One thing I really like about the Old Testament in our Bibles is that we see people in the raw. Nothing seems to be covered up. The Bible refuses to focus only on people who have positive, fulfilling relationships with God. It shows both bad and good in even its greatest heroes – even when they would rather hurl abuse at God than sit quietly and at peace in his presence. The story of Jonah is a case in point.
In the reading set for 20th September 2020, Jonah is sulking; angry & resentful that the enemies of his people should be let off the punishment he thinks they deserve, just because they have repented. Jonah has a problem with God!
Do you remember the story of Jonah? God tells him to go & preach in Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, a hated enemy of Israel, so he jumps on a boat to Spain. God brings about a storm, Jonah realises that he’s the cause and gets the sailors to throw him into the sea. A big fish swallows Jonah, and three days later spews him out onto the shore – by now a chastened man, ready to do what God wants of him. He goes to Nineveh, still wanting the city to be destroyed – and tells them that they have forty days in which to repent. And Nineveh listens, its people repent – God is merciful and does not destroy the city.
This makes Jonah really angry, livid – that God should be merciful to the sworn enemies of his people. Like a sulking child, Jonah spits out his contempt of God – “I knew it would end up like this! If you’d listened to what I said, this would never have happened.” He even has the gall to quote the psalms he knows:- … “You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” … Jonah’s not praising God, but saying that God’s love is irritating and inappropriate.
“Let me die – I’d be better off dead,” says Jonah”. You can just see him, can’t you, sitting down with a sulky face, arms crossed, not looking God in the eye.
We’ve all done it, we’ve all been there. Self-righteous indignation makes us boil, and we take it out on those around us. Whether that’s our parents when we were younger, our spouses or very good friends, I guess they’ve all been on the receiving end of our sulks.
How does God deal with it? There’s no attempt at self-defence. That would be my natural instinct in the same situation. God knows where his prophet is coming from and he loves this angry ball of resentment just as much as ever. Loving parents on the receiving end of anger and resentment from their children, know that usually it’s a lack of understanding or experience that is behind the outburst. They know that, if possible, they should stay calm and loving and pick up the pieces once the child has got over their sulk. So too with God. He gives Jonah a little time, a little comfort and a little experience in the shape of the vine that enables Jonah to see things from God’s perspective.
The point Jonah had completely missed, that we often forget, is that God doesn’t only love and care for those we think he ought to. He doesn’t share our lines of demarcation which make some (usually including ourselves) “deserving” and others not. When Jesus started to live out God’s love in practice: spending time with gentiles, tax collectors and prostitutes, religious people were disgusted that God might choose such people for his friends. Time and again in the Gospels, Jesus tries to help us understand that God’s love is so much wider and more far-reaching than we seem to grasp.
Look at the Gospel reading set for 20th September 2020. In this parable,the first lot of workers see the generosity of the employer to those who started work late, as a raw deal for themselves and resent it. … If our basis for reckoning in life is simply what we’re worth on an hourly rate, then the longest working labourers have a point.
But the owner sees things differently, he sees the needs of those left in the market place, just as God sees all people with their needs and is concerned to provide for them all.
Both in our own lives, and in the life of our churches we can fall into the trap of wondering why God blesses some people and not others. It’s not fair – why does life seem to go so right for someone we know who never darkens the door of the church, when my life’s difficult? It’s not fair – why do other churches seem to be growing, when this church is not?
Life doesn’t always seem fair. But step back, look at the bigger picture, what is God doing in other people’s lives, drawing them back to him. Perhaps in doing this we will gain deeper understanding into why certain things are happening, that will enable us to see God’s purpose.
Whenever we see God’s generous love in evidence, however much of a surprise, we mustn’t question or quibble, but should rejoice with the angels at the amazing love of God.