by Daniel Harrell
Last Sunday was like one of those bad movie sequels, like Another 48 Hours, or The Next Karate Kid. You sat there and thought: haven’t I seen this already? The same plot? The same players? The same ending? How can this be happening—again? Somehow you hoped things might turn out differently this time. Its not often you get a second chance, such a textbook set-up for redemption. But there it was, only to be squashed by a furious rally. By a miraculous catch. By a mediocre effort at stopping the inevitable. It ends up like just you knew it would, but you still can’t believe it. It makes you so mad that you’re awake the rest of the night. That’s right, I’m talking about Jonah. (What did you think I was talking about?) God directly orders Israel’s prophet to the pagan city of Nineveh, the capital of enemy Assyria, to warn them of their looming doom. Jonah refuses—the only prophet ever to be so brazen—or so brainless. He tries to escape at sea, but God rallies in furious fashion, sending a vicious storm that forces Jonah to go three and out—of the boat. Then comes the miraculous catch—into the mouth of a fish—compelling Jonah to follow the game plan this time, which he does in defeated fashion. He has to deliberately let the other team score, and then bury his head on the sideline to await the final whistle.
Jonah’s story is one of unwelcome grace. The prophet wanted the Lord of Glory to bear his Old Testament teeth, to rise up in wrath against the odious Ninevites, the epitome of all evil. Drop the heavenly hammer, Sodom and Gomorrah style. Rain down some hellfire and brimstone. Plague and pestilence. But instead, way ahead of schedule, God showed his New Testament side and sent showers of blessing instead. He did as Jesus will describe him doing in the Sermon on the Mount, he “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous alike.” In response to Nineveh’s repentance, the Lord changed his mind and relented from meting out judgment. God’s anger was stopped; but Jonah was just getting warmed up.
The prophet is livid: “I knew you’d be gracious!” he yells as he prays. “I knew you’d be merciful! I knew you’d be slow to anger and abounding in love, that you’d forgive anybody who wants it and would change your mind about sending punishment!” As it turns out, the Old Testament God has a soft spot for contrite sinners too. Jonah labels Yahweh as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, who relents from sending calamity,” but it’s not a characterization he comes up with all on his own. It’s the way the Lord is described in Exodus, in Nehemiah, in the Psalms and on the lips of the prophet Joel too. When extended to Jonah, God’s grace and mercy made him thankful. But when given to the Ninevites, it just made him mad. Their reputation was as a “a city of bloodshed, full of lies and never without victims.” So what that they repented? People repent all the time, and then after they get their forgiveness, they just go back to doing what they were going to do anyway. Who says that Nineveh won’t return to their murderous ways once they’ve been spared? How can God be so naïve? So soft? So unfair? So unjust? “You’re killing me Lord! Killing me! If your intent is to let evildoers off the hook, then you might as well just take my life and kill me now. It is better for me to die than to live.”
OK, so maybe Jonah is being a little melodramatic. Still, talking about loving your enemies does bring out the drama. Whenever I’m teaching the Sermon on the Mount, like I was doing this past Wednesday night, and get to that part about not retaliating against evildoers and all that turning the other cheek and going the extra mile ridiculousness, the knee-jerk reaction, like Jonah’s, is to immediately object and complain about God’s abdication of justice and about our having to be doormats for the Lord. We roll out the serial rapists and the pedophiles and the repeat drunk drivers and Hitler, and how since nobody could ever be expected to forgive them, how dare Jesus expect us to forgive your own enemies—you know, the rude co-workers, or the insulting neighbors, the customers who stiff you, or the relatives who still owe you money? Sure, Jesus only commands us to turn our heads 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 loads on the guilt, telling us to “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” as if your own parents weren’t demanding enough.
As we sit there and stew in our self-justifying juices, God’s question to Jonah becomes his question to us: “Is it right for you to be angry?”
It’s a question that’s left to dangle as chapter 4 goes on to indulge in a bit of a flashback. You’ll remember from last Sunday how Jonah’s token obedience resulted in a short, single sentence sermon: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The prophet didn’t mention God once. He said nothing about the possibility of grace or any need to repent or any invitation to reform, all on purpose. 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 everyone’s shock, the Ninevites took Jonah seriously. His sermon set off a stampede of shame and repentance with the entire city stripping down to sackcloth, wallowing in ashes and fasting from all food and drink. It was an unmistakable plea for mercy to a deity they did not even know. And so that their ashen appeal wouldn’t be mistaken as a piety show, they stopped doing their evil and turned from all the violence and injustice of which they were guilty. And they did all of this without any grace guarantee. Lamented their contrite king, “Who knows whether this God will change his mind and pull back his wrath so that we do not perish.”
This being a flashback, Jonah is not yet aware of the Ninevites’ overwhelming reaction to his sermon. He does not yet know that God has accepted their corporate apology, honored their change of behavior and canceled the fireworks. Due to Jonah’s temper, the Lord decides to break the news to him gently. He sends Jonah a houseplant. A fast-growing Jack-in-the-beanstalk that provides additional shade for Jonah’s vigil of vengeance. The plant puts Jonah in a very good mood—it’s the first time we’ve ever seen the prophet smile. But then the Lord sends in a weevil with explicit instructions to chew through the plant and wither Jonah’s leafy canopy. After that the Lord sends a burning hot wind and jacks up Jonah’s discomfort. God does unto the plant what Jonah wants done unto the Ninevites. How does the prophet like his theology now? “Is it right for you to be angry—about a houseplant?” asks the Lord, loading his question this time with a tangible illustration. The heat getting to him, Jonah is in no mood to learn anything. His melodrama reignites. “Yes I have a right to be angry!” he screams, “I’m angry enough to die!”
