Jonah 3:10–4:11

In general, it is not a good idea to base complex theological understandings on snippets and sound bites. But every once in a while a short, quippy statement will say just what we need to hear (even when we don’t really want to hear it). One of these statements is from a book about writing called Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. She gives credit to a Jesuit priest friend; quoting Father Tom, she writes, “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do” (22).

Every time I hear that quote, I wince, and I have a similar reaction to the part of Jonah’s story that makes up this week’s lesson. The prophet tried to dodge God’s call by hopping aboard a ship headed the opposite direction; then he got tossed overboard when his storm-beaten shipmates realized he was causing the bad weather…. then he was swallowed down and spat back up by a monstrous fish. Through all that, Jonah remained convinced that God was “a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment” (4:2).

But now God has really crossed a line. God has changed God’s mind (3:10) and chosen not to follow through with the destruction God had decreed for the city of Nineveh. The Ninevites, those wicked people, repented—and God let them off the hook! And Jonah, who was certain of God’s grace and mercy, God’s slow anger, God’s steadfast love for himself, is now outraged that God’s grace, mercy, love, and “relenting from punishment” will benefit the wicked Ninevites. Who is God, anyway, if God does not hate the people Jonah hates?

Twice in this story, God asks Jonah a pointed question: “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4 and 4:9). I imagine this in a more modern phrase: “What’s your problem?!” Nineveh’s redemption has as little to do with Jonah as the sprouting and shriveling of a plant, but Jonah seems to take the bush, the worm, and God’s mercy toward Nineveh all as personal attacks. He might as well die—he’d even prefer it—if this is how God’s gonna be.

We don’t know how Jonah’s life story ends. Does God’s object lesson with the plant change Jonah’s heart? Does the pouting prophet roll over and die passive-aggressively in the desert sun? The book of Jonah ends with a cliffhanger, on a question from God. And it’s a question that makes me wince when I imagine God asking it to me—to my complaints about what’s fair and unfair, to the hate I express even when I won’t admit I feel hateful, to the anger and resentment I harbor against those I’ve determined don’t deserve God’s mercy and steadfast love.

What’s my problem?

Discussion

  • How do you think Anne Lamott’s quotation—“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do”—relates to Jonah’s story?
  • How does God fail to live up to the image of God that Jonah seems to have?
  • Why do you think Jonah believes in God’s mercy and love when it applies to himself and his people, but not when it applies to those he considers enemies? Can you think of modern examples where we (Christians, Americans, fill-in-the-blank with any group) have made this mistake?
  • Do you ever catch yourself taking personally things that don’t really have anything to do with you? God tells Jonah “you are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow” (v. 10); meanwhile, God is concerned for all those God has created and loves, including Jonah’s enemies. Why do we get so angry and resentful about situations that are only really between other people and God?

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is the lead editor of Connections. She is a graduate of Samford University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary, and as a military spouse has had nine (at last count) different hometowns in the past 20 years. She and her husband Scott and sons Sam and Levi live in the Washington D.C. area. In recent years, Nikki has written Smyth & Helwys curricula as well as devotionals for d365.org and Baptist Women in Ministry. She weaves clergy stoles, knits almost anything, and dreams of making her dreadful novel drafts into readable books. She blogs about faith and making things at amovingyarn.wordpress.com.

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