What would you do if God challenged everything you thought was true about God and the people around you? What if you discovered that your Sunday School faith was fine when you were ten but not when you are thirty or seventy?
The book of Jonah is more than a fish story. It’s about one person’s journey toward a new and larger image of God and the people around him.
We all know the story. Jonah gets a message from God to preach doom and gloom to the Ninevites. He gets on a boat and travels toward Gibraltar to evade God’s mission, God sends a storm, Jonah gets thrown overboard, gets swallowed by a big fish, who can’t stomach the reluctant prophet and after returning him to Nineveh, spits him out on dry land.
Now, Jonah had good reason not to want to go to Nineveh. He’d been raised to believe that the Ninevites were moral inferiors, not deserving any mercy or ethical consideration. The Ninevites were the North Koreans, Nazis, and Syrians, of Jonah’s time. Worse yet, Jews considered Nineveh the Las Vegas or Atlantic City of the Middle East, corrupt, immoral, and hedonistic.
But God has another idea. God tells this reluctant prophet that God’s love includes the enemy and oppressor, and that Jonah needs to widen his perspective to discover God loves the non-human as well as the human world, and that revelation can come to a great fish, the cattle and sheep of Nineveh, and the people you love to hate.
It’s unclear if Jonah ever comes to love the people of Nineveh. He preaches that the city will be destroyed in forty days and is gobsmacked when everyone from the king to the street sweeper and even Bossy the Cow repent, fast, and wear rags as a sign of their change of heart. In fact, Jonah’s upset at the outcome. He expected fire and fury and obliteration – he went up on a hillside to see the spectacle – and nothing happens, crickets. For God has chosen to save the enemy.
Still complaining as the story ends, Jonah is admonished by God – Then the Lordsaid, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
No one is outside God’s care. God is the circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
When I was in graduate school, I learned about lifeboat ethics: the belief there is only so much to go around, and that we have to make choices as to who gets on the lifeboat of survival – whether we help the poorer nations of the world, or let their people starve, so that our people might maintain our standard of living.
This lifeboat ethic is more than academic. When I was child, growing up in the Salinas Valley, California, we were in the middle of the Cold War, and one of our neighbors built a fallout shelter in preparation for a Russian nuclear attack. I remember my mom and dad musing about what it be like for them to be safe in their shelter, listening to their neighbors knocking on the door, seeking refuge. Would life be worth living for them, when they finally opened their shelter to a world of corpses?
Now, Nineveh was the enemy and deserved no ethical consideration as far as Jonah was concerned – they were thugs, criminals, lowlifes, and dangerous. And, yet, God wanted to save them!
We all have groups or persons we dehumanize – we describe as inferior or evil or violent. We wonder: Does God love them? Does God love the North Korean people despite their violent dictator? Does God love the Russians despite Putin’s meddling in our national elections and undermining of our alliances? Does God love the borderlands child or the parent who has taken her family two thousand miles and crossed our borders to escape violence and ensure a better life for her children?
God’s circle is much larger than ours. At the end of the Civil War, a northern patriot was astounded when he asked the greatest of presidents, Abraham Lincoln, “How will you treat the South when they are returned to the Union?” Lincoln responded, “I will treat them as if they never left.”
With charity toward all and malice toward none, Lincoln sought to restore the Union in the wake of four years of carnage. Forgiveness trumped the urge for revenge.
Corrie ten Boom, author of the Hiding Place, tells of her own experience of conversion from alienation to forgiveness and welcome. After giving a talk on her experiences at a German concentration camp, where her family died, and sharing the faith that sustained her, a German officer came up to her in the receiving line. When he tried to shake her hand, Corrie ten Boom was paralyzed. He didn’t remember her, but she remembered him.
He stammered, “You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk, I was a guard there. But since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein, will you forgive me?’”
Ten Boom couldn’t move her arm, she couldn’t forgive the death of her family and his complicity in their murder. He was her Ninevite, unworthy of love, forgiveness, or consideration from God.
Ten Boom recalls, “And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“ ‘I forgive you, brother! ‘With all my heart!’ I cried.
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”
Who are your Ninevites? I know I have mine, and including them in God’s love is difficult, and some things are so horrendous that we can’t forgive on our own, and that we should stay away from such persons, and let the legal or political system takes its course.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean acceptance of bullying, abuse, or bad behavior. It may involve protest and legal action. But, even then, our healing and the healing others depend on us accepting the grace to let go, forgive and begin again – to ensure our safety and the safety of those whom we love, and let God embrace the other, even if we cannot.
Yes, Jonah is a fish story, but in that humorous yarn, is wisdom we all need to live in a world where forgiveness is possible, enemies can become allies, and love can fill our hearts and guide our days.