It ends with a question…
Last week, when I wasn’t here, Weldon told us the story of Jonah. A story of honour and unexpectedness, of superlative and surrealism. It seems to me that we read and hear Jonah fairly matter of fact-ly. It’s a story that I’ve been told along with David and Goliath and Daniel in the Lion’s den, since I was a child with a picture Bible-story book. And not to disparage children’s literature, but this is a serious and brilliant piece of storytelling, using allusion, repetition of themes, humour, hyperbole.
There are these two parallel stories – one in which Jonah hears God’s commandment and immediately goes as far as possible in the other direction as he can. If Nineveh is at one end of the known world – modern day Iraq, Tarshish is in the other – as Weldon reminded us, perhaps in what is now Spain. Jonah is not playing around in his disobedience. It is perhaps laughable to the first audience that Jonah thinks that he can physically flee from God’s presence. Of course in the second half of the story of Jonah, he obeys.
In the first half of the story, when Jonah is on his ocean voyage, a great storm strikes the sea on which the boat is sailing. This is one of the themes that repeats itself. The greatness of the storm that God sends on the sea, the greatness of the fish that God sends to swallow Jonah (another moment of humour and hyperbole) and the greatness of the city to which Jonah is sent – and from where in this first half Jonah flees.
When he is in the fish, Jonah cries out to God. Here is a juxtaposition of a beautiful prayer – the language is so poetic and evocative: “the weeds are wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains”– in a most ridiculous yet gruesome place. It echoes the psalms, it draws on the poetic language of the prophets. It longs for salvation yet is confident of deliverance belonging to God. God responds with great compassion by rescuing Jonah from the belly of the fish. Just as God had rescued Jonah, and the mariners from the storm.
In the second half, Jonah also cries out to God but his prayer is much different. It’s not poetic, it’s not confident, it questions the deliverance that God has offered and the longing is not for life and salvation but for death…twice. It’s this second half interaction with God that most intrigues me because it’s the second half of the story that gets most missed when we look at the story of Jonah.
Most often we see the story of Jonah as a lesson in obeying God’s call: when we disobey the call of God on our lives, we will be punished (thrown to the fishes in the middle of a storm) and after some serious soul searching and communion with God in the depths, we’ll see our way clear to do what God is commanding us after all – and everything will work out.
If that was the case, I might have a real dilemma on my hands. I was called to be a pastor, but instead I went as far from that as can be imagined and became a hairstylist (we all know that pastors have horrible fashion sense). I was miserable and in a metaphorical storm of conscience. I was rescued from that work by MCC volunteerism and seminary and in God’s great wisdom I was led to my work at Seattle Mennonite Church where immediately upon my arrival everyone begins to fast and pray and both the congregation and I are free to relax and enjoy a job well done.
Indeed the story doesn’t end, as we all know, as Weldon told last week, with Jonah vomited up on the shore and ready, finally, if reluctantly, to follow God’s orders. It ends with him in a complaining and arguing match with God. It ends with a question.
There is another recurring word/theme in the story of Jonah, and that is ‘evil’ or ra’ah . Also translated calamity and wickedness in English – this word is used by God to describe the great city of Nineveh, by sailors to describe the storm, and then by the Ninevite king to describe the ways of the people from which they are turning. It is also used by Jonah to describe the act from which God turned – not doing an evil against the city of Nineveh. God’s mind is changed and God decided not to enact this ra’ah, this calamity, this evil, on the city of Nineveh. And it’s more than just wickness but in every case also associated with misery and destruction.
Where the two recurring themes come together, perhaps surprisingly, is in our main character. That first sentence of chapter 4 that is somewhat benignly translated in the NRSV “but this was very displeasing to Jonah, and be became angry” might be better understood, ‘an evil that was a great evil burned in Jonah.’ When a great God and a great city turned from evil and calamity, Jonah took it on himself. And thus begins the argument with God.
Jonah is unhappy that God does not mete out justice on this wicked city. He wants to see Nineveh get what’s coming to it. He believes it utterly unfair that God sent him to Nineveh in the first place because they deserve their fate.
