Fool’s Pardon - thrive UMC Official Blog

Fool’s Pardon

            Today we’re going to wrap up our reading from the book of Jonah.  We finished the final chapter last week, where we discovered the real reason Jonah had run away from God: he did not want the city of Nineveh to be spared from God’s judgment.  God is merciful and compassionate, patient, full of faithful love, and willing to turn from judgment; and when it turns out that God decides to relent from destroying Nineveh, Jonah becomes incensed.  And last week, we focused on Jonah’s anger at God’s compassion; but today we’re going to turn our attention to God in the same story. 

            We’re picking our reading back up in chapter 4, verses 3-11.  It opens with Jonah speaking:

At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”

The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.

Then the Lord God provided a shrub,[a] and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub.But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”

God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”

Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”

10 But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. 11 Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

We didn’t talk much about it last week, but today we’re going to take a look at this strange incident between Jonah and the plant.  God asks him the first time if his anger is good, and Jonah responds by storming off east from the city to plant himself down to watch and see if God is going to follow through and destroy the city or not. 

Now, Nineveh is located in modern-day Iraq, which means it’s hot.  So Jonah builds a little make-shift hut, probably out of things like palm branches and whatever sticks he can find to shelter himself from the elements; and he camps there, presumably for the ‘forty days’ that were to elapse before doom rained down from the heavens. And the story even tells us Jonah is in misery.  We can imagine that his little make-shift hut has all kinds of holes that still let the scorching sunlight through, so he is likely burnt, and parched and still roiling from anger at God.  And remember: the language that’s used in the Hebrew to describe Jonah’s anger is literally describing him as burning up.    

So, it says, “the LORD God provided a shrub” to grow up over Jonah, offering a more complete kind of shade and save him from the state of anguish he’s in. Two quick things about that line of the story.  First of all, there are all kinds of scholarly theories regarding the specific type of plant that’s being referred to in this passage, and many of these theories add another layer of symbolism to what’s going on in the passage.  A couple of these plant theories also suggest a connection between Jonah and Jesus.  But I’ll spare you the details for now.

The second quick thing I wanted to point out about the phrase “the LORD God provided a shrub” is that the Hebrew verb translated as “provide” is repeated four times in the book of Jonah, once in chapter 2, where God ‘provides’ a fish to swallow Jonah and deliver him to land, and here it’s repeated three more times in chapter four, where God provides first, this shrub, then a worm to kill the shrub, and then finally God ‘provides’ a dry east wind and sun to beat down on Jonah so that he becomes faint. 

Now it isn’t simply that God offers these things as a kind of arbitrary gift, but the implication of the Hebrew is that these things happen as a kind of accounting, or reckoning. In other words, these events occur as signs of God’s judgment.

God sees Jonah in his sweltering, lonely misery and literally ‘weighs out’ this shade-giving shrub to deliver him.  In the same way that God had delivered Jonah from drowning in the middle of the sea, God enters the scene again to save him from his self-imposed exile. By providing this plant.  And this makes Jonah “happy.”  In some translations, it says Jonah became ‘exceedingly glad’ about the plant. 

It wasn’t just that Jonah was being given a little relief from the heat –but the sudden appearance of this shrubbery was like unexpectedly receiving red roses from that special someone on Valentine’s Day.  For the past several days or weeks you’ve watched the person you admire interact with someone who seems to be a rival for your affection, but that gift –at just the right time- settles the question.  And Jonah witnessed the plant as a kind of symbol that God was back on his side.  If Jonah got the red roses, then that must mean –in his imagination- that Nineveh is about to receive her just comeuppance too.  Surely, at the end of those forty days, the heavens will open and the smell of Sulphur will fill the air!  And in the text you can practically Jonah rubbing his dehydrated hands together in anticipation of that moment.

But then, the very next day, God sends a worm to wilt up the sign of his hope.  Oh, and in case the message wasn’t clear enough, then God ‘weighs out’ a scorching east wind, while the sun beats down on Jonah’s head so that he becomes faint.  And then Jonah begs God to kill him, saying –for the second time- “It’s better for me to die than to live.” 

By the way, when Jonah says it would be better for him to die than to live, he’s echoing what his ancestors had said as they wandered the wilderness after being freed from Egypt.  And this complaint of the ancient Hebrews became a kind of mantra for them, and they repeated it whenever they wanted something from God. ‘Here we thought you were a mighty and saving God; but look! You’ve only sent us out here to die! Just wait until everyone else hears about this –it’s going to be such terrible publicity for you, God!’  And this is exactly what Jonah’s doing too: remember he knows that God is compassionate and full of mercy and all that stuff –so he’s trying to move God with his own pitiable condition. 

Anyone who has ever watched a game of professional soccer knows exactly what’s going on here.  Contact has been made between the two teams and one player is down on the ground, rolling around, clutching his knee, silently making that scream face.  But then the eyes of the ref move on, and suddenly the guy who’s leg was broken has a miracle healing, and he’s back up and running around.  Praise Jesus! Now, some of those players probably are legitimately hurt, right?  And when they get up, they’re playing hurt.  But if you’re going to be a good ref, you can’t be swayed by every crocodile tear.

You just can’t.

And this is what happens with God: God sees Jonah’s pity-show –which again, may very well have been real, authentic suffering- but in response to it, God asks: “Jonah, is your anger about the shrub good?”

