|Text: Jonah 3:10 – 4:3
God saw that the people of Nineveh had given up their wicked behaviour. So he changed his mind and did not punish them as he had said he would.
Jonah was very unhappy about this and became angry. So he prayed, “Lord, didn’t I say before I left home that this is just what you would do? That’s why I did my best to run away to Spain! I knew that you are a loving and merciful God, always patient, always kind, and always ready to change your mind and not punish. Now then, Lord, let me die. I am better off dead than alive.”
A farmer noticed a carload of people who had climbed his orchard fence and were not only eating his apples without asking permission but were putting some in a shopping bag to take with them.
He climbed over the fence and walked up to them. One of them smiled sheepishly and, thinking that a little flattery would win the farmer over, said, “We hope you don’t mind but we have enjoyed eating some of your most excellent apples.”
“No, not at all,” said the farmer, “and I hope you don’t mind that I just let the air out of your most excellent tyres.”
From a very early age we learn that when someone does something to hurt us in any way, the right response is to give back equally what was given. In some cases, maybe we give back just a little more to make sure they don’t do it again.
If a terrorist who had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent people is captured and brought to trial I dare say most of us would like to see him get “what he deserves”. Just as he showed no mercy to his victims he doesn’t deserve any mercy now. He’s a monster whose life should be ended or locked up and the key thrown away.
In today’s Old Testament reading we hear about Jonah who is having real difficulty with this whole matter of what is right and fair. In fact, Jonah is seriously cheesed off. You see, he thinks these Ninevites should be wiped off the face of the earth. They are God’s enemies; they are the enemies of God’s chosen people; they are notoriously wicked and deserve the worst that God could dish out to them.
From the moment that God told him to go to Nineveh and warn the people that their wickedness would bring down God’s judgement on them, Jonah thought that this was all wrong.
Why even give them a warning? They are wicked so why doesn’t God just let them have it. Jonah is even suspicious that God will let them off the hook. Later on he says, “I knew from the very beginning that you wouldn’t destroy Nineveh. I knew that you would only show love and not punish your enemies”. And he might have added, “I knew that you would have compassion on them and they don’t deserve it.”
As far as Jonah is concerned, the Ninevites don’t deserve a second chance or any kind of mercy or even a warning that God’s judgement is near so he gets on a boat and sets sail in the opposite direction.
His attempt to get away from God is futile. We know the story well. Jonah is swallowed by a big fish and in the belly of the fish he throws himself on the grace of God and experiences God’s love and mercy as he is given a second chance. The fish spits him up on the beach and once again God tells him to call the people of Nineveh to turn away from their sin, turn to God, receive God’s forgiveness and mercy, and live.
So when we encounter Jonah in today’s first reading he is not a happy. He is not happy about the Ninevites getting another chance, about God allowing them to live, when they are such wicked and evil people. Jonah wants justice not mercy. This makes Jonah so angry.
Why is he so upset?
First of all Jonah thought he had God all worked out. The rules were straight forward. He had learnt them as a child. He said it every day, “Israel, remember this! The Lord – and the Lord alone – is our God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4). In other words, if you worship false gods, do not obey the one true God, live immorally and violently like the Ninevites, you will be punished by God. How simple is that? But now it seems that God is changing the rules and the wicked are going to get away scot free.
Secondly, Jonah was a Jew – one of God’s chosen people. But these Ninevites were nothing – godless, barbaric, wicked heathens involved in all kinds of deviant behaviour. They don’t deserve mercy; they deserve nothing less than God’s worst punishment. Besides what’s the point of being one of God’s chosen people if God was going to be gracious and forgiving to anyone and everyone, especially those whose lives and religion were so perverted and depraved.
And thirdly, (and this annoyed Jonah more than anything and made him really angry), he firmly believed that God was unfair. Jonah thought the people of Nineveh were so wicked that they were beyond mercy and grace. For Jonah things were simple. People should get what they deserve. If they have been faithful and good then they should be blessed. If they have been wicked and perverted then they deserve to be damned.
After Jonah had tried to run away from God Jonah was happy to receive God’s mercy but he resented God dealing with the Ninevites in a similar way. In Jonah’s mind the Ninevites were so wicked that there was only one way God should deal with them. No mercy; only punishment.
It’s clear that Jonah was telling God how he should treat the people of Nineveh and thought he knew better than God what they deserved.
