Posted by: jevcat | February 18, 2013

Jonah’s Tantrum

The daily lectionary starts off Lent with an Ash Wednesday reading from Jonah (3:1-4:11).  We’re past the whale here and beyond children’s Sunday School story territory – though not beyond childish behavior.  Jonah, left without any other real option, gives in and goes to Ninevah to preach doom, destruction, and repentance – and the people of Ninevah, whether from true remorse or enlightened self-interest, do repent, so God spares them – which was God’s intent all along, as Jonah well knew.

God’s mercy does not sit well with Jonah.  (He is not alone in this; far too many of us want mercy for ourselves but not for people different from us — it’s for us, not them, and bring on the schadenfreude and that wonderful sense of being justified and righteous.)  So Jonah is angry and does what any self-respecting spoiled child would do:  he gets all petulant and pouts.  And he’s justified:  all that work, going up and down the city telling them all how wicked they are, and God doesn’t even have the decency to stand behind what he’s told Jonah to tell the Ninevites and destroy them.  Arms crossed, back turned, “Humph!” says Jonah, “I wanna’ die – go ahead, kill me.”

God is, I suspect, as amused and exasperated as any parent dealing with this sort of behavior, and asks gently, “Do you do well to be angry?”  God had been a parent for a long time even then and should have known better.  No kid wants to answer that sort of question accurately, and neither does Jonah.  He just stomps up to a place with a view of the city and plops down in hopes of getting to watch a good show if God does follow through and destroy the city.  Maybe if he does this, God will feel obliged to destroy it – justice meted out with a satisfying (for the watcher) impartiality.

By this point, if I were God, I’d be more tempted to thump Jonah than anyone in Ninevah, but God is a progressive sort of parent, and still trying to lead Jonah to see the right of things on his own.  So God has a plant grow to shade Jonah.  Things are going well now, Jonah must think, feeling like a baseball fan in possession of a stadium seat with unobstructed view but just under an overhang for shelter from direct sun or rain.  But then God sends a worm to kill the plant and a hot wind, besides.

Detail of Jonah window from Christ Church College, Oxford, borrowed from http://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/cathedral/visitor-information/what-to-look-for/stained-glass

Detail of Jonah window from Christ Church College, Oxford, borrowed from http://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/cathedral/visitor-information/what-to-look-for/stained-glass

Now that things are uncomfortable, God asks again, “Do you do well to be angry?” and gets the sulky reply, lip stubbornly stuck out, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.  So there.”  (The Bible does not actually add “so there,” but I am fairly certain Jonah would have said it.  Or the Hebrew equivalent.)

Sometimes, the kid is just not going to “get” it, no matter what you do.  So God finally tells Jonah, “You have pity for the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, … And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city?”  I think this is again God trying to lead Jonah to better behavior – I sincerely doubt Jonah pitied the plant; he pitied only himself, and I’m afraid I have been in that position, too.

And that’s where the story ends.  The Bible doesn’t tell us if Jonah ever grew up and learned to think of anyone beside himself, stopped wanting to see other people punished (even if some of them are actually innocent) rather than wanting to see them move on to something better.  Maybe that’s because people in general are still trying (or not trying) to learn that lesson, and it’s not that far from “Yes, I do well to be angry” to “Crucify him!”

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