Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The foundational proposition and premise of the book of Jonah is that God is not a respecter of persons nor places.

Matthew 20:14
"Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you." Photo by Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

September 20, 2020

First Reading
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Commentary on Jonah 3:10—4:11

The foundational proposition and premise of the book of Jonah is that God is not a respecter of persons nor places.

Every person who chooses to repent and to walk and work in righteousness is invited into relationship with God. That’s because God is a God of relationship.

In fact, we have been divinely wired to participate in relationship. We have been created internally with the necessity of relationships. When one goes back to the beginning of time and looks at the when, why, what and how of creation, we see that both the focus and the function of creation were inextricably tied to relationship. That is, what God created next was created because of what God had created before it. Because what God created next would need what God created before it, in order for that created being to fully function in its providential purpose. Again, God was concerned about relationships. Thus, in creating humanity, God exhibited the same concern.

Perhaps this explains why the enemy uses relationships—our connection with people—as one of his strongest weapons in his effort to destroy our witness and steal our joy. Such was the case with Jonah. Jonah had no interest in being in relationship with the Ninevites. Their well-being was the least of his concerns.

Most readers of scripture immediately associate Jonah with being in the belly of a great fish following his failed attempt to run from God’s presence. However, the good thing for Jonah and the good thing for us is, although God does not manifest God’s presence everywhere, God is everywhere. Thus, as was the case with Jonah, we can walk out of God’s presence, but never out of God’s sight. So when Jonah tries to move out of God’s sight, he finds himself in the unusual and uncomfortable living arrangements of a fish’s belly.

Jonah’s issue is clear: he did not want to go to Nineveh. He says, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2). This reveals that Jonah was well acquainted with the heart and nature of God.

However, this knowledge did not create within Jonah a desire to strengthen his own relationship with God by aiding the Ninevites in strengthening theirs. Instead, this knowledge created a bitterness within Jonah’s heart and mind that caused him not only to long for Nineveh’s demise, but even for his own death. His desire to see Nineveh fall would place him in direct opposition to God. And, what we witness next are the consequences of a bad decision.

“Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5).

Jonah becomes the benefactor of the comfort and protection provided by this shady retreat, more specifically, the comfort and protection that has been provided by God. Rather than imputing unto the Ninevites the kindness he himself has benefited from, he opts to sit comfortably and wait to see the effects of God’s wrath on the Ninevites.

However, what the text reveals is that those unwilling to extend the benefits of relationship seldom get to continue to enjoy the benefits that come through relationship. It would not be long before the gourd would wither away, precisely at the time when he needed it most.

Ironically, this was a time in the life of the Ninevites when they needed God most. Yet, there is no indication that Jonah drew parallels between his own needs and those of the Ninevites.

Instead, he again requested his own death.

“God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘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?’” (Jonah 4:9-11).

How much more valuable is humanity, with our faults, failures, and flaws, than a weed? The text indicates that the Ninevites were able to see their wickedness and repent. Jonah never discerned the wickedness of his heart. He never questioned how he could find compassion for a plant, but not people.

However, with gentleness and patience, God demonstrates, through this exchange with Jonah, God’s continued focus on relationship. The destruction of the gourd was not to bring about harm, but instead to provide a teachable moment. God asks Jonah, “Should I not have pity?” Jesus repeats this argument in the Gospels: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11).

Every station and every standard called for the elimination of Nineveh; that is, all but one. The law called for it; prudence called for it; morality called for it; political economy called for it; survival of the fittest called for it. But there was One who saw something different, something more, something far more precious—the God of relationship.