But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. (Jonah 4:1)
It is quite possible to be irritated by God. The prophet Jonah is a good example. How God’s generosity rankles! The Almighty has gone to the trouble of commissioning a prophet to call them to repentance that they might not be destroyed but be saved. And the ‘them’ in question are the people of Nineveh: foreigners, Gentiles, the uncircumcised, the undeserving, a people whose behaviour is characterised by wickedness, a wickedness so great that God says it ‘is come up before me’, a wickedness so great that they have been arraigned before his heavenly throne. It is quite clear to Jonah that the Ninevites deserve to be destroyed and that is what should happen to them. They should be next on the list after Sodom and Gomorrah.
There is something childish about Jonah’s attitude. This is not the child-likeness associated with the Kingdom of God – simplicity and a trusting faith, but something akin to petulance. Jonah only sees the matter from his own perspective like the small child who complains that he is being unfairly treated because a sibling seems to have done better out of a situation than he has. ‘It’s not fair. He’s got more than me.’ ‘It’s not fair. I was here first.’ He does not see how matters might be disposed of differently; that there might be the possibility of a different agenda. Jonah does not have the divine perspective, he does not share God’s paternal concern for the wayward and he certainly does not have the generosity of spirit which stems from love and which is the true expression of it. Sadly this is not a case of ‘Nearer my God to thee.’ Jonah is in fact nearer to the Ninevites than he realises. All are children of the Creator and all have fallen short of his expectations. God, in his mercy, is sorting things out, but Jonah just doesn’t see it.
That last statement probably needs to be qualified. Jonah says that he understands God’s mercy.
‘For I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.’ (Jonah 4: 2)
Unfortunately he doesn’t understand God’s mercy at all. Unless he is the most obnoxious of children and hates the idea of any but himself being treated, he has not grasped the meaning of it. He understands the idea of mercy, but he does not know what it means in relation to God. At no point does he see that God’s mercy – free and unearned – can be lavished upon those he (Jonah) considers to be outsiders.
It is ironic that Jonah considers that he has an exclusive right to God’s attentions because when the call comes to preach a message of repentance he runs away. He doesn’t revel in the fact that he has been chosen, just heads for the nearest port. He avoids the issue. Much the same thing happens when the gourd dies. Jonah only sees that his shade from the scorching sun has been taken away. He does not see this wonderful illustration of the divine pity; of God reaching out to him. Perhaps he is just an angry man and there is no helping him.
There are parallels to this story in the gospels. Jesus speaks of the first being last and the last first because he realises that the childishness of Jonah can be found in all of us. We know what we have been given and would rather not share it with anyone else. We consider that our own place in the kingdom is assured and that it doesn’t matter about anyone else. We fail to see things from the Father’s perspective even whilst rehearsing the words of the evangelist,
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3: 16)
Such comfortable words can be distinctly uncomfortable if we choose to wear Jonah’s hat. Look who will be entering the Kingdom of God before us. Them.
And after all, God has only done good. The correct response is not to be irritated by him, but to be delighted in him! St. Paul’s words in Philippians are instructive. Here we discover the essence of a man who, despite many hardships, really wants to be with God and to belong to him.
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1: 21)
If that is not yet possible the Apostle is prepared to suffer for his faith – the very opposite of Jonah’s approach. Here is a true example of Christian faithfulness and maturity.
The true disciple like St. Paul – always puts God first. It is not always easy, but the picture to have in mind is that of ourselves in the company of Jesus, being instructed and taken by him along the highways and by-ways of Galilee and Judaea, of Bushey and Watford. As part of the group we can find a confidence that we would not have if we were on our own. As part of a group we can begin to see how important the others are, both to the Lord and to ourselves. That is not always easy – especially if we want a special seat at Jesus’ right or left – and there may be times when we find ourselves being angry and at odds. But being part of the band of disciples is the only way. That is what the Church is and there is no other way of seeing the extent of God’s sacrificial love.
And the longer we go on and the harder we try we should find that we are less irritated by God and more in awe of him, longing for a fuller knowledge of his presence just like St. Paul.
‘I will extol thee, my God, O king; and I will bless thy name for ever and ever.
Every day will I bless thee; and I will praise thy name for ever and ever.’ (Psalm 145: 1-2)
Father Andrew Burton SSC
20th September 2020