He is so angry, he could die.
He is so angry, he wants to die.
Last week in our reflections on Jonah we ended on a note of mercy and grace. Jonah had made his declaration: 40 days and Nineveh will be overturned. 40 days and Nineveh will be smashed. But it turned out that Jonah was wrong. Last week we ended our reading in Jonah where our reading for this week has picked up again. With these words: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” A note of mercy and grace.
And now Jonah is so angry, he could die.
He is so angry, he wants to die.
And Jonah prays his anger. Within the Old Testament, we find many instances when God’s people pray their anger. Particularly within the Psalms we have these moments when the God’s people pray their anger in such strong terms. Usually these prayers arise out of situations where God’s people are suffering – usually these prayers arise out of situations where they are oppressed and abused. They wonder where God is. In prayer they express their anger that God has done nothing to relieve their suffering or assuage their pain. In the context of our faith in Christ there is plenty of room to pray one’s anger in this way.
But how different Jonah is in praying his anger. Here is what he prays: “Oh 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 love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah does not pray his anger in the way that Israel prays its anger throughout the Hebrew Bible. Jonah’s is not angry that God has failed to save his people. He is not angry that God has abandoned him to suffering and pain. No. Simply put, Jonah is angry that God is who God has always said he is.
Jonah knows the tradition of his people – in fact in this passage Jonah quotes from the narrative of Exodus where God passes before Moses and declares: “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in loving-kindness.” Jonah knows that God is merciful and gracious – Jonah knows who God is. But Jonah’s fundamental problem is that he doesn’t want God to be who God has always said he is.
Certainly, Jonah wants God’s mercy and loving kindness to be extended to God’s people – just not to their enemies. He wants God to forgive and renew and walk with his covenant people, but he does not want God to forgive and renew and walk with the people of Nineveh – after all, it was Assyrian Empire, with Nineveh its capital, that wiped Israel, the Northern kingdom, off the map. Jonah wants God to stop being the God he has always shown himself to be.
Questions have been in the air politically speaking over the past week or so, haven’t they. Here are some of the questions that we may have heard asked:
Prime Minister, did you know that your chief of staff wrote a personal cheque to cover Mike Duffy’s senate expenses?
Mr. Mayor, have you ever smoke crack cocaine? Mr. Mayor, will you resign?
Over this past weeks we’ve heard bureaucrats and politicians asked questions:
How much of a kickback did you take on those contracts?
What did your political party do with all the envelopes stuffed with cash/
Who authorized you to take that 3% off the top?
Politicians and public employees face questioning all the time – it’s the nature of the job. They have to defend actions they have taken – or action they have failed to take. They have to defend words they have to use, or silences they have chosen to maintain. To be in public life is to be a person exposed to questions. And even though these questions generally relate to public duties, they nonetheless remain personal questions – questions about character and motives and decisions.
The rest of us are perhaps not used to this kind of persistent questioning of our motives and words and actions. This kind of non-stop questioning isn’t necessarily a part of our experience. We don’t have to get up and hold a press conference every morning.
Jonah prays his anger to God – “God, I knew that you would be merciful to Nineveh, and I didn’t want you to be merciful. I am so angry that you have saved our enemies. I’m so angry that I could die. Why won’t you just destroy them, as I prophesied they would be destroyed?
But as Jonah prays his anger toward God, God starts to ask questions. God interrogates Jonah, if you will. Over the course of chapter 4 of the prophecy, there are two key questions that God asks. And the first question is such a simple question: “Is it right for you to be angry?”
“Jonah. You’re so angry. But is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah, of course, ignores the question. In fact, he walks away from the press conference. Jonah walks away from the flash bulbs going off, and away from the reports shouts: “Jonah, is it right for you to be angry?”
He walks out of the city of Nineveh and sits down in a little booth that he makes for himself. He walks away from the question that God asks, because in his bitterness and anger, he can’t bear to answer it. You can’t help but think that Jonah knows the answer to the question. He has no right to be angry.
God has called the people of Israel and Judah to be his own people, but not only for their sake. From the very beginning, God said to Abraham that he was going to bless him in order that he would be a blessing to others. Whenever God blessed the people of God it was so that the blessing of God would extend out into the nations – throughout the Hebrew bible that movement is apparent. There is nothing inconsistent about God’s mercy toward Nineveh. In fact, God’s decision to show mercy to that city is entirely consistent with the identity that God has consistently revealed – a love for the world.
The God of life.
The God of creation.
The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob,
The God of Sarah and Rebecca and Leah and Rachel,
This is a God who desires renewal and justice and goodness among all peoples.
Jonah walks away from the question – because he knows the answer to the question. His own anger toward his enemy is so strong, he cannot abide the possibility that God would maintain this character of mercy and love.
It’s interesting, that Jonah, in praying his anger, says: “Lord, please take my life from me…”
He wants to go back to Sheol.
