In defense of Jonah (part I)Essays, Featured — By Michael Green on June 11, 2012 at 6:55 am
For whom will we will put our lives at risk? For whom will we sacrifice happiness?
We decided to study the book of Jonah in our community group. It was my idea. Maybe I liked it because it was a short book (four chapters) and thought we could knock it out in a few weeks. I’m sure there were other reasons, as well.
Jonah is probably one of the best known stories in the Bible. You know the story: Guy runs away from God and gets swallowed by a big fish. People thousands of years later debate whether it was a real fish or just symbolism. I wanted to look at the person of Jonah (and hopefully skirt the controversy of whether the fish was real; or whether it was a small whale or really big dolphin). Could we humanize the man?
I asked, “What one word comes to mind when you think of Jonah?”
“Racist,” one woman said. “Oh, wait. Maybe I shouldn’t say that.”
“Why not?” someone asked.
“I don’t know. It just sounds harsh.”
One man said, “I kind of like Jonah. He seems real.”
Secretly, that was the answer I hoped for. I like Jonah, too. I think he gets a bad rap.
The first two verses of the book leave a lot of questions unanswered. All we are told is: The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
That’s it. And then it says Jonah ran away from the Lord.
There’s so much we don’t know. So much left between those lines. For example, we are not told anything of Jