Jonah: Under the Unpredictable Plant

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
May 17, 2020
Matt Goodale

The first time my wife met my mom while we were still in the early stages of dating, my mom was quick to let Meghan know that I was quote “a little terror” while growing up. This was of course after my Mom had already described to Meghan how I used to look like an alien baby—a cross somewhere between E.T. and Yoda. To be fair, I probably deserved it, because I was quite the little terror growing up. As a toddler I would run around the house for hours, never quite expelling all of my energy to my mother’s dismay and I consistently found creative ways to crash my bike doing stupid things.

Most of all I enjoyed picking on my sister and my poor mom always had to intervene whenever I instigated a fight with her. Whenever my sister and I fought, I would go to great lengths to show my mom how my sister was the one who did something wrong and I of course had nothing to do with it; I would point the finger and try to get her in trouble so that I was off the hook (and plus, she was the one who did something wrong, not me!).

My guess is that many of us in this room are quite skilled at this type of finger pointing, aren’t we? Most of us have grown out of petty sibling rivalries (hopefully), but we always manage to find other reasons and other people to point the finger at. We’re pretty good at finding other people who are “wrong”; we always seem to discover more creative ways to divide ourselves from others and there always seems to be someone else we can justify pointing the finger at because they are the one who is wrong, not us. At the moment our world seems to full of countless examples of this type of dividing and finger-pointing.

As an American nation we divide ourselves over whether we are conservative or liberal, republican or democrat, gay or straight, pro-life or pro-choice, pro-gun rights or anti-gun rights, light skinned or dark skinned. We let these labels define people, and we assume we already know everything we need to know about someone based solely on their political or theological stances, based on their skin color or sexual orientation. We make assumptions about “those crazy liberals” or “those good-for-nothing conservatives” and we point the finger, much like I pointed the finger at my sister and labeled her a “nuisance”. A seminary professor once said: “We put labels on people the way designers put labels on their clothes. And then we let the labels tell us what people are and what they’re worth.”

During this strange season of global pandemic, the finger-pointing and labeling hasn’t gone anywhere. In a time when suffering, economic hardship and anxiety abound, we are quick to find someone else to blame. The continued spread of COVID-19 is blamed on those who can’t seem to take quarantine restrictions seriously enough. The limping state of our economy is blamed on those who are taking COVID-19 too seriously. Conspiracy theories abound, blaming certain parties and institutions. Those who are willing to wear masks in public are labeled “righteous”. Those who are unwilling to wear masks are labeled as inattentive, uncaring people. Political rhetoric is growing more heated. It seems we’re all looking for a scape-goat to transfer all of our fear, our suffering, our blame. At a moment in history when humanity desperately needs to remain united, we still continue to find creative ways to separate our self from “the other”.

And so as Christians, how do we traverse faithfully through all of the divisions, the labeling, the finger-pointing and the dehumanizing that goes on around us? How does genuine Christian love navigate these prolific dividing lines? Can love disagree and still be genuine love? How do we strive for the love that my mom showed my sister and I when we fought—a love that sought to build bridges rather than point the finger.

I almost decided to preach this sermon on how love accepts…on how Christian love accepts the other person who is different from us, or who we disagree with or can hardly stand to be around. But then I realized that nowhere in Scripture is love equated with mere acceptance. When we say love accepts, it turns love into this passive action or emotion, almost like we just have to tolerate the other person. Saying that love accepts, makes me think of when my sister and I would get into a fight, only to have our parents make us hug and pretend that we actually liked each other for a minute or two while mom was watching.

I don’t think we see this superficial or passive view of love in scripture. Instead, I want to suggest that what we see in scripture is that full-orbed, genuine Christian love does not merely accept or tolerate the other person we are different from or who we can’t stand to be around, but it actively hopes for them. Genuine Christian love hopes that good will happen to them, it hopes that God’s transformation will occur in their life and it hopes that they will live to know God’s incredible grace and love.

And so in today’s scripture reading, we’ll see a contrast between Jonah’s love, which just barely tolerates the Ninevites – a people he loathes because of their nationality— and we’ll see it contrasted with God’s love, which hopes for their transformation and redemption.

As we read in our story last week, Jonah finally arrives in Nineveh—the place he had tried so hard to avoid—and promptly proclaims to their king that God’s judgment is about to come upon the Ninevites because of their moral filth. It was one of the most pathetic sermons you’ll ever hear.

And what happens next as result of Jonah’s extraordinarily lackadaisical preaching? Well, the king rips his clothes, tosses ashes upon himself and orders that all of the Ninevites do the same, in an act of repentance towards God. Even the animals repent! The final verse of chapter 3 says: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” God saw the Ninevites repent and had compassion on them, relenting from his punishment and rejoicing that they had turned from their evil ways. This sounds like a nice ending to the story right? But we read on in chapter 4.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 10 And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

The end. That’s the end of the entire book of Jonah. Bizarre ending to say the least. Jonah looks on at this group of people, the Ninevites, who are different from him, whose lifestyle and choices he find reprehensible, whose views and practices he disagrees with, whose very nationality he loathes because they are at risk of entering his own country—Jonah looks on at this group of people, and he hopes for their condemnation. He points the finger. He wants them obliterated by God and wiped off the face of the earth. These people are labeled by Jonah as no more than dirty, filthy, sinning Ninevites. He wants them gone. He wants to see God’s justice on them; he wants to be able to sneer at them and say: I told you so. I was right and you were wrong.

