Texts: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16
We can read the book of Jonah like a parable. It’s a bit like the book of Job in this way. Both of these books reference some known people or places, but neither is really intended to relate historical events. Instead, what both Jonah and Job do is present a story as an invitation to think about difficult things. Difficult things being the ways of God with the world and the ways of our hearts with God.
In the book of Job the issue is the perennial question: Why do good people suffer? In the book of Jonah the issue is another perennial question: Why does God not punish everyone who does evil? Both of these stories help us explore the tendency in our own hearts to think that God is on our side. People everywhere tend to think of God as their own personal butler or security guard.
In our reading from Matthew Jesus offers another parable. It wrestles with similar things.
For the ancient Hebrews these questions swirled around the fact that they were in exile, away from their homeland. They were at risk of being absorbed into a huge, multi-ethnic empire. They risked losing the uniqueness of their divine vocation.
Let’s recall the basic storyline of the book of Jonah. Jonah is a prophet, but he’s a nasty prophet. God calls Jonah to go and preach to the city of Nineveh in order to convince its inhabitants to repent from their wickedness and injustice. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire. Some historians believe it was the largest city in the world. It was immensely beautiful and immensely powerful. Nineveh represented the most intimidating enemy of Jonah’s own people.
As I’ve said, Jonah is not a prophet of good character, and so he does not go to Nineveh. He doesn’t go because he doesn’t, in fact, want the city’s inhabitants to repent. What he wants is for Nineveh to be destroyed.
Now, you know that eventually Jonah does go to Nineveh. He proclaims God’s message to the city—well, sort of. Jonah’s speech seems intentionally short and maybe even a little misleading. In Hebrew his speech is only five words long. It’s a huge city, so it takes him three days to walk from one side to the other simply saying that God is going to destroy the place in 40 days.
Even though Jonah hardly listens to God, his enemies do. Even the animals repent. Here’s how God responds (the first verse of our reading): “When God saw that they [repented], how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
You should know that this passage causes problems for some Christian theologians. Traditionally Christians have taught that God does not change. God does not grow. God does not respond. We call this impassability. That is, God is not affected by anything. One of the reasons for this is the worry that if God changes, then perhaps we might wake up one day and find that the one who created us, the one who called our universe into being—has simply lost interest, has gone off to pursue some hobby. Or maybe we would wake up one day and find that God had decided that love wasn’t such a good thing after all.
If God changes then we would need to do whatever it takes to keep God interested in our lives. We would need to offer God things in exchange for favor. It’s a troubling idea.
Yet here in the book of Jonah, the Bible does say, “God changed.” It’s easy to get tangled in the weeds, but if the scriptures are a reliable witness to God, and I think they are, then it is clear that God is faithful and settled in character. God responds. God cares for creation. But God is not capricious or arbitrary. This change in an expression of God’s abiding concern for justice and for the flourishing of all creation. This seems to be the witness of the Bible as a whole.
The problem for Jonah is that he doesn’t want this kind of a God. What Jonah wants is a God that serves his (Jonah’s) people alone. Jonah wants a God that does his bidding. Jonah wants a God that is on his side—and against others. Jonah was willing to deliver God’s message so long as it meant the destruction of Jonah’s enemies and the affirmation of the superiority of Jonah’s tribe.
So, what we see happening in the story of Jonah is the tendency of us all to lose interest in God at precisely the moment God’s deep and abiding love for all people is displayed.
This is because it’s the same moment we are called to love our enemies.
What Jonah represents for us is a temptation. It’s the temptation to make God into a being that is concerned with our interests over and above those of others. It’s a temptation to make God, not the wise and caring parent of all creation, but the bully in our own corner.
Here’s how it comes together at the end of the book of Jonah.
When God responds out of an abiding faithfulness Jonah, the nasty prophet, gets mad. He says (more or less), “O God! Is not this what I said before I left home? This is why I went the other way in the first place. I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. O God, please just kill me. It would be better than watching this city not being destroyed.”
Jonah knows Exodus 34 verse 6. That’s where we read the description of God as “gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” In that passage God is offering a self-description directly to Moses.
Jonah gets angry. He huffs and puffs. Then he stomps his feet and sits down in a campsite overlooking Nineveh. He is still hoping to see God blow the city away with a flaming asteroid.
The asteroid never comes. The sun gets hot and Jonah starts to pout again. God—being gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love—causes a bush to grow to shade the nasty prophet. At this Jonah is happy. He’s still hoping to see God do some mighty smiting. What could be better than revenge and shade—at the same time? (The best archeological evidence suggests that Jonah had some craft beer delivered to his campsite.)
Then God—being gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love—commissions a worm to kill the bush. In this story the animals and the weather have a better sense of God’s will than does the prophet. When the bush dies and Jonah gets hot again, he responds by saying, “Oh God, kill me now. It’s hot and nobody’s dying!”
The book of Jonah ends with God giving a fairly obvious speech to the prophet about how the lives of other people and animals, even those who are ignorant of God’s vision for the world, are more important than one’s own comfort.
But here’s the thing: God’s speech only seems obvious to us because we’re outside the situation. When we’re in Jonah’s position, when we want God to take our side, it makes no sense at all.
The book of Jonah ends without a conclusion. We don’t know if Jonah is convinced or if he becomes an atheist. This ending is an invitation to think through the rest of the story ourselves. Or—maybe this is better—the ending is an invitation to look for ways in which Jonah’s obvious selfishness parallels our own. Are we nasty prophets?
The parable of Jonah has a political edge. There is always a temptation to think that God is somehow uniquely concerned for our country or region or people. There is a temptation to think that for some reason God is more invested in the success of our people than that of others.
The parable of Jonah also has a personal edge. If we’re honest, there are times when it’s hard not to take pleasure in the pain of those we dislike or those who are on the opposite side of some political issue. Don’t we rejoice just a little when the partiers get Covid or when the pastor who thinks wearing masks is a bad idea ends up in the hospital?
There’s nothing at all wrong with taking pleasure in justice. That’s a virtuous response to a world that runs short on justice. But that wasn’t Jonah’s reaction. He wasn’t looking for justice. He wasn’t concerned at all with the wellbeing of the people of Nineveh. What Jonah wanted was for God to do his bidding—to cause pain to those he didn’t like.
So where’s the good news in this story? The good news comes in the conformation of what Jonah new all along: God is not interested in revenge. God is not on “our” side or on “their” side.
God is more dependable and consistent than that. God is the sum of Jonah’s fear. God is “gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love”—for us and for our enemies.