by Daniel Harrell
Last Sunday was like that movie you’d heard was awesome. But then you watched it and the ending ruined everything. You sat there and thought: how could God let this happen? And not only allow it, but maybe even cause it! Your adversaries, whom you presumed deserved nothing but humiliation, got a chance and took it boldly, averting what most thought would be certain doom, and then circled up to praise the Lord for the victory and give glory to God. There were unexpected plays, a sudden stop of momentum diverting the inevitable, and a final outcome you dreaded even if you knew it was possible. It made you so mad you were awake the rest of the night. That’s right, we’re talking about Jonah. (What did you think I was talking about?)
Yahweh ordered Israel’s prophet to the pagan city of Nineveh, the Eagle green capital of Assyria, to warn them of looming doom. Jonah refused—the only prophet so brazen—or so brainless. He tried to shirk his responsibility at sea, but God rallied in furious fashion, sending a tempestuous pass rush that forced Jonah to be fumbled overboard. Then came the trick play—fourth and goal into the mouth of a fish—compelling Jonah to rethink his game plan only to realize he had no defense. He got spit out onto the field, his head buried in defeat, forced to accept what he couldn’t avoid.
Jonah’s is a story of unwelcome grace. The prophet so wanted the Almighty to bear his Old Testament teeth, to rise up in wrath against the odious Ninevites and drop his heavenly hammer on these people he hated, Sodom and Gomorrah style, complete with hellfire and brimstone, plague and pestilence. But when the Lord saw how they turned from their evil ways, showers of confetti blessing rained down instead. God did just like Jesus describes in the New Testament: making “the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.” Responding to Nineveh’s change of heart and behavior, God changed his mind about the promised calamity. God’s anger was stopped; but Jonah was just getting warmed up.
Had there been Old Testament Twitter Jonah would have surely taken to it. We humans are so easily sucked into suffering offense—whether over football or politics or religion or relationships. No species on earth displays moral outrage like we do—nor all the joy we seem to relish from it. Psychologists will offer subjects the option to punish others in a laboratory setting, and they’ll overwhelmingly choose it. Neuro-imaging studies show how letting out our anger against others lights up our brain’s reward pathways. It feels good to put others in their place. Twitter works like those old Skinner boxes where lab rats pushed a lever for a prize. The joy of public shaming reinforces our anger. We spitefully press the lever, tweeting and posting over and over, engaging in virtual vigilante justice without fear of any real retaliation, all the while racking up self-righteous style points.
Jonah tweeted his outrage: “I knew God would be gracious! I knew you’d be good! I knew you’d be slow to anger and abounding in love, ready to relent from punishing!” As it turned out, Yahweh’s Old Testament teeth smiled on contrite sinners too. “Slow to anger and abounding in love” is a phrase that describes the Lord not only in Jonah, but in Exodus and Nehemiah, in the Psalms and the prophet Joel. Extended to Jonah, God’s grace and love made him thankful. But when extended to the Ninevites, mercy only made Jonah mad.
Nineveh’s reputation was as a “a city of bloodshed, full of lies and vulgar football fans.” So what they repented? People repent all the time, and then after getting their grace, they just go back to doing what they were going to do anyway. Why should those nasty Assyrians be any different? How can God be so gullible and naïve? So soft? So unfair? So unjust? Jonah can’t stand it: “You’re killing me Lord! Killing me! If your intent is to let evildoers off the hook, then you might as well take my life now. It is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah gets a bit melodramatic here. Talking about loving enemies does bring out the drama. Invariably, whenever I preach or teach those New Testament lines about responding to meanness with kindness—all that turning the other cheek, giving up your coat and going the extra mile nonsense—the knee-jerk reaction, like with Jonah, is to object to God’s gross abdication of justice and to whine about having to be doormats for Jesus. We roll out serial rapists and pedophiles and terrorists and Hitler, and since nobody could ever be expected to forgive them, how dare Jesus expect me to forgive my enemies—the rude co-worker, the insulting neighbor, the churlish customers, crazy drivers, insensitive spouses, relatives who still owe me money, obnoxious Eagles fans and pompous preachers. Sure, Jesus only says turn your head a little, part with a shirt and walk a few thousand feet more, but why would you ever do that for somebody who’s being a jerk? Oh, and then knowing he’s already asking the impossible, Jesus piles on the guilt with that “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” command, as if your own parents aren’t demanding enough.
We sit and we stew in our self-justifying juices, gladly basting our resentment with indignation. Suddenly, God’s question to Jonah becomes the fly in our soup: “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Not that there aren’t righteous reasons for anger. Those of us watching the Wednesday night video series on racism in America can’t help but feel fury over our country’s long history of deliberate and systemic mistreatment of people of color during the past 400 years. We get tricked into thinking things are getting better, only to hear this past Wednesday how Minnesota ranks among the worst states for people of color, the last place they’d want to live given the high economic disparity, discrimination and frustration at finding suitable housing and work. And then on Sunday night, to see a car company exploit a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon about servanthood as way to sell trucks—especially ironic and infuriating since in the same sermon King goes on to condemn manipulative advertising and consumerism and attempts to keep up with the Joneses. Twitter raged its snark and contempt.
Righteous anger against injustice or in defense of love can sometimes too easily slide into self-righteous umbrage. In our wrath we rail why we deserve what we want, why we didn’t get what we’re owed, why we’re right to act badly against what we choose to perceive as wrong or offensive. One early Christian monk, musing on anger, remarked how covering your eyes with gold or lead doesn’t matter. Preciousness of motive does not change the reality of blindness.
