Grace and peace

Proper 20 (September 21, 2008)
Common Lectionary Texts:
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Ps. 145:1-8; Phil.1-21-30; Matt. 20:1-16

This week we gathered in northern Jordan for a retreat with 19 staff from MCC programs in Jordan, Palestine, Iraq and Iran. We had a wonderful time sharing stories, struggles, program updates, laughter and a short trip to local historical sites. We feel fortunate to be part of such a gifted and dedicated team.

View from the Olive Branch, overlooking Jordan Valley

The following is adapted from a devotional reflection Daryl shared during the retreat:

This Sunday is called “Peace Sunday” in Mennonite churches. It is interesting that all the Common Lectionary readings for this week focus, not on peace, but on God’s grace. But perhaps there is a connection between grace and peace.

Grace is from the Greek word charis, which means “gift.” Grace is not something that we earn or deserve or have a right to demand. It is a gift that God chooses to give – just as we give gifts to those we love.

MCC staff at site of ancient church near birthplace of Elijah

The Old Testament reading comes from the book of Jonah. It takes place in Nineveh, which today is known as Mosul, in northern Iraq.

In this reading, God calls the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh – the capital of Israel’s archenemy Assyria – to preach a message of repentance. Jonah refuses. He prefers to see the Ninevites destroyed rather than restored. But God gets Jonah’s attention by introducing him to a captivating underwater adventure involving a large fish! Reluctantly, Jonah heads off to Nineveh on a preaching campaign. Much to Jonah’s dismay, the people – including the king — repent and turn from their evil ways.

God shows mercy. But Jonah shows that God’s prophets are capable of petty attitudes and behaviors. Jonah has just completed the most successful preaching campaign of his life, and his response is to be angry!

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live”(Jonah 4: 1-3).

MCC Jordan staff member Suzi Khoury with Elijah Lehman

The Psalm includes this marvelous one-line description of God, which sounds almost exactly like Jonah’s description of God: “The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love” (Ps. 145:8).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells a story about workers who are hired at various times during the day – some in the early morning, others during the course of the day, still others just before quitting time.

At the end of the day, the landowner pays the last hired workers first. Even though they only worked one hour, he gives them a denarius – a full day’s wage. When it comes time to pay the workers who have labored from early morning – they also receive a denarius – which is exactly what the landowner had promised them at the time he hired them. The first-hired workers complain bitterly, “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day” (Matt. 20:12). But the landowner responded, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (vv.13-15).

So what do all these readings about God’s grace have to do with our presence as an MCC team working in the Middle East? I’m assuming that one of our common hopes as a team is that we are here as peacebuilders. These readings remind us of three things that can undermine our peacebuilding potential.

We cannot be effective peacebuilders if we forget that God is gracious and that we are totally dependent on that grace.
Whatever his faults and shortcomings, David understood this one thing about God: “The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.” David repeated it again and again in the Psalms (see also, Ps. 86:15: Ps. 103:8).

Ancient ruins of Ajloun Castle

Here is the bottom line: All of us are dependent on God’s grace.

Understanding our common need for God’s grace is the foundation for all peacebuilding activities – because it reminds us that we are neither superior nor inferior to others. We are all in the same boat – all of us are dependent on God’s grace. International law and human rights are important components of peacebuilding, but only God’s grace is strong enough to serve as the glue for the bond of peace.

So much of the world’s conflict has to do with claims of superiority. My nationality is superior to yours. My ethnicity or race is superior to yours. My rights are superior to yours. When we see ourselves as superior, by definition, we see others as inferior – and in the worst case – as inhuman.

Remembering that we are all dependent on God’s grace strips away all pretense of superiority.

We cannot be effective peacebuilders if we try to manage and control God’s grace.
Like David, Jonah understood that God is gracious. Jonah got it. Jonah’s problem was that he didn’t want God’s grace to extend to his enemies. Jonah wanted to limit God’s grace to “me and mine.” Jonah wanted God to be gracious to him. Jonah wanted God to be gracious to the Israelites. But that was the limit.

We will never be effective peacebuilders if we try to control and manage God’s grace. It is not our job to dole out God’s grace to those persons we think are deserving of grace. The idea that we can control God’s grace is as arrogant as if we tried to control who in the world is entitled to sunshine and rain, or food and shelter.

Our job is not to control and manage God’s grace. Our job is to extend God’s grace to others – including our enemies. And that means extending it to the persons we find most difficult to like. It means extending it to persons who pose a threat to us. That list of persons is different for each of us. And it’s not simply the obvious candidates – enemy nations or occupying powers. Sometimes it is family members or work colleagues.

We cannot be effective peacebuilders if we constantly compare the grace we receive with the grace others receive.
In the parable that Jesus told, those who worked all day were happy in the morning. They were the lucky ones who had been given jobs for the day. And they had been promised a good and fair wage, which is exactly what they received.

But instead of being thankful for their own good fortune, they began to focus on the “better deal” that others received. We can never understand God’s grace through eyes of envy.

We don’t choose what gifts others give to us. In the same way, grace is God’s gift to give as God chooses. God’s grace to us is sufficient to meet all our needs. Let us be thankful for that. Perhaps someone else is in need of a different or greater gift. That is God’s to decide. Paul writes: “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us . . . (Rom. 12:6a). . . . All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (I Cor. 12:8-11).

If we want to be effective peacebuilders, we must live with gratitude for the grace that God has extended to us; not begrudging the grace that God gives to others. God gives each of us the grace that is necessary and sufficient for our situation.

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