Our discussion started out slowly as each person paused to let the passage percolate. Early comments were tentative observations, as if participants were testing the heat of freshly brewed coffee. But once the flavor hit the taste buds, conversation sprang to life with humor, sarcasm and keen insight.
Each week, I meet with a discussion group to work through significant Bible passages. This time, the book is Jonah. While most of us know the general story of the mammal-ingested man, the first challenge is to actually read the story and not trust the VeggieTales interpretation. If you haven’t read the book, you should read it before continuing (spoilers ahead).
As a prophet, Jonah was chosen to converse with God and speak His message to the people. With a direct line to God, you’d think Jonah would be some sort of role model. In the book, Jonah is told to go and preach against the wickedness of the great city of Nineveh (historically the capital of Assyria). Unfortunately, Jonah chose not to accept the challenge and runs away instead, starting a splendid cascade of consequences involving a life threatening storm, a massive sea creature, some sort of miraculous expulsion, and serious repentance.
So what happens? In a nutshell, after being thrown overboard in the middle of a storm, Jonah has a come-to-Jesus moment in the belly of the whale, where he remembers that God is a God of deliverance and salvation. After the vague expulsion, Jonah turns around and reluctantly trudges to Nineveh to preach. Once he fulfills his obligation, Jonah heads out of town to watch the fireworks of judgment rain down and flatten the city. Instead, Nineveh repents and God forgives them. At this point, Jonah is downright angry that God withheld his judgment and offered mercy. God then kindly gives Jonah his very own leafy plant analogy to show His heart for His children, however disobedient, whether Assyrian or prophet.
In discussing our errant prophet’s behavior, someone threw out the word “childlike” and it stuck in my mind. In an instant, a beautiful story of repentance and grace is overtaken by words describing Jonah as petulant, juvenile, and stubborn. At the heart of our discussion is the question, “why is Jonah such a jerk?” He is disobedient and inflexible, prone to tantrums, and lacks empathy. Since his entire purpose in life is to preach repentance, you’d think he’d be happy when people actually take his advice. But in this case, he doesn’t even want to give the Ninevites a chance.
In Jonah’s defense, realize that Israel was at war with the Assyrians. In all likelihood, Jonah probably had friends and families killed by the Assyrians. While it may be easy to agree with “love your enemies” in theory, it is quite another thing to live it. Asking Jonah to care about the Assyrians would be like asking a UCLA student to sincerely congratulate the USC quarterback who cheated to win the big game. Is this even possible?
I think the hardest thing about following Jesus is to hear what we are supposed to be in theory and then try to live it. And I don’t want to make light of Jonah’s bitterness. Terrible things happen–war, genocide, poverty, violence — and innocents suffer. So how do we find our way to a heart of mercy for horrific aggressors, like Assyrians and Trojans?
In most cases, nothing short of a miracle is required. Jonah received a big, wet wake-up call miracle in the form of a whale. This miracle propels Jonah into at least acting like he cares. Later, Jonah receives the leafy plant analogy miracle. Though the book of Jonah ends abruptly, I think that Jonah realized the hypocrisy of relishing God’s salvation and mercy to himself, and resenting it for others–after all, someone bothered to pen this story.
We all need miracles in our lives. In some cases the miracles are a as big as finding yourself unscathed by the mattress flying off the truck in front of you as you drive on the freeway at 70 mph. At other times, they are as small as you taciturn teen thanking you for a well made meal. If we keep our eyes open, we just might see Jesus working around us providing both alarms and analogies to wake us up to a heart of mercy, like a good cup of joe.