He wants to go back to the place of abandonment.
He wants to find himself in the belly of the great fish.
In fact, to flee from the God of love, who loves even our enemy – to flee from the God, who would show mercy even to our enemies – to flee from that God of love, is to flee from the one who gives life. To flee from the loving, life-giving, forgiving God, is to flee to sheol – the realm of the dead.
“Jonah, is it right for you to be angry.”
Jonah flees out into the deserted region east of the city, sets up a shack, and watches the city. Perhaps he is still waiting for his prophecy to unfold – still hoping that the city might be destroyed.
In order to continue his questioning of Jonah – his interrogation if you will – God sends a bush to grow up, to provide shade for Jonah – Jonah is happy with this relief from the burning heat. But the very next day, God sends a blight of some kind to destroy the bush. At which point we come to the final words of the book and to God’s final question.
But God said to Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And Jonah said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush for which you did not labour 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 persons who do not know their right hand from their lift, and also many animals?
And there the story ends. There the book ends. There the prophecy ends. With a question mark?
“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh?”
How does Jonah answer the question? We don’t know. Does this question make him begin to understand the mercy of God? We don’t know. From the last words out of Jonah’s mouth it seems unlikely he would quickly turn and embrace the God of love and compassion.
So the question mark persists. The book ends with the question mark. God’s questioning of Jonah does not diminish or disappear. For almost three thousand years the question mark at the end of the book of Jonah has persisted. The question mark hangs there.
We are not politicians or government bureaucrats who must answer questions from the media day in and day out. We don’t have to go on the record on this subject or that subject – declaring our intentions or motives – explaining our attitudes and actions.
But of course in another sense, we are questioned day in and day out. Anyone who is meaningfully engaged in life is being constantly questioned.
To be in a relationship with another person is to find yourself questioned. The other person’s way of seeing people may challenge your way of seeing them. The other person’s attitude toward the stresses of life might make you re-evaluate how you approach such stresses. The other person’s habits around the spending and giving of money might raise questions about your own spending and giving of money.
To be in a relationship with another person in which we are truly open and loving, is necessarily or inevitably to find ourselves questioned and challenged in terms of our identity and character and faith.
This past week I thought about this also in terms of the arts. A part of what separates the art out from mere entertainment – or what separates art out from that which is merely pretty – or what separates art out from that which can take me away for a while – what separates out art is that a true work of art confronts us and questions us. Not always aggressively or strongly, but sometimes in the subtlest of ways.
A real piece of art is a work that doesn’t merely entertain me or look pretty to me or take me away from the mundane world for a couple of hours – a real piece of art is a work that questions me or interrogates me in some way. It will raise questions about what we value. It will raise questions about the kind of society we are building. It will raise questions about human character and identity. It will raise questions about how we understand and live in relationships.
So in a real sense, if we are living in such a way that we are fully engaged with others and the world, then we are constantly being questioned.
And here’s where we want to go with all of this today. In a profound sense, the life of Christ among us, and the life of the Holy Spirit among us – is God’s questioning of us. The life of Christ among us, and the life of the Spirit among us is much more than God’s interrogation of us – but it is partly such questioning.
Last week we had an excerpt in our bulletin from Living Faith, about the identity and work of the Holy Spirit, and here is a small part of what that document said:
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth.
We pray as a church to be guided into truth
knowing that such truth may disturb and judge us.
In a way the word “interrogate” is the wrong word. It is not simply that God wants to
prove our inadequacies
or highlight our hypocrisy
or reveal our secret shame.
It is, rather, that God would make us fully alive as his people.
When we listen to the narrative of Jesus, God’s Son – when we listen to the narrative of God’s people – when we open our hearts and lives to the moving of God’s Spirit – we are being questioned. And such questioning may, as Living Faith puts it, disturb and judge us – on the way to living in the love and forgiveness and peace and service of Christ.
But that’s life at it’s best, isn’t it. As we said, anyone who is deeply and meaningfully engaged with life is constantly being questioned – through the relationships we have, through the books we read, through the films we watch – we are being questioned. Indeed, very often God uses such daily questioning to transform and renew us by his Spirit.
But it is above all through the narrative of Jesus, the story of Jesus, the death and resurrection of Jesus, that God confronts us and questions us by the Spirit. Not in order to judge or diminish – but in order to make us fully as his children. There is a huge question mark that hangs at the end of the story of Jonah – a question mark that hands over Jonah’s life: Should I not be concerned about Ninveh? But the only reason that question mark hangs there is because Jonah is the dove – the beloved.
And as God does with Jonah, so God will do with us. God will persist in questioning us and inserting question marks into our lives – for the simple reason that we are the beloved. God would renew us and transform us and make us fully alive in the resurrection life of his Son, by the power of the Spirit. He asks us questions in order to get us there. Thanks be to God. Amen.