The Book of Jonah
The Book of Jonah is an odd little book. It starts how most books that feature prophets start: with notice that God has spoken to the prophet. The formula for prophetic books is clear and predictable. Isaiah begins: The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah and a bunch of other kings of Judah. Jeremiah begins: The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, 2 to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of King Josiah . Jonah begins: Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
This is where the similarities end. Most of the prophets put up some resistance. They say they’re not worthy; they say they don’t have the proper gifts; they point out the reasons God maybe made a mistake in choosing them for this job. But not Jonah. He doesn’t argue; he doesn’t say “no”; he doesn’t say a word. Jonah simply runs away. He doesn’t even hang around to hear what message God wants him to deliver. We all know what happens next. God tells him to go to Nineveh, which is in the land of the Assyrians, and instead he boards a ship headed in the opposite direction.
While he is at sea, a terrible storm comes up. The ship’s crew members try to determine whose god is punishing them, and the signs point to Jonah. He admits that he is running away from God, and they ask him how to appease his god. Jonah tells them he must be thrown into the sea, which they do. A giant fish swallows Jonah, and he lives in the belly of the fish for three days until the fish spits him up on dry land. Then Jonah does what God told him to do in the first place and goes to preach to Nineveh.
Jonah has a very short speech to deliver: only eight words in English and five in Hebrew. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Nineveh is a three-day walk, and after just one day of walking through the city, delivering this message, the whole city repents. The people, the king, even the animals. They’re all wearing sack cloth and ashes. This is unprecedented success for a prophet. Usually the prophets are not believed until it’s too late. Jonah spends one day as a prophet, delivers a one-sentence message, and everybody repents. And in response, chapter three verse 10 tells us: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that God had said God would bring upon them; and did not do it.”
But is Jonah happy? No, he is not! I will read from chapter four. “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then 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.”
This is the first time that we find out why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. Remember, he never spoke at the beginning of the story. But now we find out that he didn’t want to preach to the people of Nineveh because he was afraid his message would be received. We are told that it’s not because he was sure of his own preaching skills, but because he was very sure of God’s mercy. And mercy was the last thing he wanted to see for the people of Nineveh. In fact, “he would rather die than live to see the Assyrians receive Yhwh’s mercy.”
Now, the text doesn’t tell us why Jonah hated Nineveh because the original audience for the story would have already known full well. The story is set in the mid 700s BCE, but was probably written down in the 500s BCE, so we have two different ancient audiences. During the original setting for the story, “the Assyrians were not too popular in Israel because in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, they plundered Palestine, looting and burning its cities and deporting its inhabitants.” That’s why Jonah wanted nothing to do with Nineveh. It’s not just that it was an evil city in the eyes of God. It was the capitol city of their oppressors.
But all that took place before Jonah’s mission. Immediately after Jonah it gets worse. “Nineveh’s deliverance in Jonah’s lifetime means that it will ‘live to fight another day,’ so to speak. And fight it will: in 722 the northern kingdom will be utterly destroyed by the Assyrians, and for much of the next century Judah and Jerusalem will be firmly under the thumb of Assyria. God’s mercy for Nineveh appears then, to come at a cost to Jonah, and to Israel.” When this story was written down in the 500s BCE, the audience knew this history. They knew the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and weakened the southern kingdom so that it was defeated by the same people who ultimately defeated the Assyrians—the Babylonians. I’m guessing Jonah wasn’t the only one who regretted God’s mercy to the Assyrians.
Now, how many of you were taught THIS part of the story in Sunday school? As a child, I was only taught the “whale” part of this story, along with the lesson, “Don’t run from God.” I didn’t know that God was saving their enemy . . . and thereby also signing their nation’s death warrant.
Of course, we know this story is not factual. There was no man named Jonah who was actually swallowed by a giant fish and managed to live in the fish’s stomach acid for three days before being spit up onto dry land. We know this is myth. The question is: why? Why would the people tell this story? Was it simply to express their anger with God for letting them be overrun by the Assyrians? Or was it to remind them that God is more merciful than just? Or was it to assure them that if God could forgive the Assyrians, then God surely could forgive them?
It’s not a bad message—not for them and not for us. We need it, too, because like Jonah, we have hate in our hearts. You probably don’t like that word, and may even be thinking, “Speak for yourself, Cindy! I don’t hate anybody.” That may be true. Or maybe you only think it’s true. Maybe you loathe / despise / intensely dislike someone. Maybe you refuse to offer the benefit of a single doubt or allow them an ounce of understanding.
And maybe you have every right. Maybe they assaulted your body or spirit. Maybe they don’t deserve your forgiveness. Maybe they’d be easier to forgive if they didn’t keep doing new bad stuff every single day! But do you deserve to carry the weight of the hate? Are you punishing yourself by carrying the burden of unforgiveness?
The writer Anne Lamott wrote beautifully about this topic this week on Facebook. She was writing in part about her feelings about the political scene, but I will edit her (forgive me, Anne) and simply refer to opponents. She also mixes use of male and female pronouns for God so I’ll leave those as written. She says:
“Every so often, I mention a book I’ve always thought about writing, called All The People I Still Hate: A Christian Perspective. Half the people responding roar with laughter and say, “I’d read that,” and half are sort of horrified….
You’re not supposed to hate, because hate is ugly and diminishes the soul of the hater. But if I were to be honest, I’d admit that I could still write the book, about some of our leaders and one really special ex-boyfriend. But I got the miracle.
