Poor, petulant Jonah. If he couldn’t give the Ninevites hell, he wanted to at least give them purgatory.
I’ve done all of this work, he said, endured all of this drama: the running away the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the getting thrown to the whale with its gnashing teeth, swallowed from the sea and spit up on the shore. I’ve worked hard for my redemption. And now I come here and say “Repent” and they put on a bit of sackcloth and ashes and you forgive them. I knew you’d do that. It’s just what you would do. Forgive them.
Rabbinical commentaries suggest that some of the reasons Jonah ran away from the assignment that God had given him were the fear that if the Gentile people of Nineveh repented, it would make the Israelites look bad, sitting back in their own sin. Or if the Ninevites repented and God forgave them, after Jonah had threatened them with hellfire and destruction, it would make Jonah look bad, like a false prophet full of empty threats. Jonah was afraid to rescue Nineveh from destruction, because he was worried that their redemption would reflect poorly on him.
I am not sure that Jonah had thought it all through. It would be difficult to paint a less sympathetic portrait of a prophet if you tried. First of all, faced with the Mission Impossible challenge, he refused to accept it. He tried running away and hiding in the belly of a trading boat in order to escape from the eyes of God, which was dumb. He put the rest of the ship in danger, not acknowledging his part in the storm that surrounded them, until they cast lots and found him out. Even then, the sailors tried to save him, to row the ship to shore, but they were faced finally with the choice to give up Jonah or give up the ship. They didn’t give up the ship.
“And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
Tradition has it that the fish was created out of the waters of chaos in the first six days described by Genesis specifically for this purpose: to swallow up Jonah until he should sing his song of repentance and be spit up on the shore and sent out once more to warn the city of Nineveh of the wrath of God.
Finally, God tells Jonah a parable, by way of a tree. “Shall I not be gracious to those whom I have made?” asks God. It’s almost like the cosmic version of God telling Jonah a bedtime story about God’s love for all of God’s people; the “Guess How Much I Love You” of divine interventions:
“I love you to the ends of the ocean. I love you to the depths of the sea. I love you to the belly of the whale and back. I love you more than this tree.”
Several centuries later, Jesus is telling a parable to his disciples about justice and grace. Jesus is kind of the anti-Jonah. Jesus had no hesitation in calling those around him to repentance. Jesus, like Jonah, once slept in the belly of the boat while the storm raged around and the other sailors feared for their lives. Jesus once slept three days and nights in the darkness formed before the beginnings of the world, and came back to the land of the living. Jesus knew that the storm was raging over him, and he stilled it. Jesus knew that death had no hold on him, and he destroyed it.
Now, Jesus tells a parable.
It is a parable for people like Jonah, like us, who don’t always like the way that God messes with our sense of justice and fair play. We don’t always like that God loves others as much as God loves us. Jesus told the Pharisees that the tax collectors and the whores would get into heaven ahead of them – my guess is that we would be as insulted as they were to hear the same thing told to us.
But look again at those labourers, the ones that were called up last, who only worked an hour or two and got the same gracious day’s pay, a living wage; they didn’t get off lightly. They had spent all day in the marketplace, under the hot sun, waiting, afraid, and ashamed, frightened that they would not be able to feed their family tonight, ashamed to go home.
One missed the job because he didn’t have his own equipment. One because his leg was lame and he missed the bus to market. One was, frankly, the wrong race, colour, ethnicity for the majority of the employers in the marketplace. One failed the background check. One was too old, another too young, one was overqualified, one had dropped out of school and had no certification. One didn’t have the right immigration papers to work. One couldn’t manage the hours around her childcare. One fell asleep after coming right off the night shift to look for a second job. They were the children left till last when the popular people got to pick teams.
The city of Nineveh repented, from the greatest of them to the least of them. Even their king wore the same sackcloth and ashes. Even their cows observed the fast! It was the system, it was the city that repented of its evil ways.
I wonder what that would look like in our context: for our system to repent and recoil from injustice and idolatry. What would happen if we were to see our fast food workers, our Walmart workers, those weary for a living wage, the ones left till last, the ones left with the least in our marketplaces; what if we were to read them as a parable, hear them as prophets? What if fair play meant that everyone got fed, if we were as gracious to one another as God is gracious to each of us, each according to our need.
I wonder what stands in our way.
Whatever that may look like, at the end of it all, at the end of all of our drama, our running away, our storms and our shelters, our success and our shadows and all of our stories; when all is said and done and we are swallowed up by the darkness of death, God will not let us go. God will extend to us the grace that we need, each and every one of us. God’s loving kindness and mercy endures for ever. And if we still aren’t ready, if we still don’t get it, if we still resist God’s grace, for ourselves or for another; if we are still following Jonah instead of Jesus, then perhaps God will sit us down one more time and tell us a parable, a story of God’s grace: Do you know how much I love you?