Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Jonah. And. The. Whale. God told Jonah to preach the good news to his enemies, to the people who had invaded his country, slaughtered his neighbors, and carried off friends and family into slavery by the thousands. God said to the prophet Jonah, “Get thee to Ninevah.” Jonah says to God, “No way!” He booked a ship to Tarshish –which is completely in the opposite direction, and about as far away from Ninevah as any person in the ancient world could get.
Ninevah (which is the modern city of Mosul in northern Iraq), was the capital city of Assyria, with a population of 120,000 people. It was possibly the largest city in the world in those days. Its sinfulness was legendary, as was its cruelty: The people of Ninevah were known to burn their enemies alive and to decorate their walls and pyramids with the skins (Jacques Ellul, The Judgment of Jonah, 1971, p. 26).
You know what happened. Jonah’s plan to run away from God was met with disaster. No one is beyond the reach of God’s hand. He is thrown into the sea, got tangled up in sea weeds and was about to drown, when, at the last moment, he was swallowed by a great fish then, finally, after three days, he is vomited out upon the sandy shore. He didn’t even have time to wipe himself off when he hears God repeat the command, ‘Get up, and go to Nineveh!’ (Jonah 3:2).
The only thing more preposterous than this big fish story is what happened next. When Jonah finally arrives at Ninevah, his half-hearted preaching had amazing results. The evil Assyrian king and all the people repent. Even the animals repent! They repent in the same way an observant Jewish person would –only they did it much much better!
And rather than being overjoyed, Jonah complained bitterly: “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). God’s equal-opportunity mercy disgusted Jonah.
An interesting aside is that Jonah comes up in our lectionary only twice every three years. But this week, in addition to being read by Christians at worship across our city and around the world, it is also read in worship by Jews everywhere for the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. God offers Jonah forgiveness by which he may be purified and cleansed from all his sins before God. In typically Hebraic fashion, God didn’t rebuke Jonah for his anger, but playfully attempted to broaden Jonah’s horizons, so that Jonah might see the Ninevites as God sees them.
God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah’s answer, of course, is yes! God’s little object lesson using a weed, a worm, and the wind did nothing to dispel Jonah’s bitterness. Disgust and rejection at God’s mercy finds an echo in our own time among people of faith. The news this week includes a story of a preacher who quoted Jesus Sermon on the Mount, saying things like “Turn the other cheek” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.” A parishioner asked, “Where did you get those liberal talking points from?” The pastor said, “I was literally quoting Jesus Christ.” The parishioner responded, “That doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.” (Martin Thielen, “The real religious crisis in America,” 9/21/23).
Shock and dismay at the love and mercy of God is the tie that binds our readings together. Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to an owner of a vineyard who hired day-laborers to take in the harvest. Some worked twelve hours, some worked nine, others worked for six hours; while others only worked for three; and some for only one hour! And yet, he paid them all the same, beginning with the last ones hired to the first. To add insult to injury the landowner insisted on paying the workers in reverse order, thereby making sure that the first workers saw what their less deserving counterparts received. Their reaction is not surprising. ‘Hey! No fair!’ they complain.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” the landowner asked. Again, scripture confronts our righteous indignation with a question. Is it right for you to be angry?” Is it right to be envious? Whatever else it may be, the Kingdom of Heaven is not a meritocracy. God plays by different rules. Jesus’ way opens into a life of grace and not merit, of status reversal instead of status reverence, of underserved generosity rather than pay for services rendered. The parable of the generous landowner offers a concrete example of living out Jesus’ Sermon the Mount. Following the way of Jesus will challenge us. Indelible human dignity doesn’t come from merit, or righteousness, or power, or even fairness, but only from God’s grace. Surrender your envy, your moral judgements and join the party.
The story of Jonah teaches that no matter our past behavior, God’s benevolence and mercy awaits us. God’s grace covers all people, everywhere, no matter their religion or place of origin. The Book of Jonah stops short of telling us how the prophet decided to respond to God’s challenge. We are left to wonder whether Jonah’s heart is in some way our own heart. Will we also be more severe than God, begrudging the forgiveness God so freely extends?
In the surprising way it always does the gospel found application this week among members of my extended family upon the death of my uncle. My uncle suffered from bi-polar disorder, and, in recent years, also from dementia. He had a history of violent outbursts and erratic behavior. Some had washed their hands of him. Others were determined to stay by his side. Everyone was conflicted. Sometimes there were bitter fights. This week he was in full manic mode. Two security guards were stationed at the door of his hospital room. Yet, the night he died, as if by some miracle, there was peace. There was love. Why? Because they had read the gospel for this Sunday, they chose to put aside their righteous anger and support one another in their grief and, for those few hours, that changed everything.
God has given us the profound gift of unending love and mercy. Even now, little by little, and all at once, God is working to fashion a heart in all of us to match. By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit is kindling in us a new humanity. It’s not the old rat-race humanity. It’s the new humanity we have through our baptism into Christ Jesus. It is a humanity not rooted in fairness, but in grace. ‘Faith begins by letting go. Faith endures by holding on. Faith matures by reaching out, stretching minds, enlarging hearts, sharing struggles, living prayer, binding up the broken parts,’ we find God’s grace dwelling in the common place rising up to meet us.