Jonah 4:1-11; Matthew 11:25-30
5th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 09.07.2023 (8am)
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Last week, we resumed the story of Jonah. Having run from God’s call to go to the city of Nineveh and preach the offer of salvation, a storm hits the ship he is sailing on, that only abates once he is thrown overboard. Swallowed by a fish, he prays to God. He is spat out on dry land, and this time, heads to Nineveh, where he preaches a message that remarkably sees the whole city repent of its evil ways and receive the love and forgiveness of God. It is a wonderful story of God’s abundant grace.
The story could easily finish there, with God’s grace and love being poured out on the city of Nineveh but it doesn’t. Just like the parable Jesus told of the prodigal son where he didn’t just tell of the one son, the son who returned and was joyously forgiven by his father, but tells the story of the older son too, the one who is resentful that his brother should return and be forgiven so readily, so the story of Jonah ends not with the forgiven Ninevites, but with a resentful and very grumpy Jonah.
The ending of the story confronts us with two unpalatable aspects of Jonah’s character: a lack of generosity and mercy, and a lack of perspective.
Let’s take that lack of generosity and mercy first. Jonah is furious with God for forgiving the Ninevites. He sees it as a calamity, an outrageous injustice, indeed an evil act. He felt Nineveh deserved to be destroyed, to be crushed, and instead it is saved. So he goes off in an almighty huff.
Even as we receive God’s grace for ourselves, and Jonah just a few days previously had been praying a prayer of thanks to God for his own forgiveness as he sat inside the big fish, there is a part of us that can resent God extending that grace to others. We can want those who have wronged us to receive their comeuppance, not to receive forgiveness. It could be a colleague at work who seems to undermine us at every turn; or a neighbour who is less than neighbourly; or a person here at church who annoys and upsets us; or a member of our family from whom we have become estranged. Jonah reflects a very human part of ourselves – the part that wants justice/ vengeance when we feel wronged – and that struggles to see the other person as God himself sees them.
It is easy to view God’s mercy to us as a right to which we are entitled, but his mercy to others as something that should be conditional and only reluctantly given. But as Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” If we want to live lives of judgment, then we need to be open to God’s judgment on us. If we want God to be merciful to us, then we must be merciful to others too. Let us be merciful, as our father in heaven is merciful to us.
But Jonah is not only resentful and unmerciful. He lacks any sense of perspective, of what really matters.
God gently tries to alert Jonah to this. As he sits fuming outside the city, God prompts a vine to grow to give him shade. When the next day, the vine dies and Jonah’s shade is gone, he claims he is so angry about it that he wants to die. Its the kind of response that is so blatantly over-the-top, Jonah is so focused in on himself, that it would probably have prompted most of the story’s listeners to burst out laughing. Jonah’s behaviour is absurd. But its the kind of absurdity that most observational comedy is based on. What makes comedians such as Michael MacIntyre or Peter Kay funny is that they hold a mirror up to ourselves and show us how we so often are. And the story of Jonah is the same. For in the humour of it all, we may possibly just catch a glimpse of ourselves. Like Jonah, we can get so caught up in what we think are our own needs, what we think are our rights, that we lose perspective on what really matters, we fail to see the bigger picture of God’s grace in the world, a grace that seeks to reach out to all people with his love and compassion.
No one had told Jonah to go out of the city and sit in the baking sun. That was his decision. The plant is a gift of God’s grace – unsought, unasked for and not thanked for – and yet its loss prompts a torrent of anger. Our lives, like Jonah’s, become impoverished when we begin to take good things as rights that we own and are entitled too rather than gifts of grace that we are grateful for but hold lightly too. When we become consumed by our own needs and comforts, it it becomes much harder to care for the needs of others.
I wonder too that if Jonah had spent more time with the people of Nineveh and more time praying for them whether his lack of perspective would have changed. He raced through this enormous city in three days, delivering the briefest of sermons – eight words in total! – and with no hint of prayer or engagement, and then removed himself from them. Spending time with those whom we find difficult, regularly praying for them, helps us to see their needs, indeed helps us to begin to love those people. Would Jonah have been so angry about his shade then? I doubt it.
The Jonah story has an unusual ending, and with this I too will end. It finishes in mid-conversation with a question that we never hear the answer to. God asks Jonah whether He does not indeed have the right to be concerned about the thousands of people living in Nineveh. We never get to hear Jonah’s reply. Does he storm off in anger and catch the next boat to Tarshish? Or does he stay in Nineveh, and gradually discover within himself the love that God has for these people? We don’t know. The question is left hanging in the air, for us to answer about our own lives. What will we choose? Tarshish or Nineveh? Judgment or mercy? Our desires or others’ needs? Hatred or love?
It is left to each of us to write the next chapter of this remarkable story.