Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

God commanded the prophet of Israel to preach repentance to a faraway city whose evil was so great it rose up heavenward like a stench.

September 21, 2008

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

God commanded the prophet of Israel to preach repentance to a faraway city whose evil was so great it rose up heavenward like a stench.

Jonah’s vain efforts to refuse this mission and his bitter pain at its success have earned him the ridicule of commentators and preachers who call him petulant and small-minded, as though he hated the idea that God could care about Gentiles.

A closer look at what Jonah’s earliest readers knew tells a different story: Nineveh wasn’t just any evil city. It was the capital city of the ruthless empire that would obliterate the kingdom of Israel within decades of Jonah’s saving mission. God planned evil against them for their sins. But Jonah knew better: for Nineveh, God’s mercy would prevail over God’s justice. And mercy for Nineveh would one day spell destruction, death, and deportation for Jonah’s home and people.

Jonah wanted no part in God’s plan; he fought it with all his power. The fourth century CE poem Carmen de Iona et Ninive (“Song of Jonah and Nineveh”) gave voice to Jonah’s struggle, as he raged against such a costly mercy: “See! I am the storm! I am all the madness of the world. Against me the heavens rush and the sea rises. In me the earth is far, death is near, there is no hope of God!” Jonah was not small-minded. But neither could he see the good news that his mission would spell life for 120,000 people and unnumbered cattle. He carried the hope of God to a people that had seemed beyond hope.

On the heels of Jonah’s successful preaching and the Ninevites’ remarkable repentance, God relented of the evil God had planned to do to them, exchanging justice for mercy (3:10). Jonah was upset–the text literally says, “It was evil to him a great evil” (4:1). Jonah became angry, and he prayed to God, asking God to let him die. God responded instead with a question: “Is it good for you to be angry?” (4:4). Jonah’s refusal to answer invites us deeper into the struggle between justice and mercy, salvation and death, prophet and God.

Now we see Jonah exit the city, stationing himself on the east side, and setting up a booth, watching and waiting for something more to happen. The mission to Nineveh is over, but the crux of the book is here, in the lessons God hopes to teach the angry prophet.

God’s lessons begin with a plant. Its name, (in Hebrew) qiqayon, hints at a deeper meaning than we might at first suspect. This hapax legomenon (a word that occurs only once in the biblical corpus) plays with the sounds and letters of the verb qāya’, “to vomit,” which described the fish’s vomiting of Jonah in 2:11, and those of Jonah’s name, yônah. The living parable of the plant will teach Jonah not only about God’s concern for Nineveh, but also about Jonah.

Vomited from the fish, delivered from death, Jonah performed God’s work of salvation for Nineveh, saving them from their evil just as the plant was to “save” Jonah from his evil (lehatsîl lô mērā‛ātô  4:6). God needed this prophet who knew God’s merciful nature (“I knew that you are a gracious God” 4:2) to teach a people who not only did not know God’s nature but did not “know their right hand from their left” (4:11). So Jonah became the shading plant protecting Nineveh.

But now God appoints a little worm to smite the plant, and it withers–it does not bode well for Jonah. The scorching sun and wind beat on Jonah’s head, and he faints. Without the plant’s protection he cannot stand. He begs for death. God asks him now, “Is it good for you to be angry about the qiqayon-plant?” (4:9). And this time Jonah answers, “Yes, it is good for me to be angry, unto death” (4:9).

God is not put off by this answer: it is honest. Jonah has lost an unexpected good–the great joy śimhāh gedôlāh  he found in the plant. Now God compares the plant to Nineveh, “that great city,” posing a final question to Jonah: Jonah cared for the plant God made, and grieved when he lost it. He didn’t labor over it, didn’t raise it. It came one night and was gone the next. What about Nineveh? How should God feel about Nineveh, a city with 120,000 people who don’t know their right from their left–without Jonah’s preaching, they don’t know which way to go, and don’t know what is right–and so many innocent cattle? They are God’s creatures all–and if they are truly like Jonah’s plant, then their repentance has brought God great joy.

Should God also care about Nineveh? For Jonah, the question sounds like this: should God care about the cruel killers who will soon kill Jonah’s own people and destroy his homeland? Do they deserve mercy? Do they deserve to be saved? Does it even matter to God what they deserve? Does a good God dispense with justice, just because God cares about everyone, even the cattle? Where is the justice in God’s grace?

The story ends with this question, with Jonah still sitting outside the city, waiting to see what will happen. We are left wrestling with the goodness of God, a goodness that is not a respecter of persons or animals. We wrestle with the goodness of God that demands that we be God’s grace to our enemies, and to the innocent in their midst. This goodness hounds us, follows us into the belly of the boat and the beast, into every place where we try to escape our calling, and calls us out to speak the saving truth of repentance and mercy for all of God’s creatures.