Now, if you’re following along with the story and find yourself suddenly wondering if you missed the part where Jonah had been mad here, you didn’t.  In all likelihood what Jonah is experiencing is not anger at this moment –remember last week I had shared with you that the in the original Hebrew, it doesn’t say Jonah is mad –it says he’s ‘burning’ or ‘smoldering.’  And in the first part of the chapter, Jonah was indeed smoldering with anger; and now again, after his plant dies, he’s smoldering all over again –but this time it’s a different kind of burn. The first time, he was burning with outrage at God’s compassion, but now he’s burning from the sun and the hot wind of his voluntary exile. 

Do we see what’s going on here?  Jonah is trying to get God to change his mind, first with anger by throwing accusations at God, and then he tries to move God by throwing a lonely pity-party for himself.  And all the while, Jonah tries to pin the responsibility for his suffering on God; but God turns around and asks:

‘Jonah, is any of this burning good?’  

And of course Jonah insists that it is –to the point of death!  Indeed, Jonah has staked his very life on the position he’s taken. 

But God has a different way of seeing things.  And this is where the whole story gets turned on its head.  Listen to this –let me read the last two verses of the book again.  “But the LORD said, ‘You “pitied” the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night.  Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and so many animals?’”

Here God invites Jonah to look about how much the silly little shrubbery meant to him. Look how happy it made you!  And look at how devastated you were when it shriveled up.  You didn’t make it or own it, Jonah.  It was there for a day and gone.  But look at that huge, grand city, Jonah!  There are a hundred and twenty thousand people who live there!  Can’t I care about them? And listen: they don’t –not a single one of them- know their right hand from their left! 

Two things you have to know about that last line.  And these are doozies.  Oh man, I’ve waited this whole series just to get to this line. 

First, I did a lot of searching trying to find out what exactly the phrase “they can’t tell their right hand from their left” means.  And it turns out there are a lot of interpretations out there –and a bunch of them were great.  But the one I found to be the most compelling was this one.

Do any of you know why, when we shake hands, we only ever shake with our right hands?

It’s because most people are right handed!  And people who are right handed use their right hand to do things like write and eat and stab people with swords with their right hand.  So we shake hands with our right hands to show people, right away, that we don’t have a weapon in it with which to try and kill them.  It’s that simple.

Now, for those of you who are right handed, what is the explicit purpose of your left hand?  What is the one thing you do with only your left hand? 

I’ll give you a clue here: if you don’t know, it’s because anti-bacterial soap has been invented.  In most cultures across the world, to this very day –if you don’t have ready access to soap, you don’t touch other people or food with your left hand.  Because your right hand is for food input.  And your left hand… in case you haven’t figured this out yet… is for food output. 

And here God is saying that this whole huge city doesn’t distinguish between their right hand and their left hand.  Are we getting the picture here? Nineveh is a city that has no signs or customs, anywhere, telling its restaurant employees to wash their hands after going to the bathroom.   They have no hygiene and no boundaries of sanitation (which for the ancient Jewish people, sanitation was huge –it’s why you can find specific proscriptions for digging latrines in the bible).  So when God talks about all these people who don’t know their right hand from their left –and all the animals, God is putting them all in the same category!  This is a whole city of people who live like beasts –but here’s the thing, Jonah: they can’t tell the difference because they don’t know any better. 

They just don’t know. 

This gets me to the second crucial thing you need to know about these closing lines of Jonah to see what’s going on. In ancient Judaism, what makes the difference between a forgivable sin and an unforgivable sin –does anyone know?  It was the intent of the person acting! It was your heart.  If you committed a sin on accident, or by mistake, then you could be forgiven!  But if you did it knowingly and on purpose, then they believed you were going to reap it.  No mercy or compassion for you –who sin with eyes wide open!  Even the temple sacrifices were explicitly for sins committed unawares, or realized after the fact. 

And not only that, but animals can’t sin –because they can’t learn.  And the children of a certain age weren’t held accountable for what would otherwise be considered a sin in an adult, because they weren’t deemed old enough to possess sufficient wisdom or understanding.  This is a deep and enduring aspect of Judaism.  So, when God points out that this whole city is ignorant and barbaric or worse –God is also making a very blatant and compelling case for why the inhabitants of Nineveh should be considered worthy of mercy.  Their ignorance makes them eligible for a pass…. Because they don’t know. 

They don’t know what they’re doing… therefore they are perfect candidates for mercy and forgiveness.

And here, precisely at the teachable moment, the story abruptly and starkly ends.  ‘You had passion for a shrub!’ Jonah –‘Can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left… and also many animals?” asks God.

And, boom, the curtain drops. 

No answer or holy proclamation.  Just a wide-open question, and everyone’s jaws are on the floor.

Now, if you get to the end of the book of Jonah and you’re not squirming, and pulling on your collar a little bit, then you are in with the Ninevites –you don’t know what’s going on here. Because this closing line of dialogue by God isn’t just a question, but it is also a scathing accusation. 

Here God is reminding Jonah that mercy is for the ignorant.   Forgiveness is for kids and animals and savages. So what about you, Jonah?  Do you know what you’re doing?

And by the way, this story isn’t just about Jonah, but this is also about us, as people who have been given a life-giving teaching and purpose-giving calling: you, brothers and sisters in Christ, do you know what you’re doing? 

In those moments where you’ve run away from God and the calling you were given, did you know?  When you withheld compassion and forgiveness from others, did you understand what you doing?  When you went through such great lengths to justify your stance and your anger and your self-pity before God, did you do it with eyes wide open, and under the full authority of someone well-versed in God’s teaching?

                     Did you?  Did you know?

                     Because if you did, then you’re standing outside the bounds of mercy, because you knew better.