Let’s play a word game to get us started with this text, shall we? What are the first words that come to mind when I say Jonah?
These images and words have likely been floating around in your heart and mind since childhood, haven’t they? The story of Jonah is one of those texts that everyone – great and small – can hold on to and recall with vivid detail.
As children, the story of Jonah is spun like a fairytale: Jonah defies God and is thrown overboard a ship, only to be rescued by a giant fish that swallows him up whole. Once Jonah prays, the fish spits him out on land and all ends well.
As adults, we hold on to this narrative, adding a few details: Jonah is a reluctant prophet who doesn’t want to heed God’s call. Instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah boards a boat headed for Tarshish. God responds by tempest winds, causing the sailors to pray to lowercase “g” gods until Jonah admits it is his God that is causing such a watery fuss. Jonah sacrificially offers himself to the seas, the storm stops, and he is swallowed by a giant fish. The fish goes to the depths of the earth and from inside its belly, Jonah finally prays for repentance. The text graphically says the fish “spewed Jonah out on dry land” and then he dutifully fulfills God’s original call to preach to the people of Nineveh. The people repent; Jonah throws a tantrum and claims he wants to die; God sends a bush that is eventually killed by a worm. God reproves Jonah and end scene.
Now, we’re going to play another game – I want you to take all that you think about Jonah and throw it into the sea with the rest of the sailor’s cargo. Forget the notion that he is a reluctant prophet, that he is repentant, that he finally listens to God. Now, think of someone or of someones whom you cannot stand. It might get awkward in here if we were to say that person or that group of people aloud and I imagine we might not be as honest with ourselves if we were vocal. Instead, bring the image of these folks to the fore, to your mind’s eye. Notice if your blood pressure rises, your heart harden, your hands clench.
What if that was how we understood Jonah – as someone with the anger or dislike you perhaps just felt but tenfold as fierce? Jonah isn’t a simple character who doesn’t want to be a prophet because he’s scared of the gravitas of God’s call. Jonah is a character motivated by his ill will for the people of Nineveh. He wants no good to come to them, no grace to hem them in, no mercy to fill their streets. Jonah isn’t full of reluctance; he is full of vitriol. And some might say his anger is justified – Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the empire that destroyed Jewish cities, killed Jewish people, and posed constant threats to Jonah’s community. It follows that Jonah would only dream of his enemy’s destruction, not restoration. Jonah knows that how he defines justice for Nineveh is not how God would define it – God who is slow to anger and abiding in steadfast love. Jonah wants to do human math, not heaven math – the kind of math that adds up to for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction or one bad turn deserves another or an eye for an eye, if they push you, push them back harder.
Jonah sticks to our memories because Jonah’s actions are our most secreted, deep-in-the-belly-of-the-fish thoughts: I deserve more money than that because I’m smarter than he is. She gets everything she ever asks for and doesn’t do anything to show for it. He got the top by brown-nosing while the rest of us actually work. Why should they get help when all they do is take advantage of it? I’m not going to answer the phone – she never asks how I’m doing. What is wrong with him? I hope someone shuts him up for good. He deserves everything he gets.
When I was a senior in college, a fellow student wrote an incendiary opinion piece in the school paper about the housekeeping staff after an employee had stolen something from a student’s room. I read the article and was furious. Imagine me at 22, all puffed up on learning and a nascent understanding of justice – it looks a whole lot like now but with crazier hair and giant hoop earrings. I took to my laptop and wrote out the following response – you know I trust you and love you deeply if I share this embarrassing journalistic feat:
Does it bother anyone else that our housekeepers are being profiled as criminals because of one of their former colleague’s actions?
Greg Laredo has done our campus the disservice of building an even bigger border between employees of the University and students. How dare our housekeeping staff be pigeonholed as criminals, as resentful people who “rationalize stealing.”
Rationalize stealing? Who are you kidding, Laredo? The housekeeping staff has more important things to do than go scouring rooms for goods. Claiming housekeepers steal because they are poor, resentful, and think they can get away with it is making a judgment call about each individual housekeeper’s values.
These are the people who clean up your puke when you’ve been irresponsible. These are the people who make sure there isn’t garbage overflowing from the trash room. These are the people who make sure you have a clean living environment. University housekeeping staff must be recognized for their hard work, and respected!
Yes, a housekeeper stole and that was wrong, but that does not mean we should not “put so much trust in people we don’t know.”
Laredo, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve just damned the whole housekeeping staff to a year of accusatory glances, rumors, and a lack of gratitude. Unless, of course, we as students refuse to believe one bad part ruins the whole, and realize that our housekeepers are individuals to whom we are incredibly indebted.
– Taylor Guthrie
Class of 2005
Whoosh. A little righteous, much? Now, to be fair to younger me, when I wrote this letter, I felt I was defending our housekeepers. Someone had been condemned and I was there to proclaim justice! Someone had been the condemner and they deserved whatever vitriol I could dole out via the school paper. But looking back, I cannot help but wince at my Jonah-ness. This letter came not out of a love for the housekeeping staff – which was certainly there – but instead, out of a college experience of being surrounded by people of whom I was deeply envious. It was my own insecurity that bubbled to the fore as I watched one of my freshman charges as a Resident Advisor throw up all over their $150 sheets and think nothing of throwing them away or having to secretly ask my sorority treasurer to let me make incremental payments for my dues because my family couldn’t afford the full bill. The lifestyle of my fellow students was not mine to judge and I had let it exhaust me to the point of anger and transference of my own insecurity. Did Laredo need a talking to about his judgmental words? Sure. He had condemned a group of people quite unfairly. But that would’ve been much better done in person, eye-to-eye where he, too, could’ve called me on my own Jonah actions: eager to judge and keeping count by human math. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
This is how I see it: when Jonah got to Nineveh, his anger boiled in him with the heat of a thousand suns. At God’s bidding, he got up and stomped a mile into Nineveh. Through clenched teeth, he delivered an eight-word, do or die prophecy: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”. Miraculously, that’s all it took for them – “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” Everyone! Later in the text, we read that even the animals participated in this whole body politic transformation. Not a soul remained untouched. Verse 10 recalls God’s abundant grace, “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.”
We know what comes next because it is our own story. Jonah prayed to God 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.” That is why, God. Because I don’t want them to have your grace. They don’t deserve it! How dare you be YOU. How dare you give grace out all willy nilly like you’re in charge of it.
In the story of my life, I’m afraid I’m more often a Jonah. To tell you the truth, I would rather be a Ninevite. Ready to repent, ready to believe in God, ready to receive the grace and let it wash over me, overturning me in a way that only pivots me to new life. It is this kind of grace that God brings to the people of Nineveh, and whether we want to accept it or not, this is the kind of grace that God extends to you and me all the time. It can seem unfair and unwieldy and hard to account for because it isn’t done on our terms. And that is the Good News – God is the one who is abounding and bountiful and draws us into a life that shares this grace with all.
The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says it much better than I can, so I’ll close with her words: “We think we are the righteous prophets, sent to pronounce judgment on the scuzzy Assyrians…That’s how we see it, and we make the mistake of thinking that is how God sees it too. What we cannot know is that maybe – just maybe from where God sits, we are all a mess. Some of us clean up better than others…but when you get right down to it, we are all Ninevites and ne’er-do-wells, only I do not think God would put it like that, because those are human labels full of human judgments. From where God sits, I expect we look more like hurt, sick, lost children, all of us in deep need of mercy.”
May you receive the grace that is meant for Nineveh but also for Jonah and for that person you cannot stand and that person you once were and for you now. Sweet, sweet amazing grace that saved a wretch like me. May you let yourself be so saved, too.