Seriously, Jonah? Why The Face!

by Michael Usey

As far as I am concerned, the book of Jonah has the best last line in the Bible: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh,” God says to Jonah, “that great city, in which there are more than a 120,000 persons who don’t know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” The End.  It’s what God wants to know from Jonah and the readers of this comedy, another in our summer series of Questions that God Asks.  Jonah is the only book in our Bible that ends with a question.

If it were not the end, however, I expect the next line would have been Jonah’s.  “No, you should not be concerned about Nineveh, no matter how many people and animals live there.  Not only do they not know their right hands from their left; they also do not know right from wrong nor the Lord God Almighty from a hole in the ground.  Wipe them out? That is what you told me you would do, and I told them.  Now do it!”

Jonah is a hard guy to defend, a racist who hated Assyrians. Called by God to prophesy to Nineveh, he got on the next boat headed in the opposite direction and nearly got everyone on board killed before God sent a taxi in the form of a whale to turn Jonah around and spit him in the right direction.  It was not just that Jonah was afraid to be a prophet.  He might have said okay if God had sent him someplace nearby like Jericho or Shechem, but Nineveh was simply out of the question.  It was the world capital of evil back then, the Assyrian Empire, now known as Iraq—which was as hostile to Israel then as it is now—and sending Jonah there was like sending a nobody from Tel Aviv to Syria to tell Bashar al-Assad he is going to hell.  

Jonah did not want any part of it: a) because he knew what usually happens to God’s messengers and b) because he had no desire to participate in Nineveh’s salvation.  If the city was going to hell, let it.  He was not going to intervene. But God had a different idea, which Jonah finally realized he was going to be part of whether he liked it or not.  

So the second time God sent him to Nineveh he went, not because he had a change of heart but because he knew he had no choice.  His only consolation was thinking how delicious it was going to be, pronouncing judgment on all those Ninevites.  They had devastated Jewish cities, tortured and  killed Jews.  They had deported those who survived and taken them home to become their maids and gardeners.  If Jonah was doomed to become their next victim, he would at least make sure he got in a few licks of his own before he went down.  Is any of this sounding familiar?

I have an image of him rolling into town for a big preaching revival.  He puts up his tent, sprinkles sawdust on the ground, arranges the wooden benches.  He spreads the word that there is a revival tonight, and as the time draws near he puts his big black Bible on the pulpit, tests the sound system, and waits for the crowds to arrive. And they do—thousands of them, with their children and servants and livestock.  Even the king is there, right there on the front row in his purple robes.  Jonah knows how evil they all are, how richly they deserve God’s judgment, and he cannot wait to get started.  He pulls out his white handkerchief and clears his throat.  “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” he shouts into the microphone, shaking his finger in the air.

That is it, the sum total of Jonah’s prophecy in the Bible: an eight-word sermon.  He might have been warming up to something considerably longer than that, but no one will ever know, because no sooner does he get that sentence out of his mouth than the whole city repents on the spot.  “Yes!” they shout.  “We believe!” The king orders a fast and leads them all out to change into sackcloth and ashes, and there stands Jonah all alone in his tent before he has even broken a sweat. 

Meanwhile, the Ninevites cry mightily to God, God decides to spare them after all, and the revival is proclaimed a howling success.  With one eight-word sermon, Jonah has accomplished more than all the other prophets put together.  He has converted the biggest city in the enemy empire.  He should be happy, right? But is he happy? No.  He is so angry he could die.  The last thing in the world Jonah wants is for the Ninevites to be spared.  He wants them all to go up in smoke and, more important than that, he wants to be right.  How do you suppose he felt, using up all his nerve to tell the Ninevites they have a little less than six weeks left on the face of the earth and then having God tap him on the shoulder to say, “Um, excuse me, Jonah, I changed my mind?”

Everyone in this story repents except Jonah.  The Ninevites repent, God repents, even the cows and the goats repent, but Jonah does not repent.  He slinks off to the outskirts of the city and hopes God will decide to destroy it after all, because he cannot accept the possibility that God’s idea of justice might not coincide with his own.

