We have all heard of people being angry at God for injustice and suffering. Perhaps you have been there yourself. But have you ever heard of people being angry with God for being too merciful? Of course we are disgusted when we see suffering and calamity. But is it possible to be disgusted at the site of healing and blessing? The book of Jonah tells the story of such an individual.
Upon receiving the assignment from God to go preach to the people of Ninevah, Jonah spins on his heels and runs in the opposite direction. You see, the people of Ninevah were Assyrians. They were not Israelites. They were outside the circle of the “chosen people of God”. They were pagan sinners. No, Jonah could not, no he would not go preach to them. Despite his arrogance and rebellion, Jonah is in the end forced to go speak God’s message to the Ninevites. Through clenched teeth, he delivers an extremely minimalist message of judgement. And yet, lo and behold, Jonah’s godless audience is broken hearted and turns from their evil ways.
The story is full of deep ironies that defy many of our clean cut expectations. The prophet runs from God, defies God and insults God. The “godless pagans” prove to be most sensitive to their faults and penitent upon hearing God’s message to them. Forgiveness and mercy fall upon those outside of the circle of the “chosen people of God”. Judgement and difficulty falls upon the one who is supposedly closest to God.
At the end of the day Jonah is left sitting in the dusty desert dirt, his heart full of anger, his lips spiting suicidal curses. It just can’t be that the mercy of God falls upon these “outsiders”. It just can’t be that they proved to be more sensitive to God’s call than God’s own chosen people Israel, who at the same time were living in rebellion against God’s word.
Or can it?
To this day, the Jews have an interesting tradition connected to this story. As the the book is read out loud, they proclaim to themselves, “We are Jonah!”. At the heart of the story, we are faced with the collision of the prejudiced pride of the human heart and the untamable mercy of God. It rips off our masks. It exposes the fact that deep down, we all share a common tendency to self exaltation at the expense of others. And that tendency can often drive us to wild and even blood thirsty extremes.
Are you better than the white supremacist Nazi? Are you more worthy of blessing and mercy in your life than he is? If so, you have just elevated yourself above him. You have put yourself into a different category of humanity. A better category. A higher category. You have done the very thing you accuse him of doing. You are no different. I am no different. We all stomp and scream when things don’t go our way. And yet we often easily overlook the times when calamity strikes our neighbor. After all, he looks so different that I do. She is a liberal. He is a fundamentalist. She is of a different religion. He dresses weird. She talks funny.
We are Jonah.
There is one thing that defies us all in this mess of pride and prejudice: the mercy of God. As we read the story we may be blindly disgusted at Jonah right? But God isn’t. God forgives the wicked city Ninevah. But he also sits in the dirt with Jonah and talks to him. “Why are you angry Jonah? Are you doing the right thing here?” At the end of the day it is the mercy of God that triumphs. The God of the Bible is the God who is on mission to heal and to save. And not even the hard religious heart of Jonah is beyond his reach.