Sunday 24 September 2017
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25A
Everyone knows the story of Jonah, right? Well, it’s not actually the story of Jonah, is it? It’s the story of Jonah and the Whale. Jonah doesn’t want to follow God’s call to go to Nineveh, so he gets on a boat in the opposite direction. But while they’re a sailing, a terrible storm comes up, and they end up throwing Jonah overboard in an effort to get the storm to stop. After he is thrown over, Jonah is swallowed by a whale. He stays in the belly of the whale for three days. And then he gets spit up onto the shore. And then Jonah decides to do what God had commanded. He gets up, and he goes to Nineveh.
And that’s the whole story, right? God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. Jonah refuses. Jonah gets swallowed by a fish. Jonah learns his lesson and goes to Nineveh. Simple message: when God tells you to do something, you’d better do it. If you try to run away from God’s call, God will find you.
That is part of the Jonah story, but it is not all of it. In fact, that’s less than half of it. With all of our focus on the strange story about the fish, we may have lost track of what it is God was actually telling Jonah to do.
God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and to preach against the people there and their evil ways. But Jonah doesn’t want to deliver God’s message. And he actually has some pretty good reasons. Nineveh is the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire, a major enemy of Israel. In fact, Assyria will eventually conquer the northern kingdom of Israel. Jonah doesn’t want to visit or bring God’s message to his most bitter enemy. He doesn’t want to travel into the lion’s den, and he doesn’t believe that the Ninevites are worthy of receiving a message from God.
But there’s something more important than that. God has sent Jonah with a message of destruction for the Ninevites. That’s actually a message that Jonah likes. Jonah wants God to wipe Nineveh off the map, just like Sodom and Gomorra. He would love to be the one who declares Nineveh’s destruction.
But Jonah knows God a little too well. Jonah doesn’t believe that God will actually destroy Nineveh. He knows that God’s sense of mercy is much stronger than God’s need for destruction, and he is pretty sure that God is going to have second thoughts and decide to spare Nineveh.
And there are two different problems with that. First, Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh to be spared. Why go to all this effort if God is going to change God’s mind and spare the evil city?
And second, Jonah does not want to be made a fool. If he declares that Nineveh will be destroyed, and then God doesn’t follow through, Jonah will look like he doesn’t know what’s going on.
It’s rather ironic, actually. Jonah is arguably the most successful prophet of all time. He travels to one of the largest cities in the world. The bible says it was so big that it takes three days to walk from one side to the other. Jonah begins walking into the city, and for just one day, he preaches a simple message. He says, “Just forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And before Jonah has even made it half way across the city, everything has changed. Shockingly, the people of Nineveh believe Jonah right away. They listen to God’s message. Every single person in Nineveh begins a ritual of repentance. After just one day of preaching, the entire population repents with sackcloth, ashes and fasting. Even the animals go into mourning when they hear that the city has offended God. The King of Assyria—who never even meets Jonah, he just hears rumors about Jonah’s message—even the king goes into mourning and commands that everyone else join him. It is the most dramatic and complete turnaround in the entire bible. No one, absolutely no one, inspires so much repentance as Jonah does, and he does it in just one day, in a place where no one knows him, where they worship different gods, and among a people who are the sworn enemies of his people.
And yet, far from being happy at this absolutely extraordinary result, Jonah is irritated. He wants fire and brimstone. He wants death and destruction. And instead he gets repentance, and forgiveness, and mercy, and grace. Sometimes God can be so infuriatingly compassionate. I mean, if anyone deserved to be snuffed out, it was the Ninevites. But no, God has to forgive them. It’s just so aggravating.
That’s right where we pick up with the story today. Jonah is angry with God, and he says, “Isn’t this just what I said when I was in Israel. This is why I ran away. I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.” Those are beautiful words, right? That is a wonderfully grace-filled description of who God is. But Jonah isn’t happy about it, he is angry. In fact, he is so angry that he wants to die. “Kill me!” he says to God. “It would be better for me to die than to live!”
God’s answer can be translated a few different ways. It might mean “Is it right for you to be angry?” Or it might mean, “Is your anger a good thing?” To me, it seems to mean something like, Do you really have any reason to be angry? Is your anger serving any purpose?