You’ll remember from last Sunday how Jonah’s token obedience resulted in a single sentence, eight-word sermon: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” he preached, without mentioning God once. He said nothing about the possibility of grace or any need to repent or any invitation to reform, all on purpose, I think. He skipped the closing hymn and gave no benediction, no hope for any salvation. And then as fast as he could, lest the Lord send some other beast to bite him, he got out of town, shaking the dust off his feet as he went. He secured a perch overlooking the city and set up a temporary shelter, a prime spot from which to view what was sure to be a brimstone blowout. But to everybody’s shock and amazement, the Ninevites took Jonah seriously. His short sermon set off a stampede of contrition. The entire city stripped down to sackcloth, wallowed in ashes and fasted from all food and drink. They displayed an unmistakable plea for mercy to a deity they did not even know! And to make sure their ashen appeal wouldn’t be mistaken as a piety show, they immediately stopped doing their evil and turned from their violence and the injustice of which they were guilty. And they did it without any guarantee of grace or forgiveness. Their penitent king hoped against hope, “Who knows,” he said, “whether this God will change his mind and pull back his wrath so that we do not perish.”
At this point in the story Jonah was not yet aware of the Ninevites’ overwhelming reaction to his message. He did not yet know that God has accepted their corporate apology, honored their change of behavior and canceled the airstrike. Knowing Jonah’s temper, the Lord decided to break the news to him gently. God sent Jonah a houseplant: a fast growing bush with broad leaves to provide shade for Jonah’s vigil of vengeance. The plant put Jonah in a very good mood—it’s the first time we’ve ever seen the prophet smile. But then the Lord appointed a weevil with explicit instructions to chew through the plant and wither Jonah’s leafy canopy. God did unto the plant what Jonah wanted done unto Nineveh. Then the Lord prepared a burning hot wind to blow in and jack up Jonah’s discomfort. He didn’t like it. He felt faint. The heat got to him and he fumed: “It is better to die than to go on living like this.”
God asked his question again: “Is it right for you to be angry—about a houseplant?” Jonah’s melodrama reignites: “Yes!” he yelled, with a shake of his fist, “I have every right to be angry! I’m angry enough to die!”
Jonah needs a good therapist. Some pastoral counseling. He’s mad about a football game—I mean a houseplant. Here today and gone tomorrow. Not something that helped bring world peace or eliminated poverty or reversed climate change—according to the commercials, you had to buy beer and buy trucks to do that. It’s just a football game. I mean a houseplant! It has no affect on the health of my family, my job satisfaction, the happiness of my marriage, my relationship with my friends, my vocation or future. So why do I care? Why do I lay awake night and obsess over the one or two plays that could have totally reversed the outcome? Need I be so upset? So devastated? Must I bear my teams’ defeat like some indelible sports tattoo, rubbing my grief in my face until I die? If I must care so much to be so distraught by something intended solely for my entertainment, something for which I did nothing but sit passively and watch on HDTV while eating chicken wings and drinking beer, then why can’t God care about a city with 120,000 actual living, breathing people locked in their perversity and self-destruction who know not what they do nor how to be saved from it? Not to mention their animals too?
And with that the book of Jonah just stops. It ends with God’s question dangling midair. A shorter-winded preacher than me might stop right here too—leaving us to squirm amidst the enigma of anger and ask whether the issues that incite our ire are worth the energy we feed them. Jonah’s whole encounter with God reads like a 5-part lesson plan: first a storm then a fish then a plant and a weevil and finally a hot wind—all intended to teach Jonah about how God sees the world. Jonah has enough faith to be mad and blame God, but does he have enough faith to learn love? We began our worship with silence and a prayer for transformation—a renewal of mind and heart: but do we mean it? We have enough faith to get mad, but do we have enough faith to be changed?
As we step into of Lent on Wednesday, we’re invited to join with the Ninevites and don our own sackcloth and ashes, to show our sorrow and seriousness. You’ll mark your forehead with ashes and be reminded how you’re nothing but dust and to dust you will return, here today and gone tomorrow, just like that houseplant. But the mark on your head will take shape of a cross, to remind you too how the dust of death is the good soil of new life. Christ’s cross is the intersection of anger and grace, of justice and mercy. The sins of the world Jesus bore rightly brought down heaven’s wrath. But because God so loved the world, the cross only kills what needs to die. The good stuff rises and gets redeemed. I like how Ash Wednesday falls on Valentines Day this year. Easter’s endgame has always been restoration, resurrection and love.
On Friday, St. Thomas Law School Dean, Robert Fischer, wrote a powerful opinion piece about Martin Luther King Jr. which had nothing to do with buying trucks: “King’s moral framework was not some vague, [consumerist] platitude-driven appeal to feel-good sentiments. He did not run from nor water down who he was or what he believed. Instead, he relied on the full power and scope of his own faith tradition to distill the essence of a foundational truth about the human condition. King focused on the restoration of relationships — on what he referred to as “the beloved community” …
“King put his own being into the shoes of the other person, and he pushed that person to embrace a reality that may have laid beyond his or her view at the time. In loving others — friend or foe, black or white — King did the work that allowed him to see the world through others’ eyes, but he insisted that they expand their view too, and embrace a truer, less isolated vision of their own well-being.” Just like God does with Jonah—and like Christ does with us.
Lisa Johnson sent me a painting of Jonah last week from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece. Jonah dangles midair between the nine paneled story of creation and fall and flood and human failure painted on the ceiling, and the massive rendition of Final Judgment painted on the wall behind the altar. Michelangelo suspends Jonah, of all of the prophets, at the fulcrum between human failure and judgment, the intersection of anger and love, of justice and mercy. We can hold onto our rage and blame God for the unfairness of grace—that we do not get what we deserve or what we think to be right—or we can jump down from our perches and high horses and experience true faith in Jesus and real transformation. We have enough faith to get mad, but can we have enough faith to be changed?