[This post is excerpted and edited from a sermon I preached a few years ago.]
Jonah is a book of biting satire. You have a prophet who does exactly the opposite of what prophets are supposed to do. He runs away from Yahweh and keeps his mouth closed. The fish’s mouth, of course, is wide open and Jonah just goes right on in. There are not many scenes in the Bible as bizarre as Jonah sitting in the belly of the fish, whining at God. And even when God finally gets Jonah to Nineveh, covered in fish vomit, Jonah only walks part way into the city and says about five words.
Somehow, despite the prophet’s worse than pathetic efforts, the people of Nineveh repent. And they don’t just repent. They really repent. Sackcloth, ashes—even for the cows. Now, just for a minute, picture cows in sackcloth and then tell me this is not a funny story.
One would think Jonah would be happy that his words had been taken to heart. But no. He’s pissed off. “See God. I knew you would pull this. These pathetic people deserve fire and brimstone, but no—la la la—slow to anger—la la la gracious, merciful, forgiving. If I can’t watch these people die a slow painful death, then just kill me now.”
Over the top? Of course. And perhaps Jonah is a little beyond us. But still, most of us have a pretty clear sense of what other people deserve –and what they don’t deserve. Some of our fiercest political debates revolve around such issues.
Does a person who cruelly murders another person deserve to die at the hands of the state?
Do people who have entered this country illegally deserve to be uprooted from their lives here and sent home to dire, possibly dangerous situations?
Do disgraced CEOs deserve multi-million dollar severance packages?
The answers to these questions matter because people should get what they deserve. And people should not get what they don’t deserve.
If you were a fly on my kitchen wall, you might hear the phrase “I have a hard time feeling sorry for . . .” It’s an admission that maybe some sympathy is in order but, really, people got what they deserved. Dishonest bank executives are on my list of people I have a hard time feeling sorry for. And drunk drivers. And—back when I taught college English—students who skip class and plagiarize papers. And my own children when they refuse to wear a hat and gloves and then get cold.
I better stop this list now, before I offend too many people. And before you all decide that you’re never going to share any of your problems with me again. I know it is not very pastoral to have this list. But I think it is human. I know someone who has decided not to have children. I’ve gotten the sense in talking with him that any stress I experience in raising my children is just my own stupid fault for having kids in the first place. I mean, we all have our lists.
The Ninevites are on Jonah’s list. And what Jonah is horrified to discover is that they are not, apparently, on God’s list. In fact, in light of this particular story, we have to wonder if God even has a list. I’m betting not, because if there were a list, even if the Ninevites weren’t on it, Jonah surely would be.
If we continue reading the Bible into the Gospels, any suspicions we have about God’s list will be erased. There is no one for whom God does not have compassion. There is no one God will not forgive. God does care about justice. But God’s not too worried that everybody always get what they deserve.
The final scene of Jonah is painfully ironic, because Jonah somehow takes God’s mercy toward him for granted. At the same time, he reprimands God. In his snottiest, nastiest, most accusatory voice, Jonah cries out: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
It can be spoken with sarcasm, with irritation, with rage or . . .
“You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who forgives.”
How can we proclaim this good news about our God with anything but joy?