In 1963 Bob Dylan wrote a song that was named, “With God on our Side”. It was quite a poignant song in the day with lyrics about the nature of human thought and behavior and the nature of God. It still is for our time too. You see he addresses the idea that humans believe God will invariably side with them and that God will oppose those with whom they disagree. He makes it clear in the first verse of this song:
Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less.
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side.
Known as a war ballad, each verse then address’ a particular historical event such as the slaughter of the Native Americans, the Spanish-American war, the Civil war, the World Wars, Holocaust, the Cold War and even the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot. Dylan’s underlying question, does God choose sides, is appropriate today for our scriptural reflection.
We’re finally at the conclusion of our Lenten four part series on the Book of the Prophet Jonah. Each week has built upon the previous week spinning a tale that at least in part has been told throughout the ages. I bet you didn’t know that Jonah was so rich and colorful.
Jonah is told to go to Ninevah to set them straight. He refuses. He boards a boat, gets thrown overboard, is swallowed by a whale, and then regurgitated by that same whale. Then smelly old Jonah reconsiders and heads off to Ninevah probably under some duress. Ninevah, as we saw last week, repents of their misguided ways and God love and forgiveness is accepted by all except one unhappy prophet, Jonah. And you will see today that he continues his pout. Poor old Jonah.
Let’s hear now the final chapter of this book.
Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!
“So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!”
God said, “What do you have to be angry about?”
But Jonah just left. He went out of the city to the east and sat down in a sulk. He put together a makeshift shelter of leafy branches and sat there in the shade to see what would happen to the city.
God arranged for a broad-leafed tree to spring up. It grew over Jonah to cool him off and get him out of his angry sulk. Jonah was pleased and enjoyed the shade. Life was looking up.
But then God sent a worm. By dawn of the next day, the worm had bored into the shade tree and it withered away. The sun came up and God sent a hot, blistering wind from the east. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head and he started to faint. He prayed to die: “I’m better off dead!”
Then God said to Jonah, “What right do you have to get angry about this shade tree?”
Jonah said, “Plenty of right. It’s made me angry enough to die!”
God said, “What’s this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?”
If only the story of Jonah ended after chapter three. This pouting prophet would have been known as the preaching prophet getting all those Ninevites to heed God’s word and repent. It would have been something that he could be proud of. Remember it took only 8 words of prophecy to turn the entire population of Ninevah around. But NO! The story continues.
What was Jonah thinking? He’s fuming because God appeared to be on the side of those ‘sinners’, the Assyrians and he runs away from God….again. How’s that anger working for you now Jonah? He’s just about as bad a pouter as the older son in the New Testament story of the Prodigal Son. The younger son returns after squandering his inheritance and his father makes a great banquet for him. All the while the older son who stayed home, and was the compliant and ‘good’ son, has a fit about his father’s acceptance of his wayward brother. Who’s side is he on anyway? This is an age-old problem folks.
But this time when Jonah huffs off he builds a little booth for himself and the leafy branches that he used provided some much needed shade. Then, God sends a castor plant to grow above and around him giving him even more shade. What a delightful relief on a hot Assyrian afternoon.
Jonah was quick to recognize the blessing of a little shade. We can give him that, as the scripture says, “Life was looking up” because Ancient Ninevah is in the region of modern day Mosul, Iraq where in the summertime the temperatures can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s not a place that I’d like to be without shade or water.
But just then when ‘life was looking up’ it took a nosedive when God released that little worm to devour the plant. And Jonah prayed to die. One might ask, what’s with this continued death wish? Four times in this book Jonah wants to die because he’s not getting his way. First in the boat and now here in this chapter three more times he exclaims that he would rather be dead then to accept the kindness and wideness in God’s mercy. He’d rather die than have to share God’s compassionate care to the ‘unchosen’ ones.
God gets it. God questions the value of his anger. God doesn’t tell Jonah that he should or should not be angry; instead God invites Jonah to think about the meaning of his anger. The responsibility is all Jonah’s. He needs to figure it out. To the end God is persistent with Jonah and Jonah is brutally honest but not so reflective.
Jonah was mad because he knew God was good. Jonah did understand what God was all about. He just didn’t agree, his heart and his spirit were conflicted with the intentions of God and his own human feelings of disdain. He knew that God was merciful and compassionate, that God was slow to anger even in the face of egregious sin. It’s just that he couldn’t accept the fact that God extended all of those mercies and compassion to others too who were not like him, who were not Hebrews. And he was angry because he couldn’t change God’s mind.
The fact of the matter is this, he was mad because he could not change God's attitude toward these people. Jonah hated the Assyrian, while God loved the Assyrians. Jonah thought the Assyrians deserved to die. God thought they should live. The prophet refused to see them as God saw them, as equal contenders for grace, mercy and peace.
God sees this. And so God brings about a very abrupt ending to this book and asks a final question. If you would do anything to save this silly little plant that you had nothing to do with, how could you not see that I would do anything to save the entire city of Ninevah? I am the God of creation.
None of us wants to identify with Jonah, do we? He doesn’t present well. After all he is self-centered, and full of extremes. As Anne Lamott says, you can be sure that you have made God over in your image when God dislikes the same people as you do. That’s what Jonah, in effect, has done. He wanted so much for God to despise the Assyrians too. He is a symbol for us today or for anyone who tries to constrict God’s love to those people who are only like us, or those only who we are comfortable with.
The message underlying all of the Book of Jonah isn’t about deciding who is deserving of God’s love or who has a place at the table. The tale of Jonah is about how big God is, how encompassing God’s grace, mercy and peace is. It’s a reminder for us during Lent, which is a time of introspection, self-examination, and repentance. God is good all the time and all the time God is good, and big, and merciful.
Lent will be coming to an end shortly. Our journey is nearly complete. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday that ushers in the events of the passion of Holy Week. There will be many unanswered questions that we will be left to ponder in our minds. Today is just the beginning.