I blame Jonah. I blame Jonah for this past week having been … unusually uncomfortable.
Because … I wanted to enjoy the feeling of being able to point at Jonah and say “what’s wrong with this guy?” I wanted to indulge my first impression of being better than Jonah, because I know that something’s wrong with Jonah’s lousy attitude, I know that Jonah ought to rejoice along with the angels in heaven over those poor redeemed Ninevites, so I wanted to be able to enjoy that glow of moral superiority because I didn’t have Jonah’s reaction to the situation.
And I was all set to talk about God’s grace, which is pretty clearly a central theme in the book of Jonah, and about how wonderful and amazing it is, and how grateful we can all be that God is the gracious way that God is. So I was all set to feel good, because when we think about God being merciful and gracious, we normally associate that with feeling good. Because it’s good news, to know that God loves us even though we don’t always feel lovable, and that God has already done all the heavy lifting of saving us from ourselves and from all the ways we keep figuring out to ruin our lives and the lives of the people around us, and to know that God is with us in good times and bad, and is always working for our transformation into our best selves. Good news doesn’t get much better than that!
the Word of God is funny this way … it makes us look at ourselves and it asks us uncomfortable questions, and it doesn’t let us off the hook of the uncomfortable honest answers to those questions and the question this part of the story of Jonah kept bringing to my mind this week was “are you right to feel that much better than Jonah?”
Are you right to imagine that if you were in Jonah’s position, you wouldn’t be angry? Are you right to think that you appreciate God’s grace much more than Jonah does? Are you right to believe that God’s grace never makes you … be honest, angry? And I would really like to say “yes, yes, I AM right, because I really AM a whole lot more evolved than Jonah on this matter, thanks to all my years of Christian Education and children’s messages and the gospel, and yes, I AM thoroughly familiar with all the implications of God’s amazing grace and I AM way past having those primitive eye-for-an-eye retribution-motives like the ones Jonah obviously has for the Ninevites …”
And I was thinking this way as I was driving down I-64 and as providence would have it a large black truck going well over the 70 mph speed limit got right on my rear bumper as I was obviously trying to pass a slower-moving vehicle in the other lane so he could have just backed off but no … and at that moment I realized that the idea that God’s grace would apply every bit as much to the driver of that truck as to me really did not seem … completely acceptable. And I realized that saying I would never think like Jonah would be a lie, and we are not supposed to tell lies, and especially not in church.
And then came the news of this past week. The theologian Karl Barth once said that people should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Because the Bible is meant to speak to the world we really live in.
We live in a violent world, and terrible acts of violence were in the news this week. I imagine almost all of us are aware of these. On Monday a suicide bomber attacked a concert in Manchester, England, we think purposely to kill young people, and at least 22 people died. Then, on Friday, gunmen ambushed three busloads of Coptic Christians, including a bus full of school children on school holiday, making their way to Saint Samuel’s Monastery in the Egyptian desert, killing almost all of the passengers, again probably purposely targeting children. ISIS, the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for both of those attacks.
And I have to admit, my first response to these reports, aside from feeling heartbroken for the parents who had to learn that their children had been taken from them, was to think that those people, those wicked, evil-minded, misguided and violent people who did those deeds, and even more the people who encouraged them, what they deserve is for God to make their way dark and slippery with the angel of the Lord pursuing them. Psalm 35:8. It is seriously in the Bible. I don’t always think of paying people back, and I have been taught as a Christians not to think that way, but sometimes I still do, and this was one of those times.
So, with this in mind, I realized that I couldn’t just say about Jonah, as I would like to be able to, “What’s wrong with him??” Doesn’t he know we’re not supposed to be angry at God’s grace?
