The prophet Jonah is the patron saint of “It’s not fair.”

Jonah wanted a world in which the good guys get rewarded and the bad guys get smacked. He wanted a world in which his good behaviour, faithfulness, and law-abiding life would be recognized  and blessed. Jonah could not tolerate a world in which God’s grace was bestowed upon those Jonah deemed to be unworthy.

When life seemed unfair to Jonah, he became angry, bitter and resentful.

If “fair” means equal, there is no such thing as fair. It is an unavoidable reality that on this horizontal, timebound, material plane, gifts are unevenly distributed. There are people who come into the world with a physical endowment that almost guarantees they will excel in some sport. Other people have brains that simply work in miraculous ways. Some people are born into a family with fabulous material wealth. Artistic ability is not evenly distributed.

And then there is chance. I live in one of the most beautiful, peaceful, civilized, safe places in the world. I can claim no credit for this good fortune; it is not fair. I am lucky to live where I live, lucky to be healthy, lucky to have met the woman I married, have the children and grand-children I have. I was lucky to find a career which has sustained, challenged, fascinated, and provided for me and my family for thirty-seven years. I do not deserve these blessings.

It is not fair that that I should have such a charmed life while others are born in the midst of violence, cannot afford to feed their children, suffer from wasting disease, die young. In this physical dimension, the gifts of life are not equally distributed.

But, the Book of Jonah holds out the possibility that there may be another realm in which all people equally can experience the deep blessedness of life.

Jonah may have been a great prophet; but he was a terrible theologian. He seems to have been unaware of the rich blessing of his own spiritual heritage.

In the introduction to the Book of Jonah, the writer sets the scene for the rest of the story saying,

1Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ 3But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:1-3)

Imagine that… Jonah thought he could “flee… from the presence of the Lord.” He thought there was somewhere he could get away from God. Perhaps Jonah was unaware of Psalm 139:7, 8 where the Psalmist asks God:

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?

Then the poet answers his own question saying,

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

The Psalmist is a poet, a prophet, AND a good theologian. The Psalmist understood that there is nowhere Jonah could “flee from” God’s “presence.”

Ironically, the whole Book of Jonah underlines the fact that there is nowhere God is absent. The beauty, love, truth, and light we call “God” are present and at work EVEN in the lives of the inhabitants of Nineveh, the capital of the ancient Empire of Assyria, Israel’s terrifying enemy.

No matter how unfair life may be, it is always possible to open to the “presence of the Lord.” In the midst of difficulty, struggle, horror, privation, and injustice, my heart can find strength and a measure of peace.

I understand that this is easier to say from my comfortable position of privilege and blessing; but there is an abundance of testimony that people do find unusual strength, resilience, and comfort even in the midst of the most trying of circumstances. There is a mysterious beauty and goodness at the heart of life. When our hearts open we receive the gift of assurance that, no matter how difficult life may seem, there is a force at work in life that seeks the well-being of all people.

The reading from the Book of Jonah that was appointed in our lectionary yesterday is paired with Jesus’ parable of the Landowner who hired workers throughout the day and then paid those hired last, who had worked only a short time, the same as those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” (Matthew 20:12) This is the parable of “It’s not fair.”

But, the landowner rebukes the ungrateful workers who have worked all day and complain about their pay, asking them,

are you envious because I am generous? (Matthew 20:15)

No matter how unfair the circumstances of life may look, at the heart of the universe there is generosity. Life is bent in favour of human prospering. If I have the eyes to perceive it, the details of my life offer the opportunity for me to grow and deepen. There is always the possibility of growing in wisdom and deepening in love.

When my heart opens to discern the outline of grace, I discover the reality of generosity at the core of all life. “Fair” is no longer a concern.