcloth and ashes as far as the eye could see. They repented like the sinners they were in the hands of an angry God. And that was just too much for Jonah.
He knew it was going to be like this. He knew that the vile and filthy idol-worshipping Ninevites would repent and then he wouldn’t get to rejoice in the destruction of their depraved city. He just knew it. He knew that the justice of God stinks to the prophets. Because the prophets like that ole’ fire and brimstone. The prophets’ job is to prophesy the wrath of God. But Jonah knew his God too well. He just knew that his God would have mercy. He just knew that his God would forgive.
So he sat on the beach and sulked. But God had mercy on the disappointed prophet too. And right there, on the beach outside of Nineveh, where the temple of Dagon was now filled with new converts to the God of Jonah, up sprang a wondrous gourd vine. Its leaves were broad and green, and you could pop those gourds and drink cool clear water. So Jonah drank and smiled and sulked. He sulked all night long, and when he woke up, with sand stuck to one side of his unhappy face, he saw the stinking justice of God at work again. His wondrous gourd was gone, gone—devoured in the night by a creature every bit as vile and filthy as Nineveh’s new Yahwists: a giant writhing worm! And his lovely, shady, wondrous gourd was a shriveled hulk, matching his own.
Then God whispered gently to him. “Jonah, you’re mad, aren’t you?”
“Mad? Mad? You’re darn right I’m mad, God. I’m mad enough to just die here in this terrible place.”
And God just smiled. “Jonah, for heaven’s sake, you’re mourning for a plant! You couldn’t even muster enough human decency to mourn for a whole city of the most pitiful people on earth?”
But Jonah knew it would be like that, didn’t he? For that’s how it is with God: it may be called justice, but it darn sure looks like grace.
The Gospel for this week has Jesus telling another of his strange stories of the realm of God and how grace works. He’s had an encounter with a rich young man, who just couldn’t figure out that righteousness has nothing to do with being moral or religious, but with giving yourself and all that you have in the service of others. When it comes to God’s realm, Jesus says, it’s the early gourd that gets the worm. The first are last, and the last first.
As usual, when Jesus starts his story-telling, his listeners are completely puzzled by this. So Jesus tries again:
Once upon a time there was landowner who had crops to pick. So he went down that morning about nine o’clock to the corner, where the day laborers hung about, hoping that one of those long, flatbed trucks would come along with some work to do. He finds his men and promises them their pay, and off they set to gather the crop.
Sometime around noon, it becomes apparent that this group will never get finished by closing time, so the landowner goes back out and finds some more workers. The afternoon sun is slipping towards the horizon, and the landowner is in a bit of panic. So this time he goes out around the liquor store, and finds men, sitting in the shade, sipping Night Train out of brown paper bags. He gathers them into the back of the truck and hauls them to his field. But the shadows are getting long, and in spite of all the people picking, there’s only an hour to go and way too much to pick. So the landowner cruises the backstreets and gathers every unlikely, lazy, good-for-nothing slacker he can find and practically drags them back for the last few minutes of work.
The sun is a large red ball as the men file past the field supervisor for their pay. He gives each one an envelope as they file by. One of the men who has been there all day opens his envelope and peeks inside. Of course, he expects that since he’s been there all day, he’s going to get more than the jokers who just showed up at the end. He asks one of them, “So how much did you make?” And the lazy, good-for-nothing slacker, who hasn’t even broken a sweat, opens up his envelope and spies exactly the same amount.
Tired, hungry, thirsty and boiling mad, mad enough to die right there, the man runs back to the supervisor, “Hey, Joe. There’s some mistake. This can’t be my envelope.” The rest of the nine o’clock crew gathers around, muttering threats. “Yeah, we were here all day, working in this heat, without so much as a break. You paid them”—they eye the lazy good-for-nothing slackers—“as much as you paid us. What’s up with that?”
The field supervisor looks up over his pince-nez. “Didn’t I pay you the agreed price?” They nod. “Well, good evening then.”
“But, that’s not fair!” they cry in unison.
“Sure it is. The boss told me to pay you what he owed you and the boss told me to pay them what he owed them. I did. It’s his money, and he’s a generous guy. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to supper.”
Jesus is looking at the disciples. Their mouths are hanging open in disbelief. He shakes his head, “It’s God’s justice, people. The first are last and the last first. The early gourd gets the worm.”
We saw God’s justice at work in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast these past three weeks. But it didn’t work the way the prophets said it would. The prophets on the right side of the Sanhedrin said that God destroyed New Orleans because it was a lot like Nineveh: full of wild characters, bending their genders, flashing their skin, dancing till all hours. The prophets on the left side of the Sanhedrin said that God destroyed New Orleans because they drained the bayous and dumped huge quantities of carbon compounds into the sky. The prophets sat glumly and shook their heads. New Orleans had gotten what it deserved.
But in the streets, God was busy being just. The relief was pouring in like a storm surge. An accounting firm up in Cenla sent its entire staff to hand out clothes in a makeshift Salvation Army shelter. Schoolchildren sold lemonade to raise money for the homeless. People were plucked from rooftops and held like long lost lovers by total strangers. Homes were opened and hearts and wallets too. Priests said mass on slabs where churches once stood and their congregations hugged and swayed and prayed and sang and laughed and cried.
It’s a powerful thing to be caught in the hurricane of God’s justice. You get whipped about by the wind, swallowed by whales, and spit out onto lonely beaches. You watch as the people you think should be drowned or flattened or crucified get loved instead. You watch the worm gorge itself on the gourd. All those latecomers, getting all the best seats. all those prophets, looking so miserable.
Ahead lies tough work for us all. The winds and waters of Katrina washed away the thin coat of American justice that had been painted over the sins of racism and the marginalization of the poor. As we strive to create a new country out of the misery of mud and devastation, we have been given a new chance to do justice God’s way. God’s way of justice looks a lot like mercy. It looks a lot like grace.
We can be mad, mad enough to die right here. Or we can get up, go up into Nineveh, and do justice. The early gourd gets the worm.