There is a divine sense of humor loose in this story, however, and even Jonah’s sulking cannot keep God from playing with him.  While Jonah sits hunkered down in his hut, watching the city hopefully for some sign of earthquake or fire, God appoints a castor oil bush to grow up over his head and shade him from the heat of the sun.  Jonah likes this very much.  He likes this as much as he did not like what happened in Nineveh, but his happiness is short-lived.  The next day God appoints a worm to attack the bush and Jonah once again threatens to die, as if this will ruin God’s day or something.  

Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” God asks him.  It is a trick question, although Jonah does not seem to notice.  If he says no, it really is not right for him to be so angry about the bush, then he is admitting that what happens to the bush or the Ninevites or to Jonah himself is really God’s business, not his own, and that the job of deciding how the world should be run is already filled.  And if he says yes, it is right for him to be angry about the bush, then he opens the way for God to compare the fate of the bush to the fate of a whole city full of people so that Jonah can, perhaps, get just a glimmer of his own pettiness.  “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”  “Yes,” Jonah says “angry enough to die.”

If you have never felt like that yourself, then you probably will not get the punch line of this story nor the one in the NT about the laborers in the vineyard who arrived last and were paid as much as those who arrived first.  Both stories poke a hard finger in the ribs of those of us who want God’s mercy for ourselves and God’s justice for other people.  We rejoice when undeserved blessings come our way.  Some of us even cook up reasons why we deserve them after all.  This little castor oil bush must be because God really liked the firm tone I took with the Ninevites.  How delightful! A small, unexpected bonus for my obedience.

Even when we know the blessings that come to us have been delivered to the wrong address, there are not many of us who will send them back.  We thank God and quickly carry them inside, but when we look out the window and see the delivery man carrying an identical package next door, to those really unpleasant people who sit on the porch pounding down beer after beer in broad daylight and whose children look like they belong on a UNICEF poster, well, we tend to resent that.  Undeserved blessings are only supposed to go to the deserving, apparently.

We are such scorekeepers, and God is not. When the Ninevites repent, and the people we judge most harshly receive the mercy of God, then it becomes painfully clear that there is something inherently unfair in the notion of grace.  God does not keep track of things the way we do.  God does not spend a lot of time deciding who is worthy and who is not, like we do.

God does not give any of us what we deserve but what we need, and it is hard—extremely  hard—to trust God’s judgment on that score.  I do not know a child in the world today who appreciates the favors a parent shows toward a brother or sister.  Never mind that the favored one is hurt, or sick, or lost.  There is a clock and a calculator in every child’s head.  Spend five minutes more on his homework than her homework; hand over a nickel more to this one than to that one and you know what comes next: “That’s not fair!”

No, it is not fair.  It is grace, and I do truly believe that those of us who get offended by the divine distribution of it have simply forgotten who we are.  We think we are the righteous prophets, sent to pronounce judgment on the scuzzy Assyrians.  We think we are the diligent, sober workers who deserve more than the shiftless drifters who show up an hour before quitting time.  That is how we see it, and we make the mistake of thinking that that is how God sees it too.

So, really, Jonah is ultimately about racism.  I have been reading, as I expect you have, I’m sure, and I’m realizing how much I don’t know about racism experientially. I want to understand what black people deal with, but I also know that it might break my heart.

  • I do not know what it is like to have nightmares of a church service that ends in murder.
  • I do not know what it is like to be the mother of a teenage son who is afraid because her son’s skin is the same color as the skin of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jamar Clark, and Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Sean Monterrosa.
  • I do not know what it is like to be an African American in a country where the president makes daily racist comments, and is building bigotry as a key part of his campaign.
  • I do not know what it is like to be a POC and know that the former Attorney General suggested that a white civil rights attorney was a traitor to his race for taking a voting rights case, and latest this AG is so corrupt that his entire law school condemned his actions.
  • I do not know what it is like to be a black citizen and wonder if our leadership is so excited about cancelling health insurance for 20 million people because of the race of a disproportionate number of those 20 million.
  • I do not know what it is like to be complimented on how articulate you are and wonder if that is a compliment only black people receive.
  • I do not know what it is like to drive knowing you are more likely to be pulled over by the police.
  • I do not know what it is like to be looked at with suspicion by store clerks because of the color of your skin.
  • I do not know what it is like to know that some people who have never met you do not want you living next door.
  • I do not know what it is like to fear that your child’s teacher expects less of your child.
  • I do not know what it is like to realize that some of the churches that sing “In Christ there is no east or west” would not welcome you.
  • I do not know what it is like to truly hear the shameful silence of white Christians.