Because honestly, what’s wrong with Jonah is what’s wrong with me. It’s all well and good for God to be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” … all well and good, until treating everyone that way just goes too far …
Jonah lived in a violent world, and the Assyrians, whose capital was Nineveh, were responsible for some of the most terrible acts of violence in that world. They were the lean, mean, imperialist aggressors of their day. Just a few years earlier they had overrun all the big cities of the northern part of Israel and dragged their people off to Assyria in chain gangs – we have ancient Assyrian pictures of captives linked together with hooks through their lips like fish – that was just their everyday violence. They enslaved their captured prisoners of war. And in war, they were not … I don’t have details, but apparently they did not abide by Geneva Convention rules, and they didn’t mind killing civilians.
When people experience terrible violence, one of the things that often gets them through it and provides some consolation is the thought of future retribution. One of these days, Justice will be done, and then the people who did this will feel the consequences of their actions, will know some of the suffering they have caused, will suffer some of the pain their victims, loved ones, parents, have felt, will pay for what they’ve done. People feel this way. I feel this way, sometimes … like when it comes to thinking about people who would hide out in the desert to murder children on a school field trip, I start to feel that way.
So putting myself in Jonah’s place, recognizing that sparing the Ninevites would be like granting immunity to terrorists, I start to protest: what’s wrong with God, that God would let those people get away with murder? Has God has gotten mixed up somehow about who God’s people are? Sure, they say they’re sorry; they say they’re not going to commit violence again – but how can you trust them? We’re not even omniscient, and we know they’re probably going to relapse and go back to their violent ways. Even we know that people don’t just give up bad habits cold turkey the first time; the average smoker quits 9 times before she stays quit, the average dieter has an even harder time … so God must know they’re untrustworthy and as dangerous as ever and are going to do bad things again, and when they do, someone else is going to suffer … like the people of Israel, Jonah is undoubtedly thinking … so what is wrong with you, God, that you’re not protecting us … by taking them out, the bad guys?
It’s like God just gives grace to everyone, even to people who don’t even deserve it.
Isn’t grace supposed to be for people who … deserve it?
No, of course not, I know, that’s terrible theology. I know that the whole point of grace is that people don’t deserve it and can’t deserve it. Grace is by definition “unmerited favor,” kindness from God that people do not deserve. If God were only kind to people who deserved it, Jesus would be the only human being who ever thought God was kind.
So, I didn’t mean it like that, exactly. What I meant was … there are completely undeserving people, like us, and then there are the really completely undeserving people, the ones who do really bad things and really seriously hurt people … that is, actually bad people. How is it enough if they just say they’re sorry and get redeemed without even a slap on the wrist? What happened to justice? For us? I suspect I am not all alone in thinking this way, and I suspect Jonah may have been thinking this way, and so suspect I understand his outrage: the nerve of God to just pardon these criminals who really, really deserve God’s wrath, we know, because they really really have our wrath.
Unfortunately, this is also terrible theology – at least as bad as the idea that it’s possible for us to earn or merit God’s grace. The idea that God’s grace is for a better class of sinners is the deep taproot of the reality that people outside the church like to call “hypocrisy,” That’s terrible theology, that attitude that “we” not-all-that-bad people are, when we get right down to it, better than “them,” the less-than-decent or the really terrible people out there; that idea that God is the savior of us generally good and kind, thoroughly respectable, but after all nobody’s perfect kind of people but maybe not those seriously evil ones; that sense that God would surely feel more kindly towards the More Light Presbyterians than towards the Westboro Baptists …
That idea hurts us in all kinds of ways. When things in our normally not all that bad lives go terribly wrong – and that happens to almost all of us sooner or later – we hesitate to mention it, for fear this might make us more like the “them’s” than the “uses,” for fear this might be one of those things that falls just a little outside God’s grace; and the community of people that thinks like that, and feels like that, and acts like that, stops thinking and feeling and acting like the community that grew up around Jesus Christ, the Jesus who went to everybody’s parties, the ones thrown by tax collectors and the ones thrown by Pharisees, the Jesus who hung out with prostitutes and who sat down and also had heart-to-hearts with Rabbinical scholars like Nicodemus … because that community is the kind of gracious community in which everyone, really, is welcome … because everyone knows we all still have so much work to do to share Jesus’ heart for people …
What’s even worse, that idea make us lose track of how much work we still have to do. It can make me forget that my normal, everyday, “everybody does that” badness is often a lot less benign than I think it is. For instance, knowing what we know about the world we really live in, I could buy all my chocolate at the Fair Share Shack, or at least from a company that I know doesn’t use child labor and slave labor. … I could do that. But because the people my ordinary behavior hurts are out of sight, out of mind, it’s easy for me to do the convenient thing, the cheaper thing, the more pleasant or comfortable thing, instead of making the uncomfortable choice to do the kinder thing, the fairer thing, the thing that would require me to get along with less or even do without, so that someone else in this world could have a better life. What will it take to get me to make those harder choices more often, let alone all the time?