We know from reading the Psalms, and some of the prophets, from Job, that arguing with God has a great tradition. We know that God can handle and even welcomes our burning anger and our frustration. God can take our questions and probes. We also learn, I think that God can answer – sometimes even in ways we don’t expect. We learn that God calls, that God sends signs, that sometimes God answers with silence. But when do we talk about God asking questions? It is with a question that God answers each of Jonah’s questions.
It is not very satisfying when you ask a question and someone responds with a question – rhetorical or not. It can make you squirm – the ball’s now back in your courts and you have to decide what to do with it. That’s not fair – you asked the question so that you could put the ball in someone else’s court. And, darn it, God just doesn’t let you – or Jonah – sit back and rest while someone else does the work of coming up with answers.
Jonah is angry that God has had compassion on Nineveh and turned from the evil that was intended upon it. And God asks “is it right to be angry?” “Is it right for you to be so burnt up?” We often – or I often – hear this question and assume that it is a rhetorical question and that the answer is ‘no – it is not right to be angry.’ Jonah is a baby and should know better than sitting in his booth and sulking. But no – God is inviting Jonah into an examination of this feeling that’s burning him up. Is it right?
Jonah doesn’t answer God’s question the first time it’s asked of him. He does readily accept yet another sign of God’s compassion that accompanies God’s question. God provides a sheltering cucumber vine (we don’t know that it’s a cucumber, I just know that modern Hebrew uses this same word for cucumber). The vine shades Jonah’s head and provides relief from the hot sun hot and wind. When it withers, Jonah’s anger burns again.
I have always seen Jonah as a kind of whiny and petulant and somewhat self righteous character – I think in large part because of this last chapter. And anyone who has seen the “Veggie Tales” version of the story knows that the asparagus who plays Jonah takes that and runs with it. But I’m finally ready to give Jonah some more credit. Jonah recognizes the true character of God – both in his first prayer in chapter two, from the belly of the great fish, and in this prayer. “For I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
In those words, Jonah is paralleling his early prayer of confidence in the God in whom deliverance is found. In fact these words really sum up thematically the lesson of Jonah. God is a God of not of great wrath, or great evil – but of great and compassionate justice. A justice unrelated to the tit for tat of human justice. Jonah finds it hard when the compassion of God is enacted on people who have not been very compassionate or just themselves.
When the vine withers and Jonah’s anger burns again, God asks the question again, “Is it right for you to be angry” this time adding “about the bush.” And this time Jonah spits back “Yes! angry enough to die.” Jonah knows that God is compassionate and merciful and ready to relent from punishing. He knows that deliverance belongs to the Lord. He just didn’t want God to be Nineveh’s deliverance. But he is also human and Jonah knows: yes! His anger is right. Israel has felt the evil of Nineveh. Jonah has seen the wickedness first hand as he walked those three days through the city. There is every reason for him to be angry – after all he did the work (eventually) of prophesying to Nineveh and God’s compassion for him seems fleeting.
But God doesn’t let Jonah rest with his anger – righteous or not. God puts the question back to Jonah and both we and Jonah are left with it. “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?” God as much as admits that the Ninevites are flaky: they don’t know their right hands from the left. They may well turn right back around from their ashes and sackcloth and fasting (even the animals) and go back to their old ways. Jonah says it best: I know that you are a merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…and that’s exactly why I don’t want to do this – it drives me crazy and I’m all too human and can’t handle your kind of justice.
It’s the same kind of justice that Jesus had – the justice that he demonstrates in the parable of the vineyard. In Matthew 20:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
It’s the same question: God’s great generosity in mercy butts heads with Jonah’s all too human envy and anger. God is indeed allowed to give all that is God’s with all the generosity and compassion that is not possible for we humans. And we are left with those questions: Should I not be concerned? Should I not give away what is mine?
It would be easy to respond with a grudging ‘yes, God you should be concerned.’ But what if the answer is ‘no?’ No, you should not be concerned, you should not be so generous. It is God’s generosity in spite of human ‘should’s’ and ‘ought’s’ that makes God God. It is what Jesus demonstrated again and again in the radical love that he proved throughout his life and which became evident in his resurrection. May we, once in awhile, be able to transcend the ‘should’s’ and live into God’s great and compassionate justice, which we, like Jonah received and have been called on to show.