The trouble with God’s grace

14th Sunday after Pentecost (September 18, 2011)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Matt. 20:1-16; Jonah 3:10-4:11; Ps. 145:1-8; Phil. 1:21-30

This weekend we plan to participate in a retreat for MCC workers in the region. These annual events are a great time for connecting with colleagues.

MCC staff at fall 2010 retreat in Amman (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

On Wednesday about 70 Jordanian activists burned U.S. and Israeli flags outside the U.S. Embassy in Amman. According to Al Jazeera, the group was angry over recent WikiLeaks cables “suggesting covert U.S. plans to turn Jordan into a home for Palestinians.” Palestinians already comprise more than half of Jordan’s population.

Jordanian protesters at U.S. embassy in Amman (Reuters photo)

On Thursday about 300 Jordanians gathered near the Israeli Embassy in Amman, calling on the Jordanian government to shut down the embassy and cut diplomatic ties with Jordan. Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994, but many Jordanians do not feel that the treaty has led to practical benefits for Jordanians. They also fear that Israel plans to deport even more Palestinians to Jordan.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas confirmed on Friday that he will apply next week to the U.N. Security Council for full membership of a Palestinian state. The U.S. has threatened to veto such an action.

The Common Lectionary readings this week describe God’s grace and the challenges it creates – especially for those who would seek to contain or control it.

The psalmist, echoing many biblical writers, declares: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Ps. 145:8) Grace is part of God’s very nature or DNA.

The prophet Jonah understands full well that God is gracious; Jonah’s problem is that he doesn’t want God’s grace to extend to his enemies – the Assyrian empire. So when God calls Jonah to go and preach a message of repentance to the Assyrian people, Jonah flees the opposite direction. Eventually, Jonah goes to Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and preaches. The king and people repent and God chooses not to punish them. But rather than celebrate the success of his preaching campaign, Jonah sulks outside the city. “Please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:3). Jonah wants God to destroy his enemies. God has a bigger plan: to transform them so that they will be a blessing to others and no longer a threat to Jonah and his people.

In the Gospel reading Jesus tells a story about a landowner who hires laborers at various points during the day. At the end of the day, he pays the first hired a fair day’s wage – just as he promised in the morning. But he pays the same wage to the workers who were hired late in the day. Rather than celebrate their good fortunate of having had work for the day so they can feed their families, the first hired grumble, “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” (Matt. 20:12). The landowner reminds the first hired that he paid them as promised. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” he challenges, “Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v.15)

The Epistle reading cites one more “problem” with God’s grace. Paul tells the church at Philippi that “(God) has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” (Phil. 1:29) While we don’t often equate hardship with grace, it is precisely during times of identifying most fully with Christ’s suffering that we most fully experience God’s grace.

It can be difficult to be thankful for what we have when someone else gets a “better deal”. It is even more difficult to see God’s grace extend to those who make us feel small or insecure. Still, we diminish the quality of our life when we seek to restrict God’s grace.

Grace is God’s nature. And it is God’s gift to give as God chooses.

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