Over at Inhabitatio Dei Halden’s recent post Be Kind to the Wicked provides a commentary on the “love your enemy” passages in Luke and Matthew and the work of Will Campbell. I find this commentary to resonate quite a bit with what takes place in the book of Jonah. The book essentially takes place in two parallel parts. In the first half Jonah refuses to take God’s message to Nineveh and flees with some pagan sailors. He finds himself in a severe storm and lots are cast to see who is at fault for the storm. It is Jonah’s lot and he takes responsibility for it telling them to throw him overboard in order to spare their lives. The pagan sailors at first refuse and try to row to land in vain. So they cry out to Jonah’s God (Elohim is used in the Hebrew) “O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, for you have done as you pleased.”(1:14) With that they throw Jonah overboard and “they offered sacrifices to the Lord and made vows to him.”(1:16) God then provides a “great fish” to rescue Jonah.
In chapter 2, from inside the fish, Jonah prays to the Lord: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.” (2:8-9) Now, this is all fine and good except that Jonah perceives his recent experience as personal salvation that was offered to him because he is not a pagan. But, as we find out in the second half of the book, God’s mercy/kindness is extended to all people, including the pagans Jonah has long forgotten about.
God shows both Jonah and the sailors mercy/kindness. Jonah is rescued via a whale and praises God saying ” takes the blame for the storm, tells the sailors to throw him overboard. The sailors, interestingly enough praises God for God’s mercy/kindness. The second time he begrudgingly heads to Nineveh gives a 2 minute speech and then climbs up to wait for God to destroy these unfaithful and unrighteous people. The people of Nineveh, unexpectedly, repent and turn to God who shows them mercy/kindness. What’s interesting is that we find Jonah upset and angry with God. Jonah was not ready to receive God’s goodness along with all peoples.
The second time God sends Jonah to Nineveh, Jonah obeys. When he gets to the city he says one line “forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” and next thing we know he’s sitting east of the city watching and waiting for God to destroy Nineveh. Jonah’s idea of justice is in line with the Old Testament view and not all that different from what we want and pursue. That is, the righteous are blessed; the wicked suffer. Which is why Jonah becomes very angry with God when he sees the king of Nineveh issuing a decree to repent and confess and call upon Jonah’s God that He might spare them. And that is exactly what happened. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”(3:10)
Jonah is furious. In my Bible the heading for the chapter is appropriately entitled “Jonah’s Anger at the Lord’s Compassion.” And isn’t this how we too find ourselves? Chapter 4 begins with an interesting conversation between Jonah and God: “Jonah prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”(4:2-3) Jonah knew that God was gracious, which is why he didn’t obey God in the first place. He didn’t want the Ninevites to receive God’s salvation. He wanted to make history come out a certain way by redirecting God’s kindness to circumvent the pagan city. Does this sound familiar? As Christians we’re certainly good at offering kindness to each other, but even the tax collectors do that. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Be kind to the wicked. The problem isn’t that we don’t actually believe that this is what Jesus requires of us, but that we either choose to apply it only in banal enmity (i.e. we tell our kids in Sunday school that loving your enemies means being nice to the kids in your class at school who aren’t cool) or, we try to get around Jesus’ call all together in pursuit of justice (i.e. we take up the state’s view of justice regarding crime when we support the imprisonment of even major offenders).
What is God’s response? He creates a vine to give Jonah shade and then sends a worm to destroy it. Then God asks: “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” Jonah said. “I am angry enough to die.” But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (4:9-11) The chapter ends on a question which is posed to the reader. Should I not be concerned about the sailors on the boat? Should I not be concerned about the Nineveh? Should I not be concerned about major offenders? Should I not be concerned about the KKK? The sailors on the boat and the people of Nineveh understood their salvation in a way that Jonah did not. Jonah, more or less, expected God’s mercy. He thought he had a grasp on the character of God which is why he disobeyed in the first place. His prediction was correct, but what he was not able to accept was that he and the pagans were rescued from the same boat, the same storm; God’s kindness extends to all people, and not more to some and less to others. In the end, the pagans seem to understand this while Jonah simply cannot.