Maybe something like the object lesson God arranges for Jonah at the end of chapter 4. God takes real pains to lead Jonah to a place where he can see that God is in the right here. God works up an object lesson for Jonah, the bush, the worm, the wind, all of that – it’s actually a means of grace for Jonah, meant to draw Jonah closer to God and transform Jonah’s heart – at least, that seems to be its intent. But Jonah’s first response to this means of grace isn’t “thanks, God, I sure appreciate this lesson.” Once again, his angry reaction is “please, just kill me now.”
God doesn’t do that, of course. Because God wants people to live, even Jonah, even the Ninevites, even us, all the completely undeserving. God points out that Jonah feels pity, compassion, for the death of an inanimate plant – even though God probably knows, and we suspect, that Jonah cares more about himself and his own discomfort than he does about the life of the innocent plant, and is mostly mad that God is making him, (Jonah), suffer … still, the plant is a living thing, something God has made, and God addresses Jonah as if Jonah is bemoaning its untimely death. You care about that plant, says the HOLY ONE of Israel, so what about all those human beings? Don’t I have the right to have pity, compassion, on the 12 times 10,000 human beings who are so wickedly misguided they don’t even know their left from their right – who are ignorant children playing with deadly weapons – to say nothing of all the innocent animals tied up with them and their tragic way of life? Try to see it like that, Jonah; try to see them as human beings who don’t even know what they’re doing.
What Jonah answers is not recorded … almost as if we have to fill in the answer for ourselves.
But we know Jonah is in the wrong here – right along with me, to the extent that I am like him. The story makes that perfectly clear. We know that we’re supposed to be on God’s side here. That’s where Jesus would be, the Jesus who would say “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do …”
I’m afraid those Westminster catechism people were on to something. They said that it’s God’s grace that moves us to feel sorrow for sin, to feel guilt, to feel the need to repent, the need to turn back to God, the desire to change. But that’s grace that feels uncomfortable, annoying, irritating, even infuriating,
at least … at first.
At least until we begin to notice that the patience God shows all through this story … the kindness God shows to those Ninevites … the persistence God exercises with Jonah … is the same patience and kindness and persistence God extends to us; this story itself is another one of God’s means of grace, nudging us to see ourselves in the repentant Ninevites, and the still-stubborn and self-righteous Jonah, working on us to come to a different way of thinking about “us and them.” God works on the Ninevites, where they are; God works on Jonah, where he is, as he is; God works on us the same way: where we are, as we are, at our own pace, the way a mother or father might walk alongside their two-year-old – you know, sometimes they move fast, but sometimes they move very slowly.
This God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, is constantly working on this world, the one we really live in, creating something new out of it that we cannot even imagine, and can barely represent; our best efforts have taken the form of things like the
last chapter in Revelation, with its vision of peace, healing, comfort, … and its open invitation to everyone to share the water of life.
We – most of us, anyway – are not yet the people God is still creating us to be, people who share God’s heart for others the way Jesus did. At least, I still am not, as the prophet Jonah was not. But by the infuriating, enraging grace of God, we trust that we will be, as will they – whoever they are, all those theys who are, outrageously, along with us and Jonah and the Ninevites, God’s people, the people for whom Jesus Christ did not hesitate to die and rise again, because God, in God’s incomprehensible grace, insists that it is better for us to live.