Monday, October 1, 2018

Jonah and the Elder Brother

"But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.  He prayed to the Lord, 'Isn't this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home?  That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.'"
Jonah 4: 1-3

In my daily reading through the minor prophets, I've currently hit on the story of another "elder brother" in the Bible.  The Book of Jonah.

The beginning of the story of Jonah is a very familiar one.  God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach repentance.  Jonah refuses to go and attempts to flee to Tarshish.  While on the boat fleeing, a great storm comes up, causing the sailor's to wonder who has brought this on them.  Jonah indicates that he is the reason and has them throw him overboard, where he is swallowed by a great fish.  While in the belly of the fish, Jonah repents, and God instructs the fish to vomit Jonah back up on the shore.  From there, Jonah heads to Nineveh to preach the message God had initially given him.

Most everyone who spent anytime in church as a kid has heard the story of Jonah and the "whale."  The story of what happens after, though is less well-known.  For once Jonah preaches to Nineveh and warns them of God's impending judgement, the citizens of Nineveh repent.  Even the king orders the city into fasting, sackcloth, and mourning for their sins.  The city follows that instruction we discussed in the Beatitudes on Sunday, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."  The city mourned for its sins.  And God heard their cry, stayed His hand, and comforted them.  This pleased everyone.

Except Jonah.

Jonah became angry.  Jonah was actually angry that God had shown mercy on Nineveh because of its repentance.  He expected this result and it was why he did not want to go in the first place.  He did not want to see Nineveh spared.

We are given no reason for Jonah's dislike of the city and its inhabitants beyond their wickedness.  The capital of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh would have been the capital of an enemy of the Jewish people.  The book of Jonah portrays their wickedness of worthy of destruction.  And we see that in the apocryphal Book of Tobit, Tobias, Tobit's son, celebrates Nineveh's destruction by Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus as apparent fulfillment of Jonah's prophecy.

But Jonah's reaction should give us pause.  Jonah's anger at Nineveh's repentance calls into question his very motives for following God's commands.  This is the equivalent of going into a location to witness and getting angry when someone actually responds.  It would seem Jonah was hoping to go and prophecy the destruction of the city, so that he could actually see it go forth.  He probably would have roasted marshmallows over the smoldering embers.

And his response symbolizes that tug between truth and forgiveness, between justice and mercy.  In Jewish rabbinical idea, Jonah, the son of truth (his father's name is Amitai which means truth) seeks only truth.  In refusing to go to ask Nineveh to repent, he wants to proclaim the truth of their destruction.  For there to be no opportunity for forgiveness.  Their sin has damned them and that should be the end of it.  It's the same idea as the older brother in the Prodigal Son.  The younger brother's wild living has brought him low, and that's where he should stay.  There is no room or cause for forgiveness or mercy.

Ironically, both Jonah and the older brother cannot see their own sin of pride.  The sin that allows them to put themselves above those others.  Above the Ninevites, and above the younger brother.  Jonah and the older brother are better than them.  They have no need for God's forgiveness, for God's mercy.  And they certainly do not want to see it exercised on those wayward people.

The cannot see their own need for mourning over their sin.

In both tales, the story ends with God and His parable substitute, the Father, reminding these "older brothers" that God will show mercy on those that He chooses to show mercy.  That God will have pity on a great city like Nineveh which is composed of the work of God's labor just like Jonah.  And that God will celebrate when a child of His that was lost has been found.  That what was dead has been made new.

For while we serve a God of justice, who will proclaim a city's road to destruction and who will ultimately pronounce the death sentence on the sin in our lives, we also serve a God of mercy, who pays the punishment Himself.

That is a story of comfort.

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