During my years as a priest, I’ve been blessed countless times to find other people of
faith to walk with me on my Christian journey. These people have been my fellow pilgrims -
other faith leaders, people who have not always been Episcopalian. Clergy, lay folk, monks,
nuns - representing many different denominations, each of us trying to follow Jesus. They’ve all
helped me walk with the Master, as our Gospel hymn puts it.
Earlier this month I sat down with the Methodist clergywoman in Arkansas who
regularly offers me time for something deeply rooted in the earliest years of Christianity. It’s
called spiritual direction. Spiritual directors are not psychotherapists or counselors. They are
trained practitioners in the art of listening. They listen well to those who come with questions
about what might be happening in their relationship with God.
After my spiritual director listened to me talk for a quite a long time about what I
thought God might be “up to” lately with me, she gave me a question to live with and to live
into. I want to share that question now, and I’ll come back to it, later on. Here it is:
What do you want your life to look like?
Last Sunday my sermon was about forgiveness. I mentioned last Sunday that Yom
Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, when Jews fast, pray and seek forgiveness, begins
this evening. Jews, Christians - people of all faiths and no faith - we need times to wrestle with
and think on the need for forgiveness in our lives. Spiritual directors have helped me with those
times in my life - times when I’ve needed to forgive.
The word “forgive” has, simply put, two parts to it - “for” and “give.” To for-give is to
give for-ward, to pay forward the forgiveness and love we’re always given by our loving,
forgiving God. Even if we’re having a hard time doing it. Even if we’re having a hard time with
God forgiving someone else, when we’re sure they Do. Not. Deserve it.
Like Jonah. Our first lesson today from the Jewish Bible, also called the Hebrew
Scriptures or Old Testament, is the last chapter in that short story about Jonah, a man
swallowed by a big fish. The story begins with God sending Jonah to Nineveh, a city full of sin
and wickedness. Jonah basically says in response, “No, thanks, God.” He runs away and boards
a ship for Tarshish. Then, there’s a great, big storm.
Suddenly, that ship is about to break into pieces. The sailors are terrified. They call out
in desperation. They throw everything overboard. They wake Jonah, their passenger, who’s
been sleeping through all that chaos. They think he must be the culprit who’s responsible for
Jonah honestly admits, “It’s all my fault. I’m the cause of the storm” (Jonah 1:12, The
Message). So, they take him and throw him overboard. Immediately the sea quiets down.
Then, “God assigned a huge fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of that fish for three
days and nights” (1:17, ibid.). Jonah prayed to God, and God spared him.
Finally: God had Jonah’s attention! God spoke to him again: “(Be) on your way to the
big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way, and I can’t ignore it any longer”
(Jonah 3:1-2, ibid.). Jonah went and preached, the people listened, and they changed their evil
ways. And God had a change of mind about Nineveh. God forgave them. That’s how the last
chapter of Jonah’s story begins. That’s what we heard today.
So, how did Jonah respond? He was furious! “God, I knew this was going to happen!
That’s why I ran off! I knew you were sheer grace, mercy (and forgiveness)” (4:1-2, ibid.).
Jonah is “angry enough to die” (4:9, NRSVue). But God asks, “Should I not be concerned about
Nineveh?” (4:11). Another version has God ask, “Why can’t I…change what I feel about Nineveh
from anger to pleasure…?” (Eugene Peterson, The Message). Listen to that! Can you hear the
love and forgiveness in those questions?
The story we heard Jesus tell in Matthew’s Gospel account today echoes what God says
to Jonah. Jesus tells his disciples a parable that has no common sense to it - at all. Pay
everyone the same thing, no matter how much work they do? Really, Jesus?
At the end of the parable, the landowner says, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose
with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (20:15). Which sounds
something like what God said to Jonah: “Why can’t I change my feelings about Nineveh for
anger to pleasure?” (ibid.)
I think the lectionary folks - the ones who chose the Bible lessons for today, from Jonah
and Matthew - I think they’re telling us that God loves to give and to forgive. In fact, God is
generous - so generous, it gives God great pleasure to give and to forgive.
To give, truly give, and to forgive is a generous thing. The word generous comes from a
Latin word that means “noble race.” If we are in any way part of a noble race; if the human race
is called to be as generous as our ancient Biblical roots suggest: We need to be more like God -
and God’s son, Jesus. And when we give and forgive generously, we are promised the joy, the
pleasure of giving - the kind of pleasure God also feels.
Why does being generous give pleasure, even to the likes of us? For one thing, it’s built
into our neurochemistry. Giving and forgiving triggers those feel-good chemicals, like:
Endorphins. Dopamine. Oxytocin. According to recent studies, that’s true across all cultures.
It’s true across economic differences. For all of us, it can feel good to give and to forgive, when
we’re generous. It’s part of being and becoming more fully human.
Jesus, Christians say, was fully divine. And he was fully human. So how do we become
more fully human, more like Jesus, more like God? Slowly - maybe with some feelings of anger
and injustice to work through - eventually, we can become more generous. And in becoming
more generous, we will discover, if we’re paying attention, that both science and Scripture can
teach us how good it feels to give and forgive.
So, once again, here’s the question my spiritual director asked me. It’s a question about
life and love, giving and forgiving: What do you want your life to look like?
~ The Rev. Thomas