White people in the United States have been making the mistake Jonah made. We have pretended to understand more than we understand. We have pretended the problem is not as bad as it is. We have pretended that it is not about us. Now we are lost and do not even know the language to get home. 

When people cry out at injustice it is tempting to act like we do not understand what they are saying. We keep our distance from tragedy. Who wants to cry if they do not have to? It is easier to act like racism is not as horrible as it is. The history books are only beginning to be honest about racism. From the terror of slavery to lynching, to Jim Crow laws, to separate-but-equal, to the insults of prejudice, to stop-and-frisk, and to injustices large and small. The pain is connected by the thread of racism that pervades educational systems, economic structures, and institutions like churches. Racism has helped a lot of people get rich and destroyed others’ lives. Many of us have accumulated wealth that was supported by discrimination in education, housing, and banking. Racism is ingrained in our politics and policies. Thousands of unjust killings have gone unheard and unseen by white America. 

But now cellphones have made it harder to ignore the racism that has simmered beneath the surface since our country’s beginnings. We have overwhelming evidence of the dangers of being black in our country. We have seen the killing of Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of white vigilantes eager to make a “citizen’s arrest” because Arbery supposedly fit the description of a burglary suspect. We have seen the murder of George Floyd, who died with a knee on his neck and his hands cuffed behind his back for nearly nine minutes, saying repeatedly, “I can’t breathe!” One lawyer’s website has 350 videos of African Americans being persecuted, because of their race. 

We can no longer pretend that these are stand-alone incidents. We cannot argue these murders were unfortunate events attributable to misunderstandings, because now we know better. These were not isolated, one-off occurrences. We have watched the videos, read the articles, and seen the protests. We have seen so much that we can no longer hope it is not that bad. Racism happens to people we can see and it has shaken us. We see people being oppressed and our hearts get heavier. George Floyd’s words feel prophetic. We can’t breathe. We have to imagine the suffering African Americans have endured. We have to see the racism that surrounds us. We have to be disturbed by it. We have to mourn, because this is not the world God intended. 

Our black siblings speak to us out of extraordinary endurance. There is hope in meaningful dialogue and hope for authentic change. The chants of “Black Lives Matter” speak to us. Many of the protesters have never been hurt by racism, but they are there because others have. There is hope in those who have gathered all over the world in peaceful protests. There is hope in the young people who are showing up, willing to share the pain, and working for hope. There is hope in NASCAR banning confederate flags. That would have been unthinkable six months ago. There is hope in the truths of our faith, that forgiveness heals our hearts, and that we belong to each other. We hope and pray that things are changing. We have such a long way to go. We may feel lost, but God gives us the hope that will help us find our way home. God will help us know how to hope even when it is hard.

What God asks Jonah is this: Can you live without hatred, without prejudice?  What we cannot know is that maybe—just maybe—from where God sits, we are all a mess.  Some of us clean up better than others and some of us have figured out how to manage our fears by doing good works, but when you get right down to it, we are all Ninevites, only I do not think God would put it like that, because those are human labels full of human judgments.  From where God sits, I expect we look more like hurt, sick, lost children, all of us in deep need of mercy.  Is it right for us to be angry? If Nineveh is spared, who won’t shout hallelujah? Only those who do not know who they are.  The rest of us will be down in Nineveh at the party, whooping it up with all the other folks who do not know their right hands from their left, and also many animals.

[Several parts of this sermon were adapted from sermons by Barbara Brown Taylor & Brett Younger.]