September 21, 2008
Our main text this morning, the ending of Jonah, comes out of the Ancient Israelite culture. Many scholars study this long lost society, poring over the Hebrew texts to determine what the political, social, and religious climate was like. Archaeologists undertake extensive excavations of the lands that were inhabited by God’s chosen people. And sometimes scholars will emerge from their studies with different conclusions—like whether there was or was not an actual world-wide flood in the days of Noah.
But one point that all scholars agree on is that the Ancient Israelites did not have Saturday Night Live. Or the Daily Show. Or the Colbert Report. I would argue that what they had instead were writings like the book of Jonah.
This 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. But I have a feeling that whoever first told this story intended to do more than make people laugh. I have a feeling that this ancient storyteller hoped that in the middle of the laughter, the listeners would start to realize that they were, in part, laughing at themselves. And that their spitefulness wasn’t all that funny.
At this point in history, many Israelites had grown quite pompous. They were, after all, the chosen people of Yahweh. And in a culture of competing gods, Yahweh was by far the biggest and the baddest. The One who created heaven and Earth. The One who freed an entire nation from slavery. The one who protected Daniel from ravenous lions and easily won a head to head competition with that wuss of a god called Baal.
Yes, the Israelites knew that Yahweh was something special. Not just another god, but the God. And Yahweh was all theirs.—I mean, they were Yahweh’s.
The chosen people. And when they built a golden calf to worship, they were happy for Yahweh’s forgiveness. As they wandered and whined in the dessert for forty years, “slow to anger” was a good quality to have in a God. As they accumulated land and neglected the poor, they were banking on God’s mercy—toward them.
But when it came to their enemies, they weren’t looking for mercy or grace. They wanted to see some smiting. A Bible search for the word “destroy” in the book of Psalms produces a lot of hits. Cries for God to destroy the wicked, kill Israel’s enemies.
These Israelites are the people who first hear the story of Jonah. People who may have recently been to worship and prayed what we now have as Psalm 21: “Your hand will lay hold on all your enemies; your right hand will seize your foes. . . . You will destroy their descendants from the earth, their posterity from the human race.”
Some of the listeners no doubt sympathized with Jonah, looking forward to hearing all about the destruction of that wicked city of Nineveh. The story doesn’t tell us exactly what was so evil about Nineveh. Maybe the first listeners already knew about the city. Or maybe it is simply an astute literary technique that allows all the listeners to fill in the blank with the sins they love to hate the most.
But whatever you think was going on in Nineveh, you probably don’t have much sympathy for Jonah. He seems to harbor a deep hatred for the people. He would love to see the entire town—men, women, and children and cows—destroyed. None of us wish that on our enemies. None of us want to see people die a slow, painful death because of the sins they have committed.
So Jonah is a little beyond us. Maybe we can identify more with those first-hired workers in Jesus’ parable. We don’t want to see people suffer. We just want there to be some sense of fairness.
The complaint of Jonah against the LORD seems mean-spirited. The complaint of the first-hired worker against the landlord seems . . . reasonable. There is a sense in which those who work longer deserve more pay. I’m sure that’s what Jesus’ first hearers were thinking.
Likewise today people 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 the CEOs of Fannie and Freddie deserve multi-million dollar severance packages?
Clearly not everyone in this country agrees on the answers to these questions, but most of us know the right answers. And why do the answers matter? Because people should get what they deserve. And people should not get what they don’t deserve.
The mere existence of the phrase “innocent victim” implies that there is such a thing as a “guilty victim.” When innocent victims suffer, it’s bad. When guilty victims suffer, we might feel a slight twinge of sympathy, but then we tell ourselves that they deserved it.
When the US bombs terrorist targets overseas, we hear reports about how many of the casualties were “civilian.” The assumption underlying the reports is that the civilians are innocent victims. Everyone else deserved to die.
I remember back when AIDS was first entering mainstream awareness. The innocent victims like Ryan White were held up in sharp contrast to those who had contracted AIDS through sexual promiscuity and drug use. Some Christians even suggested that AIDS was God’s punishment for a sinful lifestyle.
I asked my mom once if she thought AIDS was a punishment from God. And I don’t remember the words she said, but I don’t think I have ever gotten a stronger negative reaction from my mother.
And I don’t think that civilians are the only casualties that matter in Iraq. And I don’t think terrorists deserve to be tortured. Or that those in the country illegally deserve to have their lives ripped apart.
I am not Jonah. And from what I know about this congregation, you are not Jonah.
Now the first-hired workers? Well . . .
Sometimes when I’m driving on the interstate one of the lanes will be closed for construction. And once you see the sign that says “Lane closed ahead” you are supposed to get over. And not many things make me fume more than cars that just whiz by in the soon to be closed lane. I bear a deep grudge against anyone who lets those cars into the open lane. My favorite thing is when a semi will just ride the line and keep all of those cars from passing. Because those cars to not deserve to be ahead of me in line.
Many of you know I used to teach English at KU. Freshman English. One semester we were reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison—probably my favorite writer. One young man in the class frequently shared surprisingly good literary analysis in class discussion. I was impressed until I read his reading journal and found that it was copied (by hand!) directly from Sparknotes.com. Will you think less of me if I tell you that I delighted in giving him a zero on his journal? And that, when he quoted—unacknowledged–the exact same web site in his paper, I really relished failing him for the semester?
I’m not a spiteful person. But there are consequences for not following the rules. That’s just how life is. When things are working well, people get what they 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. Bank executives are on my list of people I have a hard time feeling sorry for. And, at the risk of sounding self-righteous and cold-hearted, so are people who understood the terms of their home lone and bought the $500,000 house anyway. As are able-bodied, mentally capable adults with vehicles who ignored hurricane evacuation orders and then ended up on their roofs for two days.
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, not in this church, 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, people have their 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. I mean, who could feel sorry for Jonah? But, despite what Jonah deserves, he is not killed by irate sailors. He does not die in the raging sea. He is not stoned to death by Ninevites. God goes to a lot of trouble to save Jonah.
And 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. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner. God does care about justice. But God’s not too worried that everything seem fair.
This 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.”
You can imagine different actors playing Jonah in this scene. A whiny Adam Sandler, an angry Jack Nicholson, a sardonic Steven Colbert. “You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who forgives.” It can be spoken with sarcasm, with irritation, with rage.
“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?