PostScript: Imagining what God wants
We are invited to imagine through two fictional stories, and Paul’s real-life experience.
In Jonah and in Jesus’ parable, those in the stories are selfish.
Jonah is the total opposite of what a prophet should be. He cares more for his comfort, lounging idly in the shade than for his mission to ‘a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left’ (Jonah 4.11). He sulks and, for that, God teases him. Surely it is the best response to anyone who sulks! The comic, fictional, Jonah of the book is based on a real-life prophet who courageously preached redemption to the evil king, Jeroboam (2 Kings 14.25-27), in the eighth century BC. For Christians, the story of the ‘whale’ speaks of death and resurrection – see Jonah’s prayer in Jonah 2.
In Jesus’ parable those who work all day have no concern for those who have no work. Jesus points out that all have needs. If the unemployed don’t get a day’s pay, they starve and will be less able to work tomorrow. What will happen after a month, a year…? Jesus concludes his parable with identifying the sin of those who found work and now think they deserve more.
Paul, too, thinks about himself, and finds his life hard. But, in total contrast to the other characters, he realises his mission and his responsibility. His conclusion is, ‘to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith.’ He now writes to strengthen the resolve of others who have hard lives, ‘since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had.’ (Philippians 1.30).
In the present situation, Covid-19 affects people differently according to their circumstances. For example:
- Children who have been schooled at home may have been supported by good lessons on-line.
They may have been able to access computer resources. With parental help a small child might have learned to read, learned their tables, learned computer skills. But some children had no computer and no support, and were like the people who waited all day in the market place waiting for someone to notice them.
- Some people had jobs which were essential, some had jobs which could be done on-line from home, and some found new employment arising out of the crisis. But some felt cast aside and unwanted, with no prospect of returning to a fulfilling employment which they had enjoyed. The awful loneliness may feel somewhat like Jonah’s darkness in the belly of the great fish (Jonah 1).
- Some elderly people thrived, with accessible internet access, supportive families (think, Captain Sir Tom Moore!). Some were in care homes with no visitors, or dying alone of Covid-19 with no access to family.
- Some elderly people, protected from financial shock by secure pensions and the government’s ‘triple-lock’ on future income may feel secure. But the enormity of the financial crisis may mean that pensions have to reduce for those who are comfortable in order that the needy may remain alive.
- There may be much more news this week on the same theme. The Times on Monday says, ‘A big week for economics kicks off with jobs figures on Tuesday, followed by inflation data on Wednesday and the Bank of England’s decision on interest rates on Thursday.’
As with the labourers waiting to be hired, the future of many people hangs in the balance.
- The reduction in the numbers of people flying may be permanent, with consequences for airports, Rolls Royce, and aircraft manufacture as well as reductions in numbers of pilots and cabin staff. People have spoken of places like Heathrow and Crawley becoming like the post-industrial mining and steel-making towns once confined to the north.
- Theatre, opera, and all live entertainment remain closed down.
- The new order to restrict gatherings to six people will further curtail the work of many.
- Libby Purves in The Times recalls the Gilbert and Sullivan song, ‘I’ve got a little list of society offenders…who never would be missed’, and lists some who have profited out of the pandemic.
- The gap between the haves and have-nots has increased over the past six months.
- The future of many care homes and those who work in them is uncertain with a shortage of finance and rising infection rates.
In the face of the current crisis, Scripture calls to us. Has God, through the current crisis ‘appointed a worm’ (Jonah 4.7) to prompt a re-assessment of priorities beyond our own personal comfort? Is the hiring of labourers only for the last hour of the day an equivalent for support for those worst hit by effects of the pandemic? With Paul we need to look beyond our own problems to see the struggle others have and support them.
Jonah, chapter 2, contains a prayer for deliverance. In the middle of the pandemic, a new and still largely not understood threat, our situation might feel somewhat like that of being swallowed up in a dark place and incomprehensible place, and Jonah’s prayer may feel appropriate. In praying these words we should remember all, in government, in health care, in medical research and in public heath services who find themselves in a new dark place where the threats are still not understood and people grope in the dark for the right responses.
Jonah’s prayer, like the Psalms, consists of ideas which are repeated in verses. One way to use this might be for two groups, marked here as Left and Right, to echo each other in the way the ideas are used.
Left I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me;
Right out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
Left You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
Right all your waves and your billows passed over me.
Left Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight;
Right how shall I look again upon your holy Temple?’
Left The waters closed in over me;
Right the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head
at the roots of the mountains.
Left I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever;
Right yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.
Left As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord;
Right and my prayer came to you, into your holy Temple.
Left Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.
Right But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you;
Left what I have vowed I will pay.
Right Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’
Think about what the effects of the pandemic have been personally.
Some have done well in the pandemic.
- Some investments have risen sharply.
- Some people have discovered life beyond the need for daily commuting.
- Some have saved money from the cancellation of expensive holidays.
Have there been any bonuses, or have things gone uninterrupted? If so, what can we do to help those who are suffering? Should priorities change?
Some have faced loneliness, isolation, feeling unwanted or useful. Have things been difficult? Have problems been unanticipated? Discuss good and bad things that have arisen which may not have been apparent before the pandemic began.
Jesus calls us all to be labourers in the vineyard. How easy is it to work during lock-down? How easy is it to continue with school work when there’s no school? How difficult is it to do work rather than playing games? Discuss ways of self-motivation and helping each other to keep motivated. Share stories of what you had not anticipated in a period of lockdown.
How can we help others: old people who need errands doing or other physical help, or helping young children to read?
The labourers in the vineyard were left out of the world of work. Have you felt left out of life? Describe how this has felt. What have you missed most?
Tom Ambrose is a retired CoE vicar, living in Cambridge.
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