Kristi and I returned late last week from several restful days at Lake Munkamba. During this time we read the quizzical little Old Testament book of Jonah.
It is difficult to know what to make of Jonah. The story ends on a cliff hanger – a conversation left open-ended between God and Jonah. Twice God questions Jonah’s anger. Jonah is angry initially because God mercifully spares the people of Nineveh. Jonah is angry a second time because a worm, appointed by God, has attacked and ravaged the bush which God planted to provide Jonah with shade.
It is easy for us, the 21st century reader, to quickly dismiss Jonah as a pious, xenophobic, patriotic Israelite who had no compassion for the other peoples of the world. Yet, if we take more time to dwell on the realities of the Ancient Near East, we might cut Jonah a little slack. Nineveh was known for its wickedness, even the king of that empire acknowledges their violent ways (Jonah 3: 8). Perhaps with today’s geopolitical realities it would be like you or me being called to preach a message of judgment and repentance to the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. Who in their right mind would sign on for such an assignment? Jonah doesn’t, at least not initially. He runs in the opposite direction; Jonah flees the presence of the LORD. Most of us know the rest of the story. God hurls a windstorm. Jonah is tossed overboard and swallowed by a large fish. Jonah repents in the fish’s belly. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches a message of doom and gloom.
But here is the kicker – Nineveh responds with humility and repentance. Everyone from the king to the lowest slave to all of the animals covers themselves and is covered with sackcloth and sits on mounds of ashes, neither eating or drinking water. They cry out to God, asking God to relent and change His mind. And guess what? God changes His mind and relents. This course of events displeases Jonah very much. He complains that he knew ahead of time that God would act in this way, which is why he chose to flee. Jonah despairs of his own life – he would rather die than live. So, what is the point of this story? The God of the Biblical narrative is a God who transcends our understandings. Jonah, prophet of the LORD, wants all-powerful Yahweh to crush this unworthy, wicked, hostile and aggressive people. Jonah becomes angry because the LORD reveals his true self as gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing (Jonah 4: 2).
Perhaps like Jonah, we all need a seismic theological make-over when it comes to understanding the ways of Yahweh, the Lord of hosts, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. We are quick to assume that God is on our side of cultural battles, church disputes, political wranglings and nationalistic ambitions. We are quick to accuse and judge, when God is slow to anger and ready to relent from punishing. We have an intellectual idea of who God is, but experientially we are often clueless. Here in Congo it is helpful to be reminded of God’s grace and mercy, that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. To be honest, there are moments when we harbor anger and we would love to see God judge certain individuals and groups for their harmful behavior and reprehensible actions. There are times when it feels like God stands aside and does nothing. Yet, we can conclude from the book of Jonah that God is not standing aside. God is looking for repentant hearts, even our own, to turn to Him and be healed. God is looking for us to stop being unreasonably angry. God wants us to feel His passionate concern and care for all peoples at all times in all places. Jonah, I hope and pray, came to this realization even though the book by his name doesn’t give us that hopeful ending. We also, I hope and pray, can come to this realization, comprehending in head and heart God’s care and concern, mercy and grace.
Lord God, please destroy the wrongful perceptions we have fashioned in our hearts. You know each person and all groups of people intimately. You are slow to judge and quick to demonstrate mercy. May we be the same. In the name of Jesus, who did not come to judge but who came to show the love and mercy of the Father, Amen.