GRACE: IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Analysis by Lori A. Cornell
3 10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
4 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6The Lord GOD appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10Then the LORD said, “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. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
DIAGNOSIS: It’s All about You
Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem) : Chosen
Jonah wasn’t suffering from delusions of grandeur. This call to be a prophet, to go to the people of Ninevah—it was all about him. (For goodness sake, the prophet was important enough to get his own book in the Old Testament after all, right?!) Out of all the Israelites, out of all the prophets, God had chosen Jonah to “cry out against” Ninevah (1:2), that city of ne’er-do-wells (or as the Prophet Nahum called it, that vile, bloody city, all full of lies and booty, 1:14). God had his reasons to speak to the people of Ninevah, and God had chosen Jonah as his spokesperson.
Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem) : Conscripted
But Jonah didn’t like the call, didn’t want the call—so he ran from the call. God may have wanted Jonah, but as far as Jonah was concerned he had been conscripted, forced into service. Jonah didn’t want to get anywhere near that “den of lions” (Nahum 2:10), and was willing to disobey God to avoid them; so Jonah went AWOL (absent without leave). Not that that helped. For while Jonah tried to high-tail it to Tarshish, God made sure Jonah got to the right destination: that “harlot” (Ninevah, see Nahum 3:19). This divine effort only confirmed Jonah’s suspicions: God wanted Ninevah to repent, so that the people could live. And Jonah wanted anything but that: “this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry” (4:1).
Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem) : Condemned
Now whose “wickedness” (1:2) was showing up before God? Jonah had decided to take things into his own hands—“put himself in the place of God” (to echo last week’s Old Testament lesson in Genesis 50:19). Initially, God gave him a dark, dank three days in the belly of Sheol (2:2), where he was (begrudgingly) put back in his proper place as prophet. It could have been worse for this sorry excuse for a prophet: God could have completely overthrown (smote) his unrepentant hide (as Jonah had threatened God would do with the Ninevites, 2:4). Finally, Jonah may have received a fate that was worse than death in his imagination: Jonah had to live with his own deadly anger (4:9) because God was gracious enough to want to preserve Ninevah (4:11).
PROGNOSIS: It’s about You, but It’s Not only about You
Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution) : Chosen
Jonah may have survived the dark, dank belly of Sheol, and his own rage—embittered though he was. But it wasn’t because of anything Jonah did that he remained alive, pouting under a withered bush. Jonah survived the fish and his own hard-hearted refusal to acknowledge God’s grace, because the very God he resented is a God who is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2).
Jonah survived the grave and avoided God’s wrath, but Jesus did not. When Jesus took his last breath of fresh air and sank into Sheol, all that was left for him was a grave. Committed to the life of the world, determined to save the sorry souls of unrepentant ne’er-do-wells like the Ninevites, Jonah, and us, Jesus surrendered himself to the life-saving rescue mission of the cross. Dedicated to a cause that would take his life, Jesus labored and died, put himself last in line for God’s favor (see Matt. 20). He died a humiliating death for a less-than-humble—often embittered—humanity. This was Jesus, God’s chosen one, living out his mission. And for us this Jesus is God in the flesh: abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
And while the belly of Sheol may have been able to hold him for three days, death spit him out for the second half of his rescue mission: Jesus’ chosen work is vindicated when he shows up “on our shores” —not to “overthrow” us, but to rain mercy on us ne’er-do-wells.
Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution) : Conscripted
So what’s a ne’er-do-well to do with such news? Well, nothing necessarily. But why ditch such news and head to Tarshish when Ninevah needs so badly to hear it? So Jesus puts us to work to announce God’s mercy and grace to the crumbling empires of our own time, and he gives us a choice about whether we want to be so angry we’d rather die than speak it, or whether we are willing to declare that his grace is for us—but not just for us. (And that is both the wonderful and uncomfortable news known as “the gospel.”)
Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution) : Called
Talking about God’s grace and mercy is never just a “Jesus and me” enterprise. The Christian life is a corporate venture. Not only are we personally joined to Jesus’ grace and mercy in faith. We are joined to each other. When we Christians talk about being “in Christ” we are saying that in Jesus we have collectively encountered a God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Each of us may have been plunged into the baptismal waters of Sheol at different times, but together we know that our old selves are being drowned and our new selves are being raised in Christ daily. In Christ, God is daily continuing the business of calling each and all of us invite more workers into Christ (and his vineyard , see Matthew 20:1-16). We speak these words not because we have to (echoes of Jonah’s complaint), but because we trust that if God is steadfast enough to love us, of course we take this good news to others. We speak God’s mercy and grace for others not because we like them, but because God loves them.