There is an entire chapter in [my] new book titled, “Don’t Let Them Get You to Hate Them,” about the steps I took to reduce my crazed fever dream hatred of certain people…. [It’s] about how all willingness to change and heal from anything addictive, whether alcoholism, dieting, binging, or hatred, begins with the pain of staying the same.
A sober relative once told me that he and his friends, working the 12 Step program, all reached Step Zero before they did step One (which involves admitting that they were powerless over their drinking and that their lives had become unmanageable.) But before that, they had to arrive at Step Zero: they woke up one morning, sick and tired, and said to themselves, “This [expletive] has GOT to stop.”
I did the hate for a full year after [political event]. It was kind of exhilarating, definitely mood-altering—I could go from despair and hopelessness, to adrenalized, not quite on fire but hot. I was so stuck, so clenched, my mind filled with tiny rats; I didn’t even know who I would be without my hate. I felt that if I gave it up, they would win, in the paranoid sense of the word They. I would become a mealy-mouthed blob of fear and indecision, like, well, right off the top of my head, [insert political opponent]…. Who, very recently, I was loathing. And now, through the miracle of Step Zero, prayer, radical self-care, and looking in the mirror for the source of the problem—at my own fear, my inner blowhard, I am not hating her—very often, or nearly as much.
There’s a story in [my recent book] about one of my 8- year-old Sunday School students, to whom I asked this question one day: ‘Do you believe that God, and Goodness, are always with us, within us, around us, to comfort or guide, to gentle our hearts and help us get our sense of humor back?’
He thought about this a minute, and then said, ‘About Eighty percent.’ . . . 80% of anything—sincerity, faithfulness, healthy eating, or truth-telling—is a small miracle.
So after I reached critical mass with my hatred last year, and realized I had lost myself, felt toxic and trashy, imprisoned and steamrolled, and was becoming them, and that this was what they wanted, I did the most amazing thing. I stopped in my tracks. I asked myself, ‘What if you have a year left on this vale of tears, this world of wonders, this funny blue marble. Is this how you choose to live?’
Of course not. I want to be a Love bug…. Revenge empties our reserves, sickens us, and makes our skin look like hell.
My insight is that we are a dangerous species. Cain is still killing Abel, and at the same time, paradoxically, we are as vulnerable as kittens. So yeah, we get scared, and we blame, and we judge, and we bask in our self-righteous victimization. And we are all, even [our opponents], precious children of God, with equal standing in the family of mankind and womankind….That’s called the mystery of grace.
So if I were to have written a book called All the People I Hate: A Christian Perspective, I should have done so a year ago. It’s all been sort of ruined by the work of the last year. If I were to be honest, I do hate [names someone], or at least every single thing he does and says. But less. Twenty percent of me remembers that he is a man who has never once been loved, never once, except maybe by his kids…. Twenty percent of me aches for the total barbaric ruins of his inner life. Twenty percent. That is a miracle. And on top of that, I’ve realized that God…never leaves him and aches for him, too, pulls for him to be transformed by Love, loves him as a mother does her child. Love is WAY beyond what I am personally comfortable or familiar with….
And even when I am still working on the eighty percent part where I have so much rage about some people, I know that God in her infinite divine weirdness still loves hateful revengeful me as much as She loves the perfect baby we played with in Austin.
How can these things be true? You got me; but I know that my belovedness and inclusion in this precious community of All Of Us are due to God having such low standards…. I have absolute hope that we are, and will continue to be okay (well…eighty percent of the time.)
I believe, against all odds, that if we stick together…we can be Love with skin on. We can be present in barbaric times, and at the same time be nourished by the gorgeous and inspiring things all around us. We can be free.”
I agree. We can be free from the weight of hate. We can be free from the burden of rage. We can be free from the chains of animosity. We can be free from hate. I think many of us carry a little hate around with us.
And if you’re in the small percentage of people who do not, then hear this story.
“Corey Fleischer owns a power-washing company in Montreal. On his way to work one day he saw a swastika spray-painted on a street corner. He couldn’t get that image out of his mind, so he left his appointment…and went back to erase the offending graffiti. Watching the hateful graffiti wash away, Fleischer says a euphoria came over him. ‘This feeling came over me that I’ve been searching for my whole life. Now I needed that feeling again.’ It was the beginning of his one-man personal mission to remove as much hate from the public streets as possible, which he does for free, on his own time.
“Fleischer is now raising money to build a network to combat hate speech graffiti across Canada. ‘Hate and hate crimes, they’re everywhere,’ he said. ‘There’s anti-Semitic hate. There’s racially driven hate. There’s homophobic hate. It exists in multiple forms. Graffiti just happens to be one of them. I’m not able to erase all hate crimes all over the place, but anything with paint, anything with spray paint, I’m able to remove.’”
His mission is emblazoned across his chest on his t-shirt: ERASE HATE. None of us can erase all hate, but we can do some. And we have to start within our own hearts.
My original plan was to do this ritual now, but I realized you may need a some time to think, so instead I’m going to invite you to do something after worship. During the postlude and beyond, I invite you to come forward and take a piece of fabric from this table. The fabric will represent some hate you need to rid yourself of, or a hate you want to confront. If you are ready to begin the journey of letting it go, then you can tie it to our fence. If you need some time to think about this, you can come take a piece of fabric to symbolize what needs to be transformed, but then take it home with you this week. Put it somewhere you can see it, somewhere you will be reminded to think and pray about it. And then bring it back next week or whenever you’re ready.
Erase hate. In ourselves. In the world around us. What can you do?