Sunday, May 6, 2012

Jonah, Whom God Loves

Jonah, Whom God Loves

© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2012

Jonah 3:10, 4:1-11

God’s mind changed about the calamity
that God had said would be brought upon [Nineveh];
and God did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

If we were challenged to do so, it would be difficult to conjure up a people that Israel hated any more than they hated the people of Nineveh. Theirs was the empire that in 721 B.C. had conquered ten of the twelve tribes of Israel and driven them into exile, from which they were never to return, referred to ever after as the “ten lost tribes.” The remaining two tribes in the south, in Judah, knew the Ninevites – we might recognize them more readily as Assyrians, Nineveh was their capitol city – to be despicable, murderous, rapacious conquerors.

After Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, was destroyed by Babylon, which was the next empire to come on the scene in the Middle East, in 609 B.C., Nahum, one of those seldom-read prophets of the Old Testament, devoted the entirety of his brief prophecy to bitter denunciations of the hundred year dominance of that cruel empire over Israel:

Your shepherds are asleep, O king of Assyria;
your nobles slumber.
Your people are scattered on the mountains
with no one to gather them.
There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal.
All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?[1]

Saying all this still doesn’t make it seem very real, though, does it? Unless you happen to have a singular fascination with ancient history, it is all a sort of long ago, far away set of distant historical facts, not very much connected to our own times and lives. So it is difficult to see, much less to feel, the sort of rage that the character of Jonah represented on behalf of Israel in the story we have looked at on the four Sundays we have devoted to this quirky little book. But then imagine the way we might feel today if Germany had won World War II and we had just recently been freed from some 60 years of Nazi domination of our country. Think of words the supressed and oppressed populations in Somalia or Syria would have for those who this very day seek their extinction.

Who are the Ninevites today, both on the global and personal scale, in our international news and in our own neighborhoods? I know you are kind people, but if you can imagine the rage you might feel at people who had captured your neighbors, killed your family, and sought for years to do the same to you, what would you like to do to them? What sort of judgment from God do you believe they would deserve for their crimes against you?

Then, if you can, imagine that God called you to go to these very people and utter a word of God’s judgment, when you knew all the while that – since the Bible teaches that God’s character is merciful, always ready to forgive those who repent, and abounding in steadfast love – your bitterest enemies might experience the same forgiving love that God offers to you and me. Does the character of Jonah seem all that far away from the very sort of attitude we would be likely to have in the face of the possibility of forgiveness for our enemies? In hindsight, the Marshall recovery plan for Europe following World War II was a godsend to millions of people living amid the social and physical wreckage of war, yet historical accounts of that time record how difficult it was to convince a wounded nation that rebuilding our former enemies was in our own best interest. There was strong opposition in Congress at the time, some of whose members favored a return to isolationism and the sorts of policies to punish and impoverish former enemies that had followed World War I, the very policies which sowed the seeds of hopelessness that led to Germany’s turn to fascism and the second world war. Revenge can be a strong motivator, even if a suicidal one. If called on to announce a word which might lead to forgiveness and blessing, might we not have hopped the first freighter in the opposite direction had God asked us to go and prophesy to Charles Taylor in Liberia, or Idi Amin, or Saddam Hussein, or Adolf Hitler?

Many of you probably know that the recitation of the story of Jonah is an essential part of the annual Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, of course, is the Jewish day of atonement, a day when all Israel attempts to follow the stipulations of Leviticus 16, seeking to be cleansed before God. Reading or chanting the book of Jonah has been a part of the observation of Yom Kippur since the 2nd century. “On [that] sacred day, Israel lifts up as the model of repentance not itself, who is like the Hebrew Jonah resisting God, but the outsider: pagan sailors and especially penitent Ninevites. From the transformative deeds of these outsiders Israel learns accountability and responsibility. From the divine compassion that spares them, Israel finds reassurance about itself in relationship to God and learns compassion in relationship to others.”[2]

