GOD INSISTS ON GRACE
I know Jonah best as a children’s story. As I learned it, Jonah is called to go to the wicked city of Nineveh to cry out against it. Jonah wanted no part of such a call and he tried to flee to Tarshish, the western most city in the empire. God calls up a storm. Everyone on the ship is afraid and finally Jonah is thrown overboard to appease an angry God. Jonah is miraculously saved when he is swallowed by a whale, and after three days in the belly of the whale, Jonah is ‘spewed up onto dry ground. Finally, Jonah dutifully does God’s will. He preaches and Nineveh is saved. The sermons I vaguely remember included themes like: ‘You can’t run from God’; ‘God is with you wherever you go.’; ‘God can use disobedient people to work His purposes out.’ As an adult however, reading Jonah takes on new meaning.
Let’s start with Jonah fleeing from God. I had always thought it was like sending a missionary to an anti Christian country. It was a dangerous mission and there have been a lot of such people who were killed by those they were sent to preach to. The Assyrians were a prototypical enemy of Israel. Jonah certainly had cause to fear that he would not be well received. No wonder Jonah did not want to go. BUT, if we read the text, fear for his welfare was not the reason Jonah resisted God’s call. Jonah did not want to go because he did not want the people of Nineveh to repent, much less be spared!
Jonah expected God to bring great calamity upon the Ninevites. That is what is supposed to happen to sinners—and the Assyrians were certainly sinners. They had devastated the Israelites. They conquered the Northern Kingdom and exiled the people. To this day, the ten tribes that inhabited Israel remain lost. Surely, the Assyrian people deserved punishment. It was time for Yahweh to square accounts. When God shows mercy instead of divine wrath, Jonah is not pleased. We read: “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry…. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. (Jonah 4:1-2)
Please note the parallel to Jonah’s own experience in the story. Jonah, who had turned away from God when he fled God in the first place, expected God to punish him. Jonah is in the belly of the whale for three days before he acknowledges that “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” In that moment, Jonah turned back to God. In the next verse God “spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.” God had offered the same grace to Jonah that he offered to the people of Nineveh. But somehow Jonah missed that point entirely. Jonah melodramatically says to God: “And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah could not tolerate the idea that God could love a people he (Jonah) hated. He says he would rather die than live in that state of vulnerability, uncertainty and dependence upon God—even though he had been a personal recipient of that grace. (And also note that when he was in actual danger, he wasn’t nearly so willing to die.)
Unfortunately, this is a real life predicament for many of us. We want identifiable ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. There are a lot of prophets of doom in our society today. We have an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. We hate living in the reality that we (and others) are both. Look at how personal and catastrophic political attack ads have become. A vote for Trump will mark the end of our democratic institutions. A vote for Biden is an invitation to socialism and an end to the American way. We tell our children that two wrongs don’t make it right but explain away all kinds of misdeeds with “you’re guy did it too.” I sit with grown ups who respond to complaints from their spouse with the words—’but you hurt me first.” Jonah insisted on a concept of God that was just—but was just according to Jonah’s standards. Jonah had no concept of a God who insisted upon Grace.
Prophets are messengers from God who call people to life. Their announcements of God’s judgments are warnings about the natural consequences of insisting on our own way. Though Jonah looked like a prophet and probably thought of himself as one, the story presents him as a caricature. He finally says the right things but misses the point. He is self willed and petulant when he confronts a world outside of his own sense of fairness. Jonah does not rejoice that he has been heard and people have been saved. He sulks because they were not ‘rightly’ punished. He was a prophet of his own will—not God’s.
Paradoxically, Jonah’s misguided version of prophecy, in itself, becomes a vehicle to reveal God’s desire for her people. God’s desire is that we turn toward God. God’s desire is that we repent. It is then that we will have a new life. Jonah’s God, was a God who righteously punished. That kind of God is understandable and predictable. Grace and forgiveness is an unexpected outcome when applied to your enemy. It is one most of us have trouble tolerating. We might crave such grace but in real life it is hard to live. How many of us would rather die than see our political enemy thrive?
God does not give up on Jonah. When he goes off to sulk because the people of Nineveh repented and Jonah’s sense of justice was offended, God provides a tree to shade Jonah. Jonah has time to cool off. The next day, however, the tree dies and Jonah is left in the sweltering heat. Once again Jonah says, ‘I’d rather die’. Once again, he cannot tolerate that he should have to endure hardship. He has forgotten what we thought he had learned in the belly of the whale. “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.” God tries to engage him by asking “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah’s indignation remains. He feels wronged and deprived. God closes the book with a statement and a question:
“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 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?”
God insists on grace. It is unclear if Jonah ever learned of that grace or if he stayed stuck and lifeless in his indignation. It is a struggle and a choice for all of us. God still tries to teach and redeem Jonah but the story ends with a question—not a resolution.
Remind us of our own sinfulness. Remind us of your deliverance. And forgive us our foolish self righteousness and indignation. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.