Whatever the exact shading of God’s words are, though, Jonah gives God the silent treatment. Instead of answering God’s direct question to him, Jonah says nothing, leaves the city, and builds himself a little shelter to the east of town. He is waiting there to see what happens to the city. He is still fuming mad at God, and he is going to continue to sit there and fume until God takes his advice and destroys Nineveh. It’s totally a teenage reaction. Jonah is furious that the parent is going easy on his annoying sibling. It’s so unfair. My life is over. You ruin everything.
And Jonah continues to rage as God performs a little experiment on him. First, God causes a plant to grow near Jonah and offer him shade. And for a moment, Jonah is happy. But the next day a worm comes and kills the plant, and as Jonah is still sitting in the blazing heat, he gets even madder than before. Again he starts with the teenage complaining, “I might as well die. This is all so unfair.”
And God speaks again and asks Jonah the same question he had asked a few days before, the question Jonah ignored. But this time God asks it about the shade plant: “Is your anger about the plant a good thing? Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” And with more histrionics, Jonah spits back, “Yes! And I’m angry enough to die!”
And that’s when God sits Jonah down for the parental talk: “You showed concern for the plant, even though you didn’t do anything to grow or take care of it. You’re angry about it even though it only lasted day. And look, there is a whole city here. One hundred and twenty thousand people. And you don’t think I should be concerned about them? You really think your little plant is more important than an entire city?”
And that’s the end of the book of Jonah. It’s stops right there in the middle of a conversation. It actually ends on a question spoken by God to Jonah. Shouldn’t I be concerned about these people? It’s not really a book about obey God when God calls. It is that, too, but more than that, it’s about anger and grace, rage and forgiveness, mercy and antipathy.
You see, Jonah doesn’t want God to be good. Jonah wants God to be evil. Jonah wants God to destroy the foreigners, and he doesn’t care whether they follow God or not. They’re not Jonah’s people, so Jonah wants God to destroy them.
And we can certainly recognize that mindset in our world. Prejudice and vendetta are easy to find. Those people aren’t good like our people. They’re lazy. They’re criminals. They’re cheats and thieves. They can’t be trusted. They need to be kicked out. They need to be defensed against. They need to be destroyed.
And of course we know that God is bigger than our alliances and squabbles. Just because we distrust or hate someone, it doesn’t mean that God does. Just because we see some group as evil, it doesn’t mean that God does.
But I want to bring things in a little closer. This story is about prejudices and xenophobia, but it’s also about plain old anger and resentment. Jonah is angry that things haven’t gone his way, and that anger leads him to lose all perspective. He fails to see the marvelous grace of God because he is angry, and he holds on to his anger like a vise.
God asks Jonah twice, “Is your anger a good thing?” The first time he doesn’t answer. The second time he says he is angry enough to die. And he’s right that his anger can lead only to death, not to life. It does nothing good in him. It leads to no transformation, no progress, no healing, only to bitterness and death.
That isn’t to say that anger is always wrong or that anger should be avoided at all costs. Sometimes we are justifiably angry that things are unfair or that someone has been hurt. And at other times, our anger is not so justified, but we will still have to feel it before we can get through it.
Anger can inspire us to do good in face of injustice. And sometimes expressing anger, in a way that is not destructive, can be the best way for us to move ahead.
But if anger is going to result in any kind of good, it cannot just turned in on itself, be allowed to fester and calcify. And it cannot go on unquestioned and unexamined. When Jonah gives himself over to his destructive anger, he is no longer able to experience God’s grace, either for himself or for anyone else. He becomes so alienated from God, in fact, that he is driven to suicidal despair.
And yet, God does not abandon him. God keeps coming back, keeps asking, “Is this anger of yours a good thing? Can you not rejoice with me at seeing a people transformed by grace?” God keeps offering grace, even to the one who wants to deny God’s grace to others.
We don’t know how the story ends, whether Jonah gets through his anger and is able to grasp hold of God’s grace. The question is left unanswered. And so is ours. When we find ourselves blinded by anger, when we feel resentful of the grace and forgiveness offered to others, when we get stuck on how unfair it is that someone else isn’t punished to the full extent of the law, how will we respond? Will we take hold of that anger, squeezing it tighter and tighter until it threatens our health or even our life. Or will we be able to release that grip, to offer grace just as we have received grace, to forgive just as we have been forgiven, and to rejoice with God when anyone, anyone at all, is changed by God’s transforming grace?