Scripture: Excerpts from Jonah
As a kid, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure Books. Those books all have the same starting place but at different points in the story ask you to choose what happens next. Does the main character open the door on their right or on their left? Do they hit the button on the Time Machine or leave the room? Based on your choice, you would be instructed to turn to a page number further on in the book to continue the story. For me, those books just drew me in. And yes, it was all pre-written and I wasn’t creating anything new but it felt like it. It felt like I was a part of the story, helping it unfold. And while the book of Jonah is not a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, it does something similar for us. It invites us in. It draws us in. With its, unsatisfying and uncomfortable ending it asks us, what about you? What about your story? What are you going to do next?
Typically when we think of Jonah it is Jonah and the Whale. Right. Jonah being swallowed by a large fish and we typically focus on the first couple chapters of Jonah. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria, an empire which, at the time of the story, was known for its cruelty. Jonah says, no thank you, and runs away on a ship. A storm comes up and the sailors have to toss Jonah overboard at which point Jonah is swallowed by the large fish. Jonah prays inside the fish, the fish vomits him up on to dry land, God tells Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh, and Jonah goes. If we stop there, everything is neatly tied up. The story isn’t all sunshine and roses but that is a neat, tidy, feel good stopping place. But the book of Jonah doesn’t end there. It keeps going. And as it keeps going, we see Jonah in, well, not his best moments.
Jonah goes and tells Nineveh to repent but just barely. The city is so big it is three days journey across and Jonah goes one day in and calls it good. However, word traveled quickly, reached the King himself, and all of Nineveh experienced a transformed heart and changed their ways. So, God spared Nineveh. Which made Jonah furious. “But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry.” And Jonah proceeds to rant and complain. How dare God spare the Ninevites! How dare God show compassion and mercy, to them? To make a point, God has a plant grow, shade Jonah from the sun and the heat, and then takes the plant away. Jonah becomes even more furious and then we’re left with this unsatisfying and unsettling ending where God asks Jonah: “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” It’s no wonder that we tend to stop early in the story. But here’s thing, as messy as this ending is, it is also powerful and insightful. It brings the whole book together and challenges us to look at our hearts, to consider our actions and reactions. Twice in the last chapter, God asks Jonah: Is your anger a good thing? Is it good for you to be angry? Has your anger brought you goodness or gladness? And the answer, we as the reader easily see, is no. The anger Jonah clings to this whole book has not brought him good; it has brought him nothing but pain since chapter 1. Jonah’s anger led him to flee from God, go through a storm, end up in the belly of a fish, and rant about God’s mercy and compassion. The anger Jonah clings to brought him, and the people around him, like the sailors, nothing but pain and misery. But Jonah doesn’t see that. “Yes” is Jonah’s answer. “Yes, my anger is good – even to the point of death!” Jonah cannot recognize what the anger he clings to is doing to his life. And, maybe we’re not so different.
Jonah feels anger towards the Ninevites, feels angry at God for them showing mercy and compassion, and maybe, to some degree, we can relate. If we take a hard and honest look at our hearts, there may be people who we feel do not deserve mercy and compassion. Or, if that feels too harsh, maybe you’ve found yourself thinking or saying about someone or a group of people, I wouldn’t help them if they were the last person on earth. It might even be for good reasons. Maybe people have caused you or a loved one deep pain and harm. While at the time of Jonah’s story, the Assyrian empire had not conquered Israel, later on they would. And when the story of Jonah was written down, when people might have first read it or shared it, the Assyrian empire would have been responsible for so much oppression and pain and harm. Those earliest readers of this story may have felt just like Jonah. They may have felt that mercy for their oppressors was utterly wrong and that compassion for the people who had conquered them was utterly wrong. And honestly, I think its just human to feel that way. We cannot control our feelings, sometimes they just happen, they just pop up, especially when we’ve experienced trauma. You are Human and you are going to have feelings, even ones that might be less than compassionate. And that is ok. I don’t believe God is saying anger in and of itself is a bad thing. But I do believe that in this passage God is trying to help Jonah recognize what his anger has brought about in his life. I do believe that through this scripture God is trying to help us recognize what clinging to anger, bitterness, hatred, frustration, and resentment to do our lives.
The problem isn’t having those feelings. The problem happens when those feelings start to overwhelm and take control. Through the story of Jonah, God helps us recognize what Jonah himself cannot. We can recognize how clinging to difficult feelings like anger, bitterness, resentment, and hate is not good for us. We can recognize how clinging to those things traps us and pull us into unhealthy patterns, actions, and reactions. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way. We are not doomed to be ruled by anger, bitterness, and resentment. They do not have to shape our thoughts and actions. We can recognize them, name them, and work through them. Depending on the source of those feelings, what caused them, what triggered them, it may take time, work, and help. It may take a therapist or medication. It may involve meditation, journaling, and reading scripture. But the good news is that, while God shows compassion to people we may not think deserve it, God also shows compassion to us. God shows compassion to us, guiding us, anchoring us while we work though hard things. God gives us something so much better to cling to, God gives us love.
The book of Jonah has brought us in. It has taken us to a place beyond the fish, where God asks us, is what you’re clinging to a good thing? Has what you’re clinging to brought you goodness, gladness, and peace? The book of Jonah is not a Choose Your own Adventure Novel but the next step is ours. What will your answer be?