"Jonah: Lingering Questions"
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Jonah: Lingering Questions”
Rev. Amy Morgan
September 27, 2020
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
NRS Jonah 4:1
1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.
2 He prayed to the LORD and said, "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.
3 And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."
4 And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?"
5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6 The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush
7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.
8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die than to live."
9 But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die."
10 Then the LORD said, "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
11 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?"
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are comfortable with incomplete information…
Jonah is a book for those people. Those people who don’t need certainty and concrete answers. Those people who are into “living the questions,” as poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. Those people who know that asking the right question is often more important than giving the right answer.
Jonah is one of only two books in the Bible that ends with a question. And it is the only one that ends with a question directly from God. Interestingly, the other book that ends with a question is the prophet Nahum, a prophet primarily concerned with the same city as Jonah: Nineveh. Nahum asks the city, “who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” while God inquires of Jonah, “should I not be concerned about Nineveh?”
And that is the fundamental tension of this whole story. A city that is cruel and merciless and wicked, whose brutality knows no bounds. And a God who is “gracious…and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” whose compassion knows no bounds. These two things cannot be held together, not in the mind of Jonah anyway, not in our human comprehension of justice and righteousness.
This final question from God makes it clear that God did not spare Nineveh the destruction Jonah had prophesied (and hoped for) because of their penitent behavior. They did not change God’s mind with their belief and repentance. God just realized they had no idea what the heck they were doing. God took pity on their livestock, and God saw they were like children, doing what they thought was right, what they knew how to do, even if it was terribly wrong.
But this all makes Jonah steaming mad. The word translated here as “angry” literally means “burning nostrils,” like in those cartoons with an angry bull with steam coming out of his nose. God’s merciful and loving nature is not a comfort to Jonah, who would have much preferred a god of judgment and vengeance who would be merciful to Israel, and the rest of the people in the region, by destroying Nineveh.
While it would be easy to cast Jonah as inflexible, merciless, and judgmental, we forget that Nineveh was really a terrible city, the capital of a ruthless and violent empire. God’s compassion for Nineveh was like letting a murderer off the hook or setting a rapist free. These were actually bad people who did bad things and deserved punishment. Jonah wanted the death penalty, the nuclear bomb of God’s wrath. And he wasn’t unjustified in that desire. So yeah, he got steamed.
And then God asks him the first of three questions. “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah doesn’t even dignify the question with an answer. Is it right for him to be angry? Is God kidding with this question? Don’t we have a right to be angry when people don’t get what they deserve? When life isn’t fair? When the evil prosper? Obviously, Jonah has a right to be angry!
But does Jonah’s right to his anger make his anger right? We all have a right to our feelings. But that doesn’t mean our feelings are always right.
Early in my ministry, I attended a meeting about adding youth elders to the Session. This seemed like a positive move, something no one could object to. The church had ordained youth elders in the past, but had lapsed recently. But in the middle of the discussion, one women objected vehemently. She proceeded to denounce anyone who would support this initiative and to attack me personally and painfully.
I went home from the meeting with my nostrils burning. I’d never been so mad in my life. This woman’s vitriol was senseless and baseless. I’d been hurt, and I raged for the youth whose gifts would go unrecognized and unutilized in the church. I got hot every time I saw this woman and couldn’t speak to her for months.
But then, out of nowhere, she came up to me during the passing of the peace on a Sunday morning. She didn’t apologize or even acknowledge that she might have hurt me or damaged our ministry. Instead, she started pouring out, with tears, the experience she’d been going through with breast cancer, with her father-in-law’s illness, with her children’s challenges as they transitioned into adulthood, with her own sense of loss around that transition.
And I realized that, as much as I’d had a right to be angry, my anger wasn’t right. She lashed out at me and at the youth out of her own pain and despair. She didn’t know what she was doing or the effect it had on others. And as I listened to her suffering, my anger gave way to compassion. From then on, I was known on the church staff as the only person who could get that woman to smile, and she became one of my fiercest advocates.
Jonah has a right to his anger. But his anger doesn’t help him or the Ninevites. He storms off out of the city. He puts distance between “those people” and himself. He objectifies the city by watching it from the outside. He sets himself up as judge. He cuts off conversation with God. Jonah’s anger drives an even deeper wedge between him and God, and between him and the people of Nineveh.
