The Jonah Syndrome
Let me tell you a little story. And by little I do mean little. This is the shortest story book in the Old Testament. There are a few other Old Testament books that are shorter than this, but they are poetry. This is the shortest book that’s a complete story. Wanna guess which one it is? It’s not Ruth. It’s not Esther. It’s Jonah. The whole book is only 48 verses long, and although I have been known to read you passages that long before, I’m not going to do it this morning. I’m going to just tell you most of the story and read you the end.
Jonah is a prophet sent by God to “cry out” against the city of Nineveh. What the original audience knew that we don’t know is that Nineveh was the capital of the country of Assyria. And Assyria was the country that completely destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. The events of this story are hard to place in the biblical timeline. But what we know is that by the time this story was written down, everyone knew that Nineveh had destroyed the northern kingdom. That means that Ninevehites are the mortal enemies of Israelites. But still God tells this Israelite prophet to go to Nineveh and preach.
Now, as it turns out Jonah is a terrible prophet. Instead of going to Nineveh, he goes as fast as he can in the other direction. Instead of going east, he boards a ship and heads west. What’s interesting is that the story doesn’t say WHY Jonah didn’t want to go. We don’t find that out until the very end of the book. Is he afraid to go to Nineveh? Does he just hate those people so much he doesn’t even want to be around them? Why doesn’t he follow God? Keep that in mind.
But God is determined to send Jonah to Nineveh. So God sends a big storm and the ship is in danger. The sailors pray to their gods and throw the cargo overboard, but the storm rages on. Meanwhile Jonah is in the cabin, sleeping! The captain wakes him up and tells him to start praying, but the storm rages on. Finally, the sailors draw straws to try to determine who is guilty, because in the ancient world if something weird and bad was happening, someone was guilty. Jonah draws the short straw and tells the ship’s company his story. He says that the only way to save the ship is for them to throw him overboard. But these non-Israelite, non-Yahweh-worshipping sailors refuse to do such an inhumane thing. They keep trying to safely make it to land. Eventually they give up, beg Yahweh to be merciful to them for killing Jonah, and throw him into the sea. And the storm stops.
Instead of allowing Jonah to drown, Yahweh God sends a huge fish to swallow him up. For three days, Jonah lives in the belly of the whale and prays to God for mercy and salvation. After those three days, Yahweh God speaks to the fish and it barfs Jonah up on the beach.
Again God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and this time he actually does it. But when he arrives, he preaches the worst sermon ever. Five words in the Hebrew language that amount to, “In 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed.” That’s it. Basically he stands on a corner wearing a sandwich board. And it doesn’t even say “Repent or perish.” It just says, “Perish.”
Even though it’s the worst sermon ever, the great city of Nineveh gets the message and repentant revival breaks out. Every person, from the king to the beggars, fasts and repents. They even make their animals fast and put on sackcloth. They humbly ask for mercy but don’t presume to know what God will do. Will God be merciful to them or not?
Here’s the end of the story: This is the last verse of Jonah chapter 3 and then all of chapter 4.
“When God saw what the people of Nineveh did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. (Literally translated that verse would say, “But Jonah was displeased with a great displeasure and he was burning up.” Basically, Jonah is absolutely furious.) He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’
But the Lord replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’
Jonah went out of the city and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’
‘It is,” he said. ‘And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.’
But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. So should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?'”
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
That’s it. That’s actually where the book ends, with God asking Jonah whether God shouldn’t be concerned about clueless people and also the animals.
Why I think this story is so powerful this week is because it messes with our categories of who is the hero and who is the villain. Jonah is God’s prophet, but everyone in this story is better than Jonah. The sailors who don’t even know God are pious men who are praying in the storm to their own gods, and once they hear Jonah’s story they all begin praying to Yahweh God. The people of Nineveh, the most wicked city in existence, all repent after hearing the worst sermon in history and change their ways. Even creation does the will of God through storms and plants and worms and hot winds. But not Jonah. Quite frankly, Jonah is a jerk.
Did you notice in chapter four that we finally hear why Jonah ran away from God in the first place? I’ll read it again for you. “Oh Lord, isn’t this what I said would happen? That’s why I ran away, because I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” That’s his reason! Do you get it? Jonah ran away, tried to avoid going to Nineveh, because he knew that God is so good that God would forgive the Ninevehites if they repented. His reason for not going was that he didn’t want God to be merciful to his enemies.
