The Angry Prophet:
Our readings last week ended with all of Nineveh from king to beast repenting of their violence and of God relenting in his judgment. God spares Nineveh. Everyone rejoices, except for Jonah. Our readings this week open with the statement that Nineveh’s salvation “exceedingly displeased” Jonah and made him angry. God’s turning from his anger, turns Jonah angry.
Jonah is angry at God for being who God is. Jonah recognizes that “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” Ex. 34:6-7. But Jonah does not want a merciful forgiving God, he wants a God of vengeance and retribution. He wants a God that will fight for him and for his nation and destroy his enemies.
The Unforgiving Prophet:
Jonah complains to God that he fled to Tarshish because he knew that if he, Jonah, preached to the Ninevites, that they would repent, and that God would relet. Jonah has no interest in forgiving the Assyrian Ninevites for what they did to his people. They destroyed, raped, and enslaved across all of Israel, and yet God forgives. This is the scandal of Jesus telling us to forego retaliation and loving our enemies. And this is why we pray every Sunday that God would “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Matt. 6:12.
There may be no greater contrast in the Scriptures than between Jonah 2 and Jonah 4. Reread chapter 2 in which Jonah sings God’s praises for rescuing him from a death that Jonah rightly deserved by fleeing from God. In Jonah 4, the prophet is angry that God treats others the same way. Jonah is not unlike the Unforgiving Servant of the parable. See, Matt. 5:38-48.
The Despondent Prophet:
Jonah is angry. Jonah is unforgiving. And in his anger and hatred, Jonah asks God to kill him. Jonah would rather die than to be in the presence of God’s forgiveness of the Ninevites. Jonah sees that his God has forgiven his enemies. Jonah’s experience of who God is has changed, but Jonah would rather die than change himself.
In his wish for death, however, Jonah is simply stating the obvious that a refusal to change is a choice for death. We are all continuously called to repentance. See, Acts 2:38. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. The word is related to the word metamorphosis (think caterpillar into a butterfly) and means a change or reorientation of the mind towards God. In our story, Jonah’s refusal to change his mind towards that of God’s mind is equivalent to death. Like the opening to our story, Jonah wants to run from God. This time he realizes that he cannot escape God geographically and so he wants to escape life itself.
Jonah as Us.
Throughout the story, Jonah holds a mirror up to us. In many ways, we are exactly like Jonah, particularly in this concluding chapter. We are called to love our enemies. Matt 5:44. That means that we are to apply to the full measure of 1 Corinthians 13 (patience, kindness, rejoicing) to those who have harmed us and who may still be against us. The first step to loving our enemies is to forgive them, for if we cannot forgive them then how are we to be forgiven ourselves. Matt. 6:14.
We are continuously given the same choice that Jonah has in this last chapter. We can either remain in our anger, our hatred, and our despondency, or we can change. Unlike Jonah, we can forgive, we can repent, and we can be transformed. We can become like God, or we can wish for death.
The homework from this lesson is to think of those who are your enemies. Think of those who have harmed you in some way. Forgive them, love them, and pray for their success and good fortune. Change your outlook towards them as Jonah refused to do.
It is only an illusion to imagine that one himself has forgiveness, although one is slack in forgiving others. . . . It is also conceit to believe in one’s own forgiveness when one will not forgive, for how in truth should one believe in forgiveness if his own life is a refutation of the existence of forgiveness.Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love