Jonah and the Plant – 7/11/10 – Jonah 3-4

Here’s a fun exercise to keep us in a worshipful mode.  Imagine yourself up on an elevated place, a perch, overlooking a large group of people.  This group is composed entirely of all the people in the world who give you the most trouble.  People who make you mad, annoy you, rub you completely the wrong way.   Colleagues who talk behind your back, neighbors who aren’t so neighborly, politicians you disagree with, family members who belittle you. 

In this crowd that you are observing are the people who have most hurt you and caused you and your loved ones harm.  Playground bullies, verbal and physical abusers, anyone who has ever stolen from you or intentionally ripped you off, those whose judgmental and accusatory voices you find yourself still fighting with.  You get the picture.  From your perch, you can survey all of them and call to mind specific instances where they have harmed you.

If you’re still feeling a worshipful attitude, I don’t think you’re doing the exercise right.  Anger would probably be the more appropriate attitude.  

In my little world, one of the members of my crowd is a guy named Andrew.  I met Andrew the spring of our last year in Elkhart, soon after Eve was born and we were trying to get things all in line for moving on to our next place of residence, which happened to be Cincinnati.  Andrew sold me a used car.  I had met him through an ad in the paper, gone to see his car, given it a test drive and asked him the typical series of questions that one wants answered when purchasing a vehicle.  He said the car had been in the family for a while and that they were its second owners, that the car had never given them any troubles and ran great.  We agreed on a price, shook hands, and a couple days later we gave him the check and he gave us the keys to the car.  Andrew got the better end of the deal, and he knew it as soon as he had the check in hand.  After driving the car for about a week, less than 100 miles, one of the cylinders in the engine froze up, making the car virtually undriveable.  The verdict from both mechanics I took it to was that the engine block had cracked however long ago and that someone…had put a temporary sealant in the system to make it run a little bit longer.  About 100 miles longer as far as I could tell.  The price of the repair was just as much as the original price of the car, not something we were planning on, given our life situation at that point.  Andrew wasn’t too pleased when I finally got a hold of him and told him about what had happened, was not agreeable to even a partial refund, and chose not to show up for a small claims court hearing.  He still has the money and I still have him as a member of that group of people who have done me wrong. 

Someone at seminary joked that some day this would make a good sermon illustration, which I did not take as a very funny joke.  I think there’re plenty of other examples out there of people getting ripped off and I’d rather not have my own, thank you very much!

That perch is not the most enjoyable place to be, but it’s one that we choose to visit from time to time.  Remembering, stewing, watching the person with our minds eye.  So what is it that we are doing up there?  Maybe having an imaginary conversation with the person where we back them into a corner with our wit and sharp tongue.  Maybe waiting for them to tell us they’re sorry and that they want to make it up to us.  Maybe watching and hoping that they’ll fail or be hurt in a similar way we were.  Maybe, on our better days, pondering what forgiveness looks like and trying to loosen the grip that they still hold over us. 

This imaginary, but real, perch, is a location that shows up in the story of Jonah and is actually the place where Jonah is left sitting at the open-ended parting words of the story.  It’s the final, unresolved scene when the curtains go down on Jonah the prophet.

The more I read these Old Testament stories, the more convinced I am that the writers were laughing as they wrote many of them.  The humor isn’t always apparent for those of us who are used to hearing them read in a serious way, but the more I study and try to understand the Hebrew imagination behind these stories, the more apparent the playfulness and comical nature of what is being told.  Balaam’s talking donkey and the ridiculously large and pompous statue of King Nebuchadnezzar, the stories from the last two weeks, are nice examples of this.  Entering this Jonah story, I was already aware of the humor of this story, the irony, the playful nature of portraying a prophet of God called to preach repentance to a people he despises, fighting God all the way, getting swallowed up and barfed out by that famous fish who saves his life and gives him another chance at his mission.

I was ready for the humor.  The part I wasn’t ready for, hadn’t anticipated noticing as much as I did, was the anger also present in this story – Jonah’s anger at the possibility of God extending mercy to these people he despises so much.  The story almost becomes something like Jonah’s anger vs. God’s mercy.  

Jonah, as we have heard, is called to preach to the people of Nineveh.  Nineveh was the capital city of the nation of Assyria, the empire that ravaged the northern kingdom of Israel.  They were ruthless, cutthroat, and showed no mercy to captive peoples.  They were Israel’s bitter enemy.  But Jonah is commanded by God to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s word to them.  The story from today picks up where we are used to the story leaving off.  Jonah has already tried to sail the other way, been thrown into the sea during a violent storm, been delivered by the big fish, and been belched up on to the shore.  Now the word of the Lord comes to him a second time, and this time he heads to that great city, Nineveh.  That great, evil, wretched city that was the cause of so much of his people’s pain.   

He plods into the city, no doubt mulling over in his mind the message he’s going to preach to these wicked Ninevites.  After a long day, he finally finds a good street corner with a nice soapbox, stands up and preaches his gem of a sermon that he’s been preparing this whole time, which turns out to be a one line zinger:  “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” – only five words in Hebrew.  That’s the extent of the word of the Lord that he delivers.  He most likely did not have to use notes, most likely did not end by saying “The Lord bless you and keep you…”  It might have been a fun sermon to deliver.  Watch out people, you’re about to get yours.  You’ve got some seriously bad karma heading your way, suckers.    

