“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Jonah’s warning to the Ninevites – after his unsuccessful attempt to run from God, and his three-day encounter with a rather large fish – rings just as true to us today as it did some 2,800 years ago.
There’s some obvious parallels between Jonah and the Gospel, all of which have been the basis for many sermons. Jonah offered himself up to be thrown overboard, to be sacrificed, to save the other people on the boat; Jesus offered himself up as an atoning sacrifice for us all. Jonah spent three days in the fish and descended to Sheol – to death; Jesus spent three days in the grave, and descended to the dead. Jonah was spit up by the fish, emerging from death to life; Jesus emerged from the grave, conquering death for all time.
Those are all great reflections, but in terms of our Lenten journey we need to walk with Jonah into what happens next. When Jonah begins to proclaim his warning, an amazing thing happens – the people repent, and convert their ways: “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.”
The Ninevites listened, examined their hearts, and changed paths. Their king takes the process of penitence a step further, proclaiming: “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
Meditation and penitence, self-examination and turning to God: this is the very essence of our spiritual walk through Lent. And, in that posture of penitence the Ninevites open themselves back up to God’s love: “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.”
This would be a perfect end to Jonah’s story. He found his way. He helped the Ninevites draw closer to God. They undertook sincere penitence, and God embraced them in unbridled love and grace. It’s the perfect end to the perfect Lenten story.
But, it’s not the end of the story. At the apex of this victory tale, Jonah plunges himself into pride and anger. Witnessing the salvation of the Ninevites we’d want Jonah to rejoice with them, and with God – or at least, submit in humility before God’s grace.
But, if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, we might see a bit of Jonah in ourselves. And Jonah’s reaction to the salvation of Ninevah was not celebratory:
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O 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 steadfast 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 is distressed, but not at the Ninevites’ sin, at how close they came to destruction. And, seeing them saved, he’s not exultant. No – at the mere possibility of their salvation he fled from God. At seeing them actually saved, Jonah is so despondent he begs God to kill him.
Jonah is so proud in his piety, if he’s not placed above the Ninevites – be saved while they are damned – then all is lost. If they can be saved, elevated to his level, then what is the sense of going on?
Jonah’s despondence on the outskirts of Ninevah presumes a judgmental calculus of faith: if some are saved, many others must be lost; if our piety is to be rewarded, the failings of others must be doubly damned.
This view limits God’s grace to a zero-sum game: if grace is to be poured out on one life, it must be withheld from others. And, in seeing grace poured out in great liberality upon Ninevah, Jonah slips into bitter anger. If they are shown grace, he seems to believe, he must have lost something.
God corrects Jonah of his anger and his pride, with as much compassion and love as was shown to the Ninevites. Jonah is reminded that just as God loves him – after he fled from God’s commands – so too does God love the people of Ninevah, even with all their faults.
The all-embracing power of God’s grace, Jonah’s bitter pride, and God’s compassionate reproach of Jonah’s anger – all of these elements of Jonah call us to a closer examination of how we view forgiveness, mercy and God’s grace.
Before we judge Jonah, we might ask ourselves a few questions about how we reflect his human frailty.
Are there times in which we are angry that “good things happen to bad people”? Do we believe our piety elevates us above others? Are there hard places in our heart, where we secretly desire others to fall, that we may be seen as better-than? If we were to stand on the outskirts of Ninevah, and witness the power of God’s love, would we rejoice? Would we fall to our knees and praise the awesome power of God’s grace? Or, like Jonah, would we succumb to our pride, and wonder why they were saved, believing ourselves more deserving?
Scripture does not tell us how Jonah reacted to being reproved for his pride and anger. The story is left open-ended. And that, I think is fitting. The unfinished business outside Ninevah is the business we must take up, in Lent and beyond.
We must search our hearts, in a spirit of humility and penitence, and find those places in which our jealous pride seeks to limit God’s grace. And finding those hard places – which we will, if we search with integrity – we must lean on God for the humility and strength to soften our hearts, and to trust in the providence of God’s perfect grace.