If it were not for the coronavirus, which has forced us to shorten our services, we would have a reading from the Old Testament every Sunday, and today’s would have been a passage from the Book of Jonah.
I have always liked the parable about Jonah – not the part about the big fish (it never was a whale!), but the part about how angry he gets with God, and how that turns out for him.
The story begins with a prophet named Jonah, who is identified in the Second Book of Kings [14:25] as “a son of Amittai.” He lives during the reign of King Jeroboam in northern Israel, about 800 years before Christ – not far from Nazareth. This Jonah encouraged the king to reclaim some territory and restore Israel’s borders. That’s all the history we know about him.
But the later book, part of Jewish wisdom literature, tells another, more detailed story about this same Jonah. There are four chapters in the little book – and they are like four acts of a play.
In the first act, Jonah hears the voice of the Lord, and it tells him to go to Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capital of a great empire, one that was the long-time enemy of Israel. Its ruins can be found today in Iraq, across the Tigris River from the modern city of Mosul.
God tells Jonah to go warn his country’s worst enemy that God is going to destroy them in 40 days unless they repent.
Jonah is delighted to know this. Nothing would make him happier than for God to destroy Nineveh. But the idea that he should travel hundreds of miles across a desert to that enemy’s city, and warn them, is just unbelievable to him. God must be crazy!
So Jonah goes in exactly the opposite direction. Nineveh is to the east, so Jonah travels west.
He boards a ship headed for a place called Tarshish. Now, as far as scholars can tell, there never was such a city. It may have just been a catch-word that was used to mean “the farthest end of the world,” which for Jonah was the western border of the Mediterranean.
In other words, Jonah decides to go as far as he can to refuse to do God’s bidding.
A terrible storm comes up. The sailors—always a superstitious bunch—draw lots and discover that the cause of the storm is that Jonah refused to obey God. Admitting his sin, he is thrown overboard and gets swallowed by a large fish.
Curtain. End of Act One.
The second chapter of the Book of Jonah is a lovely prayer of thanksgiving, in which Jonah sits in the fish’s belly and prays. Chapter 2, verse 5, is almost poetic in its language:
“The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head.”
And after three days and three nights, the fish spits Jonah out onto dry land.
End of Act Two.
The first thing that happens in Act Three is that God tells Jonah again
to go to Nineveh and warn the people there. At this point, Jonah still doesn’t want to do what God commanded, but he figures he had better go along, lest something even worse happen to him.
When he arrives at the city and delivers God’s message, Jonah is pretty sure he will be arrested immediately and either killed or locked up as a crazy man.
But instead, the people believe his warning, and the king, who hears Jonah’s warning, tears his garments and proclaims a fast of repentance.
God hears the prayers of the people of Nineveh and spares the city.
And that’s Act Three.
Act Four takes place after all this. Chapter 4 begins with the words,
“But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
Jonah proceeds to tell God off, in words like these: “I told you this would happen. You had the chance to destroy one of our worst enemies, and instead you sent me to warn them. And of course, they listened, so you spared them. You might as well kill me right now.”
God doesn’t do that, though.
The only response Jonah gets from God is a question:
“Is it right for you to be angry?” [Jonah 4:4] Meaning, “go think about it.”
So Jonah leaves the city and sits down in the desert outside the gates and waits to see what will happen to Nineveh. I guess he might have hoped that they would displease God again and this time be wiped out.
And God causes a nice, big bush to spring up and provide shade for Jonah, which makes Jonah happy. But the very next morning, God sends a worm that kills the bush, so Jonah is left baking in the hot sun. At this point, Jonah is so exasperated that he asks God to let him die.
But God has also just about had his fill of Jonah. “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”
And Jonah answers back, “Yes, angry enough to die.”
Then the Lord hits him with it:
“You are concerned about the bush that you didn’t even plant. 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?”
So let’s recap.
- God tells Jonah to warn Nineveh.
- Jonah runs away instead.
- God brings him back and tells him again.
- Jonah reluctantly warns Nineveh, then leaves.
- God give Jonah a bush for shade and then takes it away.
- Jonah asks God to just kill him.
- And God hits Jonah with the divine logic that is the whole point of the parable.
Do you know what that logic is?
Well, let’s hold that thought for a moment.
In today’s Gospel story – another parable, Jesus tells us about a man who hires workers all day long.
At the end of the day, those who worked the longest expect to get paid the most, but the man pays everyone the same. And of course, the workers who worked all day, complain.
The man who hired them, speaking for God, says, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” [Matthew 20:15]
And Jesus concludes with a reminder, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” [Matthew 20:16]
Now, God’s point becomes clear, or at least a little clearer.
The lesson for today, which probably needs to be repeated every day is this:
God’s ways are not man’s ways. God is always merciful, loving, just, and generous.
Even when our “common sense” would tell us to do one thing, God’s sense of justice says to do just the opposite:
Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.
Even when our “logic” tells us that things should work a certain way, God’s logic turns that right around on us:
Blessed are the poor. The first shall be last.
This is one reason why I love the prayer that we began with this morning:
“Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly;
and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to hold fast to those that shall endure.” [The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 234]
If we want to understand God, if we want to live the way God wants us to live, then we need to stop being anxious about earthly things that pass away.
In the whole scheme of things, does it really matter who has served God the longest, or whom God decides to save? What business is that of ours anyway?
We need to focus all our attention on things heavenly, and to hold fast to the things that will endure.
And that means learning to live with God’s view of things, God’s justice, God’s logic, and learning to put aside our selfish, self-centered, self-important ideas.
And we can…
with God’s help.