Jonah tolerates the Ninevites just enough to go in and share bad news. He proclaims God’s impending judgment and then he goes to find a spot where he can watch the fireworks. However, moments before Jonah is ready for the show to start, God shares with him that he will have mercy on the Ninevites because they have repented. God’s purpose in sending Jonah was fulfilled.

And how does Jonah respond? He throws a temper tantrum! How could God have mercy on the enemy!? God was supposed to be the God of Israel, not Nineveh! So then why would God have mercy on these people?? They deserve judgment and punishment. They deserve impending doom.

I wonder if sometimes our thinking aligns with Jonah’s more than we would care to admit. Is it possible we hope for bad things to happen to people or groups of people whom we disagree with? Or in the very least maybe we hope that nothing good will happen to them. Perhaps we look forward to seeing God’s judgment on them; we want to see them proven wrong; we want them out of our lives; we want them out of our nation; we want them out of our churches. Most of us probably don’t have to search our hearts for long before we find the ill-will we would wish upon a certain person, or group of persons.

I once played on a sports team with a guy who I just could not stand. He was brash, rude, and angry. But being the good Christian that I was, I tolerated him. But what happened over time was that all I began to see in him were his negative behaviors – the things I loathed about him. I chose to ignore the times he was a good teammate and the times he was helpful to newcomers, because I had convinced myself that he was just a nasty guy and I wanted him to stay that way because to be honest, it feels pretty good to have a reason to dislike someone. It feels good to think you’re justified in disliking someone, because they really deserve it. Sometimes it makes us feel better about ourselves. I began to ignore the humanity in him, and I chose to only see the bad parts about him, or the parts I disagreed with, and I labeled him as that. He was labeled a “jerk” and a “bigot” in my mind, and that’s all I ever saw in him, because it’s all I ever wanted to see in him.

Jonah, like me, wanted to ignore the humanity of the Ninevites. He wanted to see them as one texture, one type of person – evil, wrong. He didn’t want to accept that there could possibly be more to them than the fact that they were Assyrian, or the fact that they did things Jonah disagreed with or even found reprehensible. It felt better to just hate them and to ignore the redemptive parts in them – it was easier to ignore their repentance and their desire to reform their lifestyle, because Jonah still wanted a reason to not have to love them. He wanted to sit in his anger and his frustration, with his own definition of justice and love. He would rather pity a plant than pity a fellow human being. But God hoped for something different for the Ninevites.

Jonah hoped for their condemnation; God hoped for their salvation. Jonah hoped for judgment; God hoped for redemption. Jonah hoped to see death; God hoped to give life. Jonah saw a label: Ninevite; God saw his creation: beloved. In Jonah we see a reflection of ourselves – a reflection of our own inabilities or our own lack of desire to love the person or group of persons whom we disagree with or have come to hold in contempt. We justify our feelings, like Jonah, convincing ourselves that we are surely in the right and they are in the wrong—they do not deserve our love. But in God, we see a different picture of what genuine love looks like. It is a love that hopes for redemption rather than condemnation; a love that hopes for life rather than brokenness; a love that hopes for repentance and forgiveness rather than judgment.

And what I love about this Jonah story is that God’s love never gives up on Jonah. God journeys with Jonah all the way, even through all his obstinacy and bone-headedness. God provides Jonah with a plant for shade, even when he is stuck in his own hatred. But God isn’t alright leaving Jonah the way he is. God desires to move Jonah beyond his hatred, beyond his loathing into the realm of healing and grace. God journeys with us through our hatred, our contempt, our anger, our loathing, our self-righteousness, beckoning us to leave the past behind. God invites us instead to find new life and new love. We worship a God who hopes for the redemption and healing of all people, no matter what kind of label they bear.

It’s hard to look beyond labels; it’s hard to love our enemies. In the Gospels when Jesus commands us to love our enemy, I don’t think he means that we need to change how we feel emotionally about them – we often don’t have that kind of control over our emotions. But I think Jesus intends for us to love our enemy by hoping for them—by hoping for their redemption and for God’s work in their life. By hoping that they will find healing, belonging and love—something every human being deserves, no matter what they’ve done or what political opinions they may hold. One of the most important ways we can hope for others is in our prayers for them. Praying for those we dislike, disagree with or can hardly stand to be around is a form of love that hopes for.

At this strange time in history, will we look back and remember how we loved and supported everyone around us, no matter what their political opinion, no matter whether they wear a mask or not, no matter how seriously they seem to be taking COVID-19? Will be able to look back and remember how fear was transformed into love and blame was transformed into support? I sincerely hope so.

Jonah’s story ends with a cliff-hanger. The author doesn’t tell us what happens to Jonah or to the Ninevites. Our lives are also at a cliff-hanger right now, but we get to write the ending to the story. Who are the Ninevites in your life? How is God calling you to love them and to hope for them? We as Christians are the primary conduits of God’s love and grace to all people; we are the tangible presence of God’s self-giving love and in our neighborhoods, homes, work places and schools, we embody his grace that hopes for the well-being and redemption of all people. We carry this grace with us out into a world that is thirsting for a God who has not come to condemn, but who has come to give life. Let us share and embody this good news for all people. Amen.