What is more, he missed the point that God was free to do as he liked even if it seemed unfair and didn’t make any sense to anyone else.
The Book of Jonah is well described as a book about mission – God’s mission to a Jonah himself. God is reaching out and teaching Jonah about grace and undeserved mercy.
And so as you read this Old Testament story you begin to see that God’s real mission in the story is not to Nineveh at all! God could have sent anyone to deliver his message to them – probably a person more enthusiastic about mission work would have done a far better job and certainly someone who understood God’s grace a little better would have been a far more effective witness. God’s mission is to help Jonah understand that his grace is not selective (i.e. some people deserve it more that others) or limited (i.e. that God can love only certain people).
Jesus teaches this same lesson in his parable about the labourers in the vineyard. Remember how workers are hired at different times of the day to bring in the harvest. When the end of the day came and each worker was paid the person who worked all day received the same as the person who worked for only one hour. The point being made here is that this doesn’t seem fair at all. In our way thinking, people should only get what they deserve and no more.
Jesus makes it clear that this is not the way God operates. If God operated that way then no one would receive anything from God. God’s love extends to one and all regardless of their situation in life, how good or bad, how faithful or unfaithful they have been, or how long they have been members of the church. The questions the owner of the vineyard asked could well have been questions that God could have asked Jonah. “Don’t I have the right to be generous if I want to? Are you angry because I have been generous?”
What God was trying to get through to Jonah and what Jesus was trying to tell his listeners was that God doesn’t operate by what is fair or unfair. God doesn’t use accounting methods to decide what we deserve. In fact, the word deserve doesn’t apply to the way God thinks of us because if God gave us what we deserve then we would all end up in hell.
If God dealt with Jonah the way Jonah expected God to deal with the Ninevites then neither Jonah nor the Ninevites would have been saved. Jonah would be judged in the same way he expected the people of Nineveh to be judged. The story of Jonah and the parable of the labourers in the vineyard tell us that God is generous, full of grace, and forgiving. He is ready to give second chances and in the case of Jonah third and fourth chances.
We can add that God’s grace is persistent. It doesn’t give up.
God rescues rebellious Jonah from the briny deep.
He is patient with Jonah’s half-hearted effort in delivering his message,
and to top it all off he hangs in there when Jonah smoulders with anger and self righteous pity because all he can see is injustice and unfairness.
The story about Jonah finishes with a question from God. Remember Jonah is seething that God had shown mercy on the people of Nineveh. God had caused a plant to grow and shelter Jonah from the hot sun and then it died. That made Jonah even more upset. God comes to him with this concluding sentence. “You are concerned about a mere bush that grew one day and died the next. Don’t you think that I should be concerned about the 120,000 people in that city?”
We don’t know how Jonah responded.
Was God’s mission to Jonah successful?
Did Jonah finally understand God’s mercy and grace?
Was this a turning point in his life and he repented of his hard-heartedness toward the people of Nineveh and let God’s mercy and grace control his life?
I believe that this ending is deliberate. It’s good storytelling because instead of ending with “and he lived happily ever after” we are left to ponder the question, “How did the grace of God affect Jonah? How has the grace of God affected us and the way we live today?”
Do we reflect the grace God has shown toward us in the way that we show love to the people in our lives?
Do we reflect the grace of God when others have offended us? Do we reach out and seek forgiveness and reconciliation or do we pass off the rift that has happened with “It’s not my fault; he/she needs to apologise to me”.
Do we reflect the grace of God in the way we treat those who are in some kind of need? Are we hard-headed and ignore their need, make excuses for our lack of empathy and action or do we strive to understand, be compassionate, and help in what ever way we can?
Do we reflect the grace of God as we deal with difficult people – those who are hard to like, argumentative, opinionated, self-focussed or do we find it easier to brush them aside and declare that they require too much effort and emotional energy?
Do we reflect the grace of God as members of the church when others lose their faith, adopt a way of life that is clearly wrong in God’s eyes, drop out of the fellowship of the church? Do we offer them our love, our help and support?
Are we like Jonah – ready to accept God’s grace and to be cared for, comforted and helped by a loving God but refuse to pass this on the same care, comfort and love to others?
We all struggle to reflect the grace of God in our lives and we often fail. The great thing about God’s grace is that it never gives up, it is always ready to forgive, restore and make new. May God’s grace truly make a real difference in our lives every day.
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy