Our texts this week begin and end with trusting there will be justice in the Kingdom of God though it might not come just as we would imagine it. The fearful Israelites receive the sustenance they plead for in extraordinary ways with an unexpected admonition. They must trust day by day it will be provided. No hoarding allowed! Jonah becomes angry when he finally trusts and fulfills God’s commandment to prophecy and the proclamation of God’s power actually comes to fruition. The great city of Ninevah repents and God is merciful instead of wrathful. It does not end as Jonah expected. Paul challenges the Philippians to trust the message of the gospel and live their lives in accordance with it even in adversity. In Matthew, the disciples are grumbling and wondering about what reward they will eventually receive for following Jesus. He gives them a challenging parable about personal and systemic justice. Trust that the Kingdom is about justice and love for all, not in eventual rewards. The last shall be first and the first last.
There is subtle – and in the case of Jonah, not so subtle – humor in each of the scripture stories this week. The Israelites’ fear of being left for dead by God in the wilderness after their miraculous deliverance from Egypt has a dark ironic humor that resonates with our own mistrust of God’s abundance. Jonah’s pouting and his anger at a little worm who disturbs his shady comfort is downright funny, particularly as God gets the last word. Matthew’s parable could be delivered with biting humor by exaggerating the pompousness of the vineyard owner who in the height of the harvest season is too stingy to hire all the workers at the beginning of the day and continues to berate them for idleness when they stand ready to work each time he comes to the marketplace. Is his pay fair or merely self-congratulatory given there was work enough for all throughout the day? Consider the use humor through hyperbole and ironic satire in telling these scripture stories to highlight their pointed messages of trusting and living in God’s justice and love.
A story that can be told for Children’s Time highlighting the unexpected and just ways that God works in the world comes from the great body of Mulla (a title for an Islamic cleric) Nasrudin tales. Nasrudin was a philosopher/teacher/wise man who lived in 13th century Turkey. Many of the stories of his life and adventures are in collections of Sufi tales. Nasrudin was a man full of questions, wonder, and curiosity who taught through wit and humor. People came to him for advice in many tales. In other tales Nasrudin is portrayed as the wise fool enduring the consequences of learning something new. He is also called Hodja which is a Persian title for “wise one.” Nasrudin stories can be found on many storytelling websites.
I first read the story paraphrased below in Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales From Around the World by Elisa Davy Pearmain (Pilgrim Press, 1998).
One day Nasrudin was sitting in the midst of a garden under a wide, tall walnut tree enjoying the shade from the noonday sun. He looked out over the garden which was full of flowers and fruit and growing vegetables. There he saw a particularly abundant pumpkin vine with pumpkins of various sizes ripening from green into vibrant orange. He noticed how thin and spindly the pumpkin vine looked compared to its burgeoning fruit. Then he looked up into the tree above him and noticed how small the walnuts were compared to the great breadth and strength of the branches of the tree.
Nasrudin took off his turban and scratched his bald head in thought. Then he said out loud, “Holy One, God of all creation, what have you done? Why is the great fruit of the pumpkin on such a spindly little vine and the small fruit of the walnut on such a massive tree? It seems it would be more just that it be the other way around. The large fruit on the large tree and the small fruit on the tiny vine. What were you thinking as you created the world in this way?” Nasrudin shook his head at the obvious “mistake” that God had made. Then he settled back against the tree for a little afternoon nap.
He had just dozed off when …. Plop! “Owwww,” cried Nasrudin in pain. A small, hard walnut had fallen from the branched above him right onto his bald head. “Owww! That hurt!” Nasrudin picked up the walnut and looked up into the tree. Then he looked out into the garden at those large, round pumpkins growing on their vine. “Hmmmm,” thought Nasrudin. “My apologies, Holy One,” he said. “I believe you did know what you were doing when you created the walnut for the mighty tree and the pumpkin for the spindly vine. What if a pumpkin had just fallen on my head! Blessed be your name! You are a wise and just God, indeed!”
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2014. To be reprinted with permission only.