What Jonah needs is a good therapist. Some pastoral perspective. Let’s analyze it: He’s mad about a football game—I mean a houseplant. Here today and gone tomorrow. It’s not like it would have made a contribution to world peace or eliminating poverty or reducing climate change. It’s just a football game. I mean a college basketball game. I mean a houseplant! It has no impact on the health of my family, my job satisfaction, the happiness of my marriage, my relationship with my friends. So why do I care? Why do I lay awake night and obsess over the one or two plays that could have totally changed the outcome? Need I be so upset? So devastated? Must I bear my teams’ defeat like some indelible sports tattoos, rubbing my grief in my face and until I die? If I must care so much and be so distraught by something intended solely for my entertainment, something for which I did nothing but sit passively and watch on TV while eating buffalo wings and swilling beer, then why can’t God care about this great city with 120,000 actual living, breathing people locked in their sin and self-destruction who know not what they do nor how to be saved from it? And their animals too? “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” Jesus asked, “Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. And you are of more value than many sparrows.”
The conclusion to Jonah is often used as motivation for mission, specifically urban mission. Half the world now lives in cities, from culture shapers, next generations and immigrants to the poorest of the poor. Christians are called to care about cities like God cares about cities, which is what motivates Colonial Church to partner with city ministry organizations like Community Emergency Services, Families Moving Forward, Young Life and Calvary Baptist Church among others. There are close to 10,000 homeless children in Minneapolis, half of them under age six. 23% of the city’s population lives below the poverty line. Perhaps this makes you mad. If so, get mad enough to do something about it. Compassion is a good way to channel your anger. Unfortunately for Jonah, compassion was what made him angry. God’s grace ticked him off.
Our Wednesday night study prayed for the family of Ann Blake this week, the mother of two middle school children who was struck and killed on a Maple Grove sidewalk as she waited to cross the street. She was hit by a car whose driver had a blood-alcohol level twice the legal limit as well as an empty vodka bottle in her vehicle. Police were already tailing the driver at the time of the wreck, after receiving a report of erratic driving. Ann Blake’s twin children, one of whom is autistic, are orphans now. Their father died just four months prior, following a year long bout with cancer. Both parents were active in their Lutheran church and helped with Bible school and were advocates for children with autism. It’s unspeakably tragic. We shake our heads at the senselessness, and we shake our fists at heaven demanding to know why God keeps letting such horrible things happen. But what really enrages us is the fact that this drunk driver gets to go on living her life; that she may even find her way to some kind of redemption. And not only does God allow it, but he loves and cares for her too. And far worse than all that, God insists that I care. That I even go so far as to forgive her. That I “be perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect.” Jesus! That is so infuriating!
Let’s analyze our anger just a little bit more. If ever you’ve found yourself in the same boat with Jonah—or in the same fish or under the same houseplant—ask yourself this: Are you mad because your faith cramps your lifestyle and places insufferable restraints on your true identity? Or are you mad because your Christian faith is your true identity, and what’s insufferable is your constant failure and refusal to live it out. In other words, are you mad because you feel repressed by being a good Christian, or because you feel frustrated for being a bad Christian? If my question still confuses you, try an experiment. In the next two weeks leading into Lent, take the first week and be as uninhibited and as shamefully abrasive as you dare to be within the law. Forget Jesus and the kingdom of God. Most of all, forget that other people have feelings. Just care about your feelings and then act on those feelings. Lean into your indignation. Be a savage.
Then take the second week and try as hard as you can to be as perfectly Christian as you know how to be. Show as much indifference to other people’s rudeness and insults and you showed for their feelings the week before. Don’t be pious, just live out the gospel in as bold and as loving a way as your imagination allows. Do what’s right and responsible and honoring to God with all the character, integrity, generosity and prayerful humility you can muster. Be a saint.
At the end of your two weeks, ask yourself the following: Which approach to life is the true you? The answer will probably be both.
Fury and faith are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories. Herein lies the mystery of the cross. It is through the injustice and through the anger that compassion and grace finally come. If by anger we mean that unleashed, impassioned and savage hostility against those people and circumstances which violate, offend, frustrate, threaten, endanger or impede; then the cross of Jesus must be viewed as the anger of God in its truest expression. The sin Jesus bore—of which we all share guilt—brought down the full and just fury of heaven. Moreover, if by grace we mean that unleashed love and compassion for those people who do not deserve it and yet understand that they need it and are dead without it, then the cross of Jesus must be viewed as the grace of God in its truest expression too. God channels his righteous anger into compassion for sinners. He so loves the world that his gives his own Son to die and rise for it, forgiving a world that knows not what they do, making it so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish, but can permanently live a life of grace and compassion themselves. To be perfect like their Father in heaven who makes them perfect.
The family of Ann Blake released a statement upon learning about the drunk driver’s alcohol levels. “This information at least provides closure as to the cause. Nothing can bring Ann back or erase the pain that everyone who was close to her has felt for the last week,” it read. And then they added, “We believe in forgiveness and grieve for the driver and for her family just as we grieve for the loss of Ann.”
Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel observes how “God’s answer to Jonah, stressing the supremacy of compassion, upsets the possibility of looking for a rational coherence of God’s ways with the world. History would be more intelligible if God’s word were the last word, final and unambiguous like a dogma or an unconditional decree. It would be easier if God’s anger became effective automatically: once wickedness had reached its full measure, punishment would destroy it.
“Yet, beyond justice and anger,” indeed even through justice and anger, “lies the mystery of compassion;” the mystery of the cross.