Fairness, love, and grace (Jonah 3-4)

The customer is always right, but then again so is everybody.

I’ve been reading two interesting books lately.  The first is the book of Jonah, in preparation for this sermon, and the second is a book by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt entitled: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion.  And no, the story of a pre-modern prophet is not as different from modern psychology as you might think.

We are wired to be righteous, Haidt explains.  People tend to think they’re right about most things.  One of the reasons I avoid things like Facebook lately is because every discussion seems to turn into a factory for self-righteousness, conversations in which people talk past each other in an effort to assert their viewpoint.

It doesn’t help that this is an election season.  Political divisions seem to get wider and wider every year, to the point that our politicians occupy the most extreme ends of conservative and progressive politics.  Which only means that we see our opponents not merely as different, but evil.


Slide4When God gave Jonah a second chance, Jonah agrees to go and call the city of Nineveh to repentance.  Loving others makes us uncomfortable.  Recall from earlier that the Assyrian inhabitants of Nineveh weren’t exactly friends of the Israelites.  Jonah would have had a natural fear of those who are different.  Yet he obeys by preaching to the city:

Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.”

3 This time Jonah obeyed the Lord’s command and went to Nineveh, a city so large that it took three days to see it all. 4 On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” 5 The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow.

6 When the king of Nineveh heard what Jonah was saying, he stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed himself in burlap and sat on a heap of ashes. 7 Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city:

“No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. 8 People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. 9 Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.”

10 When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:1-10)

Jonah is successful.  He’s got the kind of success that most pastors only dream of.  A whole city?  This is the kind of thing that makes for a great book deal.  At the very least, it’s cause for rejoicing.


Jonah, however, isn’t having any of it.

This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry.2 So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. 3 Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”

4 The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” (Jonah 4:1-4)

Slide5Jonah is upset because he wanted the Ninevites to be punished instead of saved.  In Haidt’s book, he explains that our moral sense is like a tongue with six different kinds of “taste buds.”  People who are political progressives, he says, tend to rely on the moral sense of compassion and equality.  Conservatives share these senses, but also appeal to such things as authority and fairness.  Violate these categories, and an enemy is soon made.

I think something similar is happening with Jonah.  God’s grace seems wildly unfair.  He doesn’t want to see the Ninevites’ salvation; he wants the very fires of heaven to rain down on their heads.  They’ve done wrong, and God’s compassion is now a source of anger.

There’s a deep irony here—pun intended.  Jonah had disobeyed the Lord as well, running to Tarshish instead of obeying his calling.  If we were to read the original Hebrew, we’d find that the phrase “greatly upset” comes from the Hebrew yara.  Earlier the word (or at least a version of it) was used to refer to the Ninevites’ wickedness ( Jonah 1:2). Now the word is being used to refer to Jonah’s displeasure.  It’s as if the author is trying to remind us that Jonah has become the very thing he hated most.

Jonah had become so blinded by his personal sense of fairness that he failed to realize that the grace that had saved him could also save this city.  So God taught him a careful lesson:

5 Then Jonah went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under as he waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 And theLord God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there, and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah’s head, shading him from the sun. This eased his discomfort, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant.

7 But God also arranged for a worm! The next morning at dawn the worm ate through the stem of the plant so that it withered away. 8 And as the sun grew hot, God arranged for a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than living like this!” he exclaimed.

9 Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”

10 Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. 11 But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:5-10)

The story ends here—quite abruptly, as a matter of fact.  The author is trying to prompt us to examine our own hearts and our own motivations.  Does our personal sense of justice outstrip our capacity for compassion?  Are we willing to extend grace to others?

Not as long as we insist that we’re right; not as long as we dismiss God’s grace as impractical or unfair.  Think hard on this, because, again, this is an election year.  When we yell at the “liberals” on TV (or on Facebook), are we truly communicating the love of God?  This is not to say that there can’t be room for civil disagreement and dialogue, but surely our allegiance to God’s kingdom becomes evident in how we treat one another.  For the real test of God’s grace is not how we treat our friends, but how well we treat our enemies and our opponents.  For all have sinned and fallen short of the grace that shines in the life of the lowly and the desperate.

2 thoughts on “Fairness, love, and grace (Jonah 3-4)

  1. The scripture says “Be quick to hear” — which is an important thing to remember if we are have personal frustration listening to other people.

    I just bring that up because it slightly relates to your comments on social media and the political divide.

  2. I keep coming back to this story. I come back to this lesson because I feel if anyone needs a whale right now its me. I dont want one, but I want to grow so badly and so GOD, I say, do whatever you have to do to draw me in. Fix me! Fix me Father, heart, soul, spirit, character… I want you to see your reflection in me.

    And when youre done, dont let me forget, that Im just one step up on the food chain, one notch higher that Jonah’s plant. I didn’t save myself, it was your grace God. Your unmeritted, undeserved favor and before I can even think of becoming prideful im reminded of all of this.

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