While determining when the book of Jonah was written is a near-impossibility, it is possible that the earliest readers of this story knew what happened to Nineveh in the end. If they repented, it didn’t last long. They directed the Assyrian Empire as it went on to murder and plunder. The Assyrians destroyed the capital of Northern Israel and carried its inhabitants off into slavery and exile.
But eventually, Nineveh got what was coming to it. About a hundred years after Israel fell to Assyria, Nineveh was utterly destroyed by a Babylonian-led coalition.
Is it possible that if Jonah had stayed in Nineveh, the story might have ended differently? If Jonah had heard the cries of the people, if he had listened to the suffering that prompted them to violence and wickedness, to callous evil, that maybe his anger, even a little of it, could have given way to compassion? Is it possible that he could have helped the Ninevites in their reformation, making it last, saving not only them but all the cities who would later fall victim to their relapsed wickedness?
We’ll never know. This is one of the many lingering questions this book leaves us with.
The second question God asks Jonah is again about anger. God appoints a bush to miraculously sprout up and provide Jonah great delight. Then God appoints a worm to destroy the bush, which causes Jonah to become angry again. And God asks, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?"
Again, Jonah has a right to his anger. But is his anger right? Both times Jonah’s anger flares up, he asks for death. As scholar Erica Brown writes, Jonah “was angry unto death, and we feel his burning desire to leave the world, to put an end to a universe that always disappointed with its shabby notions of justice and its half-baked transformations. Instead Jonah sought a place of extremity, and island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. Jonah was not prepared, despite God’s prompting, to make his peace with a world not to his theological liking.”
When the world does not conform to our theological liking, when the good don’t end happily and the bad unhappily, when something we love or find pleasurable is suddenly and senselessly taken away, we are not any more prepared than Jonah to make peace with it.
The political rhetoric is ratcheting up such that both sides are convinced that the outcome of November’s election will result in the losing side taking up arms. Our anger is convincing us that we’d rather die than live in a world where our enemy can prosper. As wildfires continue to destroy millions of acres of trees, for which we did not labor and we did not grow, we are angry at whomever we can think of to blame for these catastrophes – people who deny climate science, government agencies or policies, people who are careless with fire – we can all take our pick.
We have a right to our anger. But is our anger right? Is it helping anybody? Is it helping us live the one, beautiful life that is ours to live? Is it helping anyone around us to make a lasting transformation?
God’s questions to Jonah continue to linger in our lives.
But God has one final question for Jonah. “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?" This question is asked in the context of God’s observation that Jonah had compassion for a plant, a plant that was not his own creation, a plant that was so transient and insignificant that it lived and died in a day. Jonah cared about something. Could he not understand that God cares about lots of things? God draws a clear connection between Jonah’s feelings toward the plant and God’s feelings toward Nineveh. The speed of Nineveh’s turnaround mirrors the speed of the plant’s rise and demise. Both God’s statement and the following question use the same Hebrew word for pity. If Jonah can pity a plant, should God not pity a whole population? Should God not be concerned about Nineveh?
And that’s where the story ends. Not “happily ever after.” Not with a clear and tidy moral. Not with all the loose ends tied up. The story of Jonah ends with a lingering question.
Should God not be concerned with Nineveh? Should God not be concerned with our enemies? With those who hurt us or oppress others? With those who are wicked and evil?
Tonight at sundown, the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur begins. Yom Kippur is the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement. The day is devoted to communal repentance for sins committed over the course of the previous year. And the Biblical text that is featured on Yom Kippur is the Book of Jonah.
For the Jewish people, God’s lingering question draws them into repentance and reminds them of God’s steadfast love and grace. They follow the example of the Ninevites, participating in acts of penitence. After an accounting of sins has been made, this story serves as a reminder that their sins will not stand between them and a loving and merciful God. God’s questions to Jonah in this story encourage them to wrestle with that tension between a humanity capable of boundless evil and a God who is defined by boundless compassion, and who invites us to share in that compassion.
While the Christian season of atonement, Lent, seems impossibly far off, we might do well to join with our Jewish neighbors in their holy observance. We might do well to examine our anger, to atone for our callousness, to repent of our apathy. We might do well to wrestle with the lingering questions Jonah’s story leaves us with. They are not easy questions. They don’t have simple answers. But they might just move our story forward toward a better end. Amen.