And so this morning, we have to ask ourselves if we have the Jonah Syndrome. Are we good and faithful people who love God, who pray, who speak out against injustice (that was one of the main jobs of a prophet), are we people who are deeply grateful for God’s mercy and grace extended to us— and yet— deep down, or maybe not so deep, we do not want that mercy and grace extended to our bitterest enemies. What other people have done is so bad that they shouldn’t get mercy. They should get punished. Maybe mercy after punishing, so like, don’t kill them or anything, but definitely punishment first.
This story pushes our buttons because it reminds us that God loves the people we hate. God has pity, God is concerned, God weeps for the city of Nineveh. God does not want to destroy the people; God wants to restore the people— even after they have done violence to other people, even after they have ignored the poor among them. God does not punish them; God woos them. In God’s eyes, no one is a lost cause. No one is beyond redemption. And that’s hard for us to take sometimes. If we’ve been good, if we’ve made the right decisions, if we’ve been kind, if we’ve been generous, then obviously God is for us and against the people who haven’t done those things. But the problem is, or maybe I should say, “the good news is” that God is for those people too.
They get the same chances we get. They get the same love we get. They get the same mercy we get. And sometimes, like Jonah, that just burns us up.
Now as I was working on this, I tried to argue with myself, because I certainly feel this way sometimes. I told myself, “Well, I’m better than Jonah because if those people in my life repented like the Ninevehites did, then I would be OK with God being merciful to them.” But really? Would I? If nothing else happened to them, no other punishment, no chance for me to gloat over their disgrace, would I really be OK with God’s mercy towards them? What about the people they have killed? What about the lives they have ruined? What about all the money they made killing people and ruining lives? They just get to repent? Yep. Just like I do. Because God is that good, that kind, that gracious, that merciful, that slow to anger, that abounding in love, and that ready to relent from punishing. God loves us. And God loves the people we hate.
Before we wrap up, I want to draw your attention to that phrase I just quoted. It’s the one Jonah used to accuse God: You are a gracious and compassionate or merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love or kindness, one who relents from punishment or doing evil. I want to tell you about some of these words.
Scholars suspect that this phrase may be one of the original creeds of the ancient Hebrew people, like our Apostles Creed or Nicene Creed. It may be one of the original statements about who Yahweh God is.
Gracious – helping those in physical or spiritual trouble
Compassionate/merciful – comes from the Hebrew word for “womb,” so affirms the motherly love of God, a love which surrounds with care and protection
Slow to anger – self explanatory, also something that people are supposed to emulate
Abounding in steadfast love/kindness – this is the Hebrew word “hesed,” and it is used 250 times as a noun in the Old Testament. It is also the word that we translate as “mercy” when we say “Do justice. Love mercy. And walk humbly with God.” The adjective version of this word is used another 30 times and almost every time, it’s translated into English as the adjective “godly.” Steadfast love, kindness, mercy, covenant loyalty, goodness, favor, grace. These are all ways of translating this phrase and it is perhaps the most important attribute of God.
Altogether, this phrase—”God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”—shows up 10 different times in the Old Testament. So if you know nothing else about God, you should know this.
Now for those of you who are really paying attention, you’re going to say, “yeah but what about the ‘relents from punishing’ part?” To which I reply make sure you tune in on the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, when I’m going to talk about that. For now, just know this: God is compassionate and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast lovingkindness. To you. And to the people you can’t stand. Because we are all equally in need of grace.
Our willingness to extend God’s grace to others is completely rooted in our ability to accept God’s grace for ourselves. If you don’t think you need God’s grace, if you’re good enough on your own, if you feel like you earned what you have, then of course you’ll want other people to earn it to. But we don’t earn it. None of us do.
The flip side of that coin is that it’s also wrong to say I get grace as a gift but you have to earn it. No. It’s a gift for everyone. We couldn’t possibly earn it. None of us are that good. We must just all accept grace as a gift. And once I realize how amazing God’s grace is for a wretch like me, I am willing to humbly open my heart and rejoice that God’s grace is also freely given to all those other wretches. Thanks be to God!
God is compassionate and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast lovingkindness. Period. If we reject that, we wind up like Jonah, resentful and alone. But when we accept it, we are free. We receive back all of that sideways energy we were spending on criticizing and judging other people. And instead we funnel that energy into the work of revealing God’s kingdom here and now, doing God’s will on earth, as it’s done in heaven. Amen.