As Eugene Peterson once declared, “Jonah thought he had come to Nineveh to do a religious job, to administer a religious program. God had brought Jonah to Nineveh to give him an experience of amazing grace. The tables are turned: it is no longer Jonah preaching to the people of Nineveh, but the people of Nineveh preaching to Jonah – inviting him into a vocation far beyond anything he had supposed.”[3]

So in this last chapter of the little story of Jonah, we have the prophet sulking outside the forgiven city. He had announced the punishment which he and every other Jew knew to be Nineveh’s deserved fate, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” But God had a desire to exercise the very nature of God’s character in Nineveh, the forgiving character of God that Israel had come to depend on: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city?” God’s purpose and plan, as always, far exceeded not only the prophet’s words, but his imagination. Just when our enemies have done something that so completely places them beyond our capacity to forgive, that is when God takes the extra step, walks the extra mile, offers the cloak as well as the coat, offers his body, broken for us, his blood, shed for the forgiveness of sin, hands over the last dime when there are no other dimes left.

Some preachers and other moralists among us stand in our pulpits, or before the cameras of our nationally syndicated religious talk shows, and wag an index finger at our listeners as we tell them to tidy up their morals, or pray more piously, or read more of the Bible in order to become more worthy of a God who is demanding and severe with those who fail to attend to God’s commands. Meanwhile, the God we meet in the book of Jonah is beckoning to us with both hands, welcoming the lost, the least of these, the one we knew to be our enemy, the dissolute and the drunken, beckoning them all to grace and mercy and salvation.

Why does God act this way? Why is the mercy of God at the same time the very welcome characteristic that saves us when we had presumed ourselves lost, and yet the unwelcome characteristic when we find our enemies included under the umbrella of that same mercy?

Jonah is a maddening little story, really, for those of us who keep little calculators inside our heads, toting up the goods that others receive, always comparing them to our own supply, which never seems to be enough. For after all the chuckles and tut-tutting we have had at Jonah’s expense these four Sundays, all our consideration of his willful disobedience as well as his unrelenting hatred of the enemies of Israel whom God sought to save, when we turn around to the mirror, we see that Jonah is us, smelling like the fish that swallowed us, still with that bit of seaweed dried onto our foreheads. We are the ones who struggle to find an umbrella large enough to keep God’s rain from falling equally on the just and the unjust.

“Even when we know that the blessings that come to us have been delivered to the wrong address, there are not many of us who will send them back. We thank God quickly and carry them inside. But when we look out the window and see the delivery man carrying an identical package next door, to those really unpleasant people who sit on their porch drinking beer after beer,”[4] playing their music too loudly until the wee hours, and whose children stray into our yard only to deposit debris which we have to clean up, that is something we tend to resent. We believe undeserved blessings are only supposed to go to the deserving, apparently.

In Jonah, we learn God does not give us what we deserve. And thank goodness for that. God gives not what we deserve but what we need. Grace is not fair, doesn’t know the word “fair,” that’s a human word, not a divine one.

How does the Jonah story end? We really don’t know. It has that enigmatic finish that you heard earlier:

And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

Well, Jonah? Should I or should I not? Lots of people. Animals too. What do you say, is my concern, my mercy appropriate? Well, is it?

But we don’t know how Jonah responds. We can guess, but we don’t know. The story doesn’t supply his response. Why do you suppose that is?

I think we don’t know because, for a religious people, Jonah’s story is our story, and our own stories are not yet finished. Did Jonah turn back toward the loving mercy of God which had birthed and sustained Jonah and his people and which God now sought to extend to the world? Or did Jonah remain a prophet of petulance and pouting? Jonah cannot answer now, but we can. So how will it be?

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Nahum 3:18-19.

[2] Phyllis Trible, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII, Abingdon, 1996, p. 528.
[3] From the 1990 commencement message at Princeton Theological Seminary, “A Pastor’s Quarrel with God.” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, New Series, 1990, pp. 27-275.
[4] From “Ninevites and Ne’er-Do-Wells,” Gospel Medicine, by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley, 1995, pp. 91-95.