It is a larger than life tale – an animated movie of a story, in which God uses a storm, a big fish, a leafy plant, and a worm to get Jonah’s attention.
It is a story of exaggeration, in which even the cattle in Ninevah repent.
The story of Jonah may be thought of as an early parable – an outrageous story, told to challenge its hearers and turn their assumptions upside down.
You probably know the basic outline of the story.
God speaks to Jonah, in the classic formula of a prophetic call.
God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and tell the people to repent.
Ninevah is a political enemy of Israel, and a very dangerous city.
Jonah quickly decides to go – as far from Ninevah as possible –
and he gets on a boat going in the opposite direction.
God sends a storm to harry the boat,
and finally Jonah admits to the terrified crew that he is probably
the cause of the storm, since he is running away from God.
They throw him overboard, and he is swallowed by a great fish,
which saves him from drowning.
In the belly of the fish, Jonah prays.
He thanks God for saving him, and agrees to go to Ninevah.
In what I think is a central moment to the story, he prays,
“salvation belongs to God
He admits that he and Ninevah and all the world are in God’s hands.
So he goes to Ninevah, where he meets amazing success as a preacher.
His message to the people of Ninevah is,
“‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
And the whole city repents in sackcloth and ashes.
The king demands that even the animals be covered in sackcloth.
No prophet has ever been so successful.
God forgives the people of Ninevah, and we have a happy ending, right?
No, for Jonah there is not a happy ending.
This is the part of the story where the lesson for today picks up.
Jonah is angry – so angry that he wants to die.
And he tells God – it wasn’t because he was afraid that he refused to go the Ninevah –
it was because he knew something like this might happen!
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 cannot accept God’s mercy to his enemies.
He would rather die than see God forgive the people of Ninevah.
So the story goes on, with God using a plant that grows overnight and is eaten by a worm
as an object lesson for Jonah.
The book of Jonah ends where today’s reading ends, with God’s words to Jonah:
“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 Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
God’s words leave the reader hanging with the questions –
Is it not right for me to show mercy?
Are the people of Ninevah not also my people?
What are you so angry about?
Jonah stomps his feet like a toddler when God forgives his enemies,
wanting to see them punished, to see them suffer as they have caused Israel to suffer.
It reminds me of my boys, who can be so angry when I don’t punish their brothers the way they think they ought to be punished.
It’s the classic thinking of elementary school kids – everything is about fairness,
the same reward and punishment to everyone, everything equal.
It’s just like what Fr. Doug talked about last week – the quid pro quo thinking which
wants every action to be met by an equal reaction of reward or punishment.
But our lessons today try once again to give us a vision beyond quid pro quo,
into the realm of God’s generosity and grace.
First we have God, not only forgiving the wicked Ninevites,
but pursuing a relationship with Jonah again and again as he runs away
and has temper tantrums and generally acts like a spoiled child.
Then we have the parable of the generous householder,
who pays a daily wage to all his laborers, no matter how early or late they came to work.
A number of commentators related the daily wage paid by the householder to the “daily bread” we pray for in the Lord’s prayer.
We pray together, week after week, “give us this day our daily bread,”
but do we really mean it?
Or do we really mean “give me this day my daily bread” –
give me what I deserve, and everyone else only what they deserve.
That is the question raised by the parables we read this week.
How do we really feel about God’s mercy?
I suspect that our discomfort with the story of the generous householder has two sources.
It is difficult to see the people we really dislike –
the ones we think are wrong, the ones we see hurt the people around them,
the ones we would really like to see get what’s coming to them –
receive God’s mercy.
I’ve heard it said that for all of us,
even those of us who consider ourselves most inclusive and generous,
there is someone we will be surprised to meet at the banquet table in heaven.
But perhaps there is another reason as well.
Perhaps this is hard for us because, deep down, it is hard for us to accept God’s generosity. It is hard for us to believe that God’s grace and mercy are truly free gifts, given in love.
Deep down, we really wonder if we don’t have to earn God’s love -
to be good enough, to believe the right things, to somehow deserve God’s gift of grace.
So these parables, with their message of God’s radical grace and mercy,
set us off balance a bit.
And these two responses to the parable are related.
Because if we can’t trust or accept God’s free gift of love for us,
it is ever so much harder to extend a reflection of that gift to the people around us.
I want to invite you now to take a few moments to simply sit in silence
and contemplate God’s love for you.
Maybe with the words “You are my beloved child,” repeated over and over to yourself.
Maybe with an image – for me, it is an image I purchased long ago at a convent in Wisconsin, of a child held in an open palm, surrounded by the waters of baptism.
Or if you have experience with silent prayer, simply sit in the silence and listen for the voice of God, who loves you beyond measure.
(two minutes of silence – bring bowl to end)
The Lord is gracious and merciful, full of compassion;
the Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
May God’s generous love and mercy be the very source of life and wellbeing for each one of us, today and always.