And then the worst possible thing happens.  The people of Nineveh pay attention to his sermon and actually believe him.  They go all out in repentance mode.  They throw a massive repentance fest.  They proclaim a fast.  Great and small, young and old, put on sackcloth.  The Twitter and Facebook feeds light up about this urgent action and the king quickly gets the message.  He steps down from his throne, takes off his robe, puts on the not-so-royal sackcloth, and sits in ashes, a sign of self-debasement and humility.  And he declares that no one in Nineveh can eat or drink anything, and that the sheep and the cows can’t eat or drink and are to put on sackcloth and cry out along with the people to God.  And everyone felt so strongly about the need to repent and fast that not even the local PETA chapter of Ninevah protested such a decree to the animals. 

And the king muses out loud this very intriguing line: “Who knows, but that God may turn and relent?  God may turn back from wrath, so that we do not perish.”  That phrase “turn and relent,” “yashuv venicham” is a tricky one to translate.  The NRSV suggests it could mean “God may relent and change God’s mind.”  There’s a theological conundrum for you.  God can change God’s mind, and people can have an influence on that – and fasting animals in sackcloth.

And then we get verse 10.  And this is my translation of that verse, in order to try and pick out some of the nuance of the language.

“And God saw what they did

how they were turning from the harm of their ways.

And God changed God’s mind

regarding the harm which God had announced to do against them.

And did not do it.”        

Most preachers I know would be quite pleased having delivered a one line sermon that changes the world.  Jonah could have returned home a happy prophet, riding the momentum of his astonishingly successful speech, taken up a tenure position at Jerusalem University and taught homiletics the rest of his career – how to compose a sermon that will bring an empire, and its animals, to their knees.  Aspiring prophets from around the nation would flock to sit at his feet to learn from his wisdom.

But this is not the Jonah we know.  As the story goes, this turn of events was displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.  The word for “displeasing” is the same root as “harm” in the previous verse.  The Hebrew word “Ra.”  This all was “Ra” to Jonah.  The Ninevites turn from their harmful ways, God relents of doing any harm, and all of this causes great harm to Jonah.  He is enraged, not because he is surprised at what has happened, but because this is exactly what he knew what going to happen.  So he gives God a great big, “I told you so” rant.  “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.”  And then he gets quite dramatic: “And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  Then I like God’s response translated by the JPS, Jewish Publication Society.  “Are you that deeply grieved?”  Uhhhhh…really Jonah?

This is where the part about being up on the perch comes in.  Jonah sulks out of the city, past inner and outer ring suburbs, finds a perch overlooking the metropolis.  It must have been a week like this past one, because he builds a little shelter for himself so he can sit in its shade.  He is yet to give up on the ticking time bomb he declared to the city.  Maybe they’ll forget about their repentance and the whole place really will go up in flames in forty days.  If so, Jonah will have the best seat in the house to watch the fireworks.  He’ll just watch for a while. 

The Lord God, being the gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love God that he/she is, provides a bush, a plant, a vine, a gourd, whatever kind of plant a kikuyon is, to grow over Jonah’s head to give him shade to save him from his discomfort.  And there’s that word “Ra,” again.  Jonah is saved from his “Ra,” his discomfort.  And this makes Jonah quite pleased with himself and his good fortune of this shady plant.  Life really can be OK sometimes.  Now he has it made, cooling in the shade with a lemonade, cheering against the home team.  That they’ll strike out, screw up, do something evil and get the punishment they deserve. 

This is a good time for about a day.  Until God, who, as we know, always reserves the right to change plans, sends a little worm who attacks the plant so that it withers, just like our squash plant in our backyard this summer.  God flips the switch and shuts off the AC.  And not only that, but God sent a scorching wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and the ice in his cooler has all melted and he remembers how angry he is and how much he wants to die. 

And the Lord asks a familiar question, with a slight twist.  “Are you so deeply grieved…about the plant?”  And just so God knows exactly how he feels, Jonah assures God, “Yes.  Angry enough to die.”

There is certainly a way to read this that makes Jonah out to be a misguided counter-example to the faithful life, a drama-king so caught up in his own world that he is blind to God’s big picture of love and reconciliation.  He just doesn’t get it at all.  He is the victim of his own pettiness, preferring his own comfort to the well-being of an entire city.  God has delivered him, through the big fish, through calling on him a second time to carry out his mission, but he can only protest when God wants to deliver a repentant nation.  Jonah is a counter example to what we should be as agents of God’s mission.

I think this is a good reading.  But this week I was drawn to the legitimacy of Jonah’s anger.  His indignation that those who have brought such harm to him and his people are being let off the hook too easily and not getting the punishment they deserve.  Jonah has staked out his place up at that perch filled with unresolved rage watching this wicked city allowed to continue its life.  Protesting God’s mercy.

Has God acted justly toward Nineveh?  Has God acted unjustly toward Jonah?  God’s justice here is not what Detriech Bonhoeffer referred to as cheap grace.  The Ninevites must change their attitudes and their ways.  They must repent, completely turn around and become a new city.  That’s hard work, and sackcloth, I hear, is not so comfy.  But it’s just as hard for Jonah to accept that God longs to extend mercy to these wicked Ninevites.  It’s much easier for him to remain in his anger, his victimhood, his righteous indignation.

The story ends, as I mentioned unresolved.  It actually ends with a question.  God posing a question to Jonah who is still perched, still overlooking the city, still uncertain whether he can accept such mercy, still mad about the comforting little plant that shriveled.  God says, perhaps even pleading with Jonah, “You are concerned about the plant, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”  It’s a hard question to answer.  That’s the last line from the book of Jonah.  We’re not told how the prophet responded.