It is common to talk about the Bible as a book that includes different forms of literature. The Bible includes poetry, like that in the psalms and in the writings of the prophets. There are letters, like the letters of Paul in the New Testament. The gospels belong to the literary form of ancient biographies.
The form of a biblical text matters the same way that the form of our mail matters: we read a letter from a friend differently from the way we read a magazine, and we read letters and magazines differently from the way we read a bill. We expect different things from different types of mail, and we expect different things from different types of literature.
The book of Jonah is widely understood to be a short story. It is a work of literary fiction that uses humor and exaggeration to break open the way for us to understand true things—maybe even central truth—about God’s character and our own.
The story begins by saying, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, the great city and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” The prophets were almost always sent not to foreigners but to their God’s people Israel, so we learn right away that something is different here. What’s more, Nineveh was a city in Assyria, a longtime neighbor and enemy of Israel.
Jonah goes in the opposite direction. He books passage on a ship bound for Tarshish, which may refer to a city on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. He is getting as far away from Nineveh as he can. In the next scene, Jonah is asleep in the boat in the middle of a big storm. A lot of stuff happens after that, like Jonah asking to be thrown overboard so that the storm will cease, which he is (and it does), and the non-Hebrew sailors being so impressed by this that they offer a sacrifice and make vows to the Lord. There is the scene where Jonah is swallowed by a big fish, who saves him from the sea and swims him back to dry land.
Then, the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…. That is where today’s first lesson takes up the story. This time, the reluctant prophet actually goes to Nineveh, walks part way into the city, and speaks five Hebrew words. In English, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be destroyed.” That’s it. That’s all he says, and in response, everyone repents! From the king to the cattle, everyone fasts and puts on sackcloth. “Who knows?” the Assyrian king asks, “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” And God does just that.
Which makes Jonah very angry. His speech to God is rather longer than five words. He says, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? 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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me for it is better for me to die than to live.”
God replies by asking, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah is done with the conversation, he leaves the city and camps out at its edge, waiting to see what will happen.
Finally, God tries a little object lesson, appointing a bush to grow up overnight and offer shade to Jonah, which pleases him, and then appointing a worm to attack the bush so it dies, which leave Jonah exposed to the heat and grumpy again. God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah says, “Yes, angry enough to die!” Then the story ends with this speech from the Lord: “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. 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?”
Jonah’s theatrical behavior, the way he manages to do as little as possible to fulfill God’s calling on his life, the great success he has as a preacher, and his irritation at God’s grace in response to the Ninevites’ repentance all make this story funny. We watch Jonah and we laugh at his silliness. Underneath all that humor is the word from God that closes the story: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh…?”
God cares about our enemies. God cares about God’s enemies, and their livestock and their pets. We love that hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” We hear it as a story of mercy directed to us, and it is a comfort, as it should be: God’s wide mercy extends to us. God is what Jonah knew God to be: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” There is a wideness in God’s mercy.
That wide mercy makes Jonah angry enough to die. He did not think the Assyrians should have a chance with God because he knew that God would end up forgiving them. You might be reminded of the parable of the prodigal son here, where the elder son gets so angry at the welcome home extended to his younger brother. We say that we all depend on the grace of God, but when someone less deserving than we are receives grace, we wonder if God doesn’t need to have higher standards.
This similarity to Jonah may not be your problem. I know some people who forgive easily and love open-heartedly. I know people nearly as merciful as I imagine God to be. But most of us are, probably most of the time, more like Jonah than like God.
To see if I am right about how comfortable you and I are with the wide mercy of God, think about someone who, you imagine at least, does not share any of your political values and views. Maybe they have a “Coexist” bumper sticker. Maybe they have a bumper sticker like the one I saw a couple of weeks ago that said, “You cannot coexist with suicide bombers.” If those were the only two bumper stickers in the world, and you had to choose one of them, you probably know which of them you would choose. So imagine what you would choose, then imagine being stopped at a light behind a car displaying the other bumper sticker. What do you feel about the driver of that car in the 30 seconds you are sitting at the red light? I know what I feel then, and I’m not proud of it.
Arthur Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and last week our friend, Lisa Trefz, posted a one-minute video from him on Facebook. In it, he says this:
“We don’t have an anger problem in American politics. We have a contempt problem in American politics. Contempt is defined by social psychologists as the ‘utter conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.’”
I know someone who, when she is driving and another driver does something thoughtless or impolite, will yell, “Idiot!” at the windshield (though usually not when there is someone in the passenger side). That is contempt. Can you sense how easily it comes to us?
Contempt is a pretty good description of what Jonah must feel for the people to whom he has been sent: Jonah is utterly convinced of the worthlessness of the Assyrians. After they repent, and God repents of the destruction Jonah predicted, Jonah says to God, “This is exactly why I didn’t want to come here! I knew you would spare them. Kill me now. I would rather be dead than live in a world where that other bumper sticker receives mercy.”
Arthur Brooks goes on to say,
“If you listen to people talk to each other in American political life today, they talk to each other with pure contempt. When somebody around you treats you with contempt, you never quite forget it. So if we want to solve the problem in polarization today, we have to solve the contempt problem.”
Brooks offers a solution, which I will get to in a minute. In the story of Jonah, God solves the contempt problem by helping Jonah to see himself. Ostensibly, this story is about the mercy God has for Nineveh, but look again, and you see a story of God’s mercy for Jonah, too. If you are God, how do you break people out of contempt for one another? Well… maybe you present them with a plant that they become attached to, then you ask them how they feel when it withers, and then you say, “You cared about that plant. Don’t you think I care about the people I created, people whom you regard as utterly worthless?”
This is the way God loves: God loves with a word that turns the Ninevites around, and with a word that has the potential, at least, of turning Jonah around. Thinking about that plant may change Jonah. Considering the plant, and his attachment to it, and his grief over losing it, Jonah may be able to act a little more like the God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
In the gospel reading, Jesus calls disciples to follow him. On the one hand, they are not like Jonah at all: they do what Jesus asks right away. On the other hand, the disciples share Jonah’s need to learn about God’s mercy for others, and by the end of the story, for themselves. Most of us have had the experience of answering something that felt like a calling—to care for children, perhaps, or older people, or to manage personnel, or to lead a project. We have had the experience of answering a call and finding out that in that calling, we have learned more than we set out to teach. God calls us and uses that very calling as a way to teach the teachers, to speak a word to the prophets, to lead the leaders. This is what happens for Jonah.
It happens for us, too. Think back to the red light and the guy in the car ahead of you, the one with the ridiculous bumper sticker. Arthur Brooks closes his remarks about contempt by saying this:
“I sometimes write with the Dalai Lama. I was thinking about this contempt problem, and I said, ‘Your holiness, what do I do when I feel contempt?’ And he said, ‘Practice warm heartedness.’ And I started thinking about it, and it’s true. When I do that, when we do that, when we have leaders who can do that, it’s utterly world-changing.
“Catch yourself. You can show true strength if next time you hear contempt, you answer with warm heartedness. Every single one of us is going to have an opportunity, on social media, or in-person to answer somebody’s contempt. Are you going to do the right thing, and make the world a little bit better, and show your strength, and make your enemies your friends? Or are you going to make the problem worse? That’s a question that each of us gets to answer probably in the next 24 hours.”
That is a call that each of us get to answer, probably in the next 24 hours.