Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Fish Story

This is an excerpt from a blog of my friend Bert Gary.

(click on the title go to his blog)

Remember Jonah and the giant fish (The Old Testament Book of Jonah)? This story is a perfect example of the scandal of God’s mercy. Jonah despised God’s mercy and wanted nothing to do with it!

Jonah is in Galilee, Israel. God tells him to go northeast to preach in Nineveh. It’s an Assyrian city in what is today Mosul, Iraq. Jonah without a word goes southwest to Joppa and boards a ship headed to Tarshish, the location of which is uncertain, but might be a reference to a region in faraway Spain! That’s as far as you can go via the Mediterranean Sea, and obviously it’s in the opposite direction that God instructed. Exactly where Jonah was headed is not necessary to get the point. God said go this way. He went the other.

Jonah tells the crew of his ship that the terrible storm they are experiencing is his fault. He’d disobeyed God and they should throw him overboard. He is guilty and deserves to die without mercy. This is Jonah’s way of showing God how judgment is supposed to work! If you’re guilty of disobeying God, God should show no mercy to you. It’s as if Jonah’s saying, See, God? Here’s how you’re supposed to do your job. I’m guilty. I should be destroyed. Nineveh’s guilty. It should be destroyed. Jonah is giving God an object lesson on how to be God! And Jonah sees no room for mercy. He wants the punishment he deserves, and he’d rather die than offer Nineveh a chance.

God, however, shows mercy to disobedient, arrogant Jonah by sending a big fish to rescue him. And God leaves him in the fish three days to give him a chance to think about this mercy business.

After the fish spits him on the beach Jonah heads for Nineveh. When he gets there he preaches a halfhearted sermon to only a fraction of the city. But against all odds the pitiful sermon he preached works. Nineveh listens and responds. And Jonah is fit to be tied:

Jonah 4:1-3 [T]his was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

2 He 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.

3 And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." (italics mine)

But God shoots back at Jonah:

Jonah 4:4 And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?"

Anger is an appropriate and normal human emotion. Jesus himself got angry. (Mark 3:5) God’s not telling Jonah that anger is wrong. God is asking Jonah if he really thinks he has a right to be mad about this situation. Does he have a right to be angry that God is merciful? But Jonah doesn’t answer the question. He ignores God and the implication of what he has asked.

Instead, Jonah goes outside the city and makes a shelter to protect himself from the scorching desert heat. He sits himself down to watch God destroy Nineveh, as God should have done in the first place! He finds the idea of God’s mercy absolutely incomprehensible. Jonah never expected his pitiful unenthusiastic sermon to work. He never thought they’d listen or change. They deserve to die, and Jonah has a front row seat for the show! It’s a sit-in. It’s a protest. He is going to sit there until the God of the universe starts to act like the condemning god Jonah had created in his own mind. He wants fire and brimstone to rain down on those people. The god of his imagining would not and could not show mercy to Assyrians. They are enemies. They are evil. And Nineveh is the nerve center of the beast. If God is God, he must destroy them. Jonah sits and waits for God to repent (change his mind--metanoia) and do “the right thing”!

God, however, throws Jonah a curve ball—an object lesson of his own. He makes a shady bush grow up over Jonah to further protect him from the heat. Jonah thinks, now that’s more like it. God should reward good people (like me). And he should punish the evil people (like the Ninevites). If only Jonah had binoculars to see them suffer up close! Jonah watches in anticipation of “the show.” But God doesn’t destroy the city. Instead, God destroys the bush!

Now Jonah is really mad. He tells God again just to let him die. He can’t stand living in a universe where Assyrians get mercy, innocent bushes get smited, and God’s messengers get toasted in the blistering heat. God speaks to Jonah again about his outrage. Listen to this exchange. With it the Book of Jonah abruptly ends:

Jonah 4:9-11 But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?"

And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die."

10 Then 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. 11 And 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?"

God is scandalously merciful, says the Book of Jonah. The End.

Luke records Jesus saying, “. . . [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Then Jesus continues by telling you and me (and Jonah!) to be like that too. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35b-36) Be scandalously merciful.

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