“The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all he has made.” From David’s pen in Psalm 145, that’s praise. On Jonah’s lips, it’s an indictment.
Which is telling, and should be sobering for us. We’ve talked about why Jonah thinks and feels this way; Israel is God’s chosen people, Assyrians are his enemies, which means that the Israelites are the good guys and the Assyrians the bad guys, and therefore mercy is for Israel, while the Assyrians are for judgment. The command to go give Nineveh a chance to repent, and thus to avoid judgment, violated his understanding of how things ought to be.
We understand that. Whether it’s that car that just cut us off, the person who just hurt someone we love, or that group of people who are advocating for causes and laws we find repugnant, we have our own Ninevites. I remember hearing Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood, a black Baptist preacher who founded a megachurch in Brooklyn, talk about receiving invitations to preach to white congregations and wanting to refuse, “because white folk been mean. They’re Ninevites, and I don’t like preaching to Ninevites.” Our Ninevites are different, but we understand the desire that those who we believe have done evil to us and ours should suffer the full consequences.
What should give us pause, though, is to realize just how far that desire has driven Jonah. In his self-righteous insistence on his own idea of justice, he has gotten to the point of criticizing God for being merciful—even when he himself is only alive to complain because of that same mercy. You can just hear it, can’t you? “God, I told you this would happen! Isn’t this exactly what I said was going to happen? This is why I ran away to sea, to try to keep you from making this mistake!” And on and on, until finally he declaims, “And now, O Lord, please kill me, for after this I’m better off dead.”
To borrow a phrase from Mark Driscoll, what we see here is Jonah the emotional counter-punching drama queen; but beneath the melodramatics, we also see just how far his heart is from God, how he has let his idea of what God ought to be like blind him to who God is. His worship has been taken over by arrogance and self-righteousness, to the point where he believes he has the right to keep God’s mercy for himself; though he had been forgiven much, he refused to forgive others, and was even presumptuous enough to object to God doing so.
As Jesus’ parable makes clear, such an attitude offends God; Jonah is now, for the second time, in exactly the same position as the Assyrians he despises: in rebellion against God. His rebellion is less severe than theirs, but no less real; once again, you can make the case that Jonah deserves death for his defiance, and once again, he invites death rather than submit. If God isn’t going to do things his way, he wants out.
Instead, for the second time, God in his difficult mercy spares his life. Rather than killing him, God merely asks, “Do you really have the right to be angry?” Jonah doesn’t answer; instead, he goes out east of the city and sits down to wait, hoping God will see reason and obliterate it. He builds a little booth for himself, but it doesn’t provide much shelter; so God commands a plant to grow over Jonah’s head and give him shade, easing his discomfort. But that night, God sends a worm to kill the plant, and with the sunrise he sends a hot east wind, so that Jonah’s discomfort is far worse than before; and once again, he prays for death.
Look at God’s response. He asks Jonah, “Do you really have the right to be angry about the plant?” This time, Jonah snaps back, “Yes—angry enough to die!” This plays right into God’s hands, as the Lord turns Jonah’s anger against him. “You’re angry about the plant,” God says, “but you never took care of it—you didn’t make it grow; it was here one day and gone the next. If you’re concerned about that plant, why shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh? I made Nineveh, and everyone in it—more than 120,000 people, who have never had the chance to learn right from wrong. Yes, they do evil, but I love them in spite of their sin. But you, even if you can’t spare a thought for them, at least think of all the animals who would die if I destroyed the city.”
And there the book leaves us, with God’s appeal hanging in the air and Jonah still sitting in his selfish bitterness and tribal arrogance. The mere fact of the book’s existence may suggest that Jonah grew up and learned what God was trying to teach him, but we really have no way of knowing—which means that we can’t move on with the story and leave God’s appeal behind us; we’re left to answer the question, not for Jonah, but for ourselves. We don’t get to leave this safely in the past, where the Assyrian Empire has been dust for millennia; we have to face our own Nineveh, and our own Ninevites.
I don’t know where Nineveh is for you. It’s for you to consider whom you resent, who angers you, against whom you’re holding a grudge; I won’t name the person in your life who not only deserves to be judged, but whom you want to see judged—and quite frankly, I’m not going to tell you they don’t deserve it. But you know, even if they’re every bit as bad as you think, we still have God’s question ringing in our ears: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?” And behind that question, we hear the voice of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for”—catch this—“for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” In other words, “I made the Ninevites, too; I sent them the sun and the rain, and I sent my Son to die and rise again for them just as much as for you. Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?”
God doesn’t try to convince us that our enemies aren’t that bad; he doesn’t try to get us to understand them or sympathize with them; he doesn’t, in fact, do anything to minimize the scandal of what he asks of us. He simply says, “Love them. Bless them. Turn the other cheek, pray for them, and work for their well-being. Yes, they’re your enemies, yes, they hurt you; remember how I dealt with my enemies: I died for them. You were my enemy; I died for you. No, they don’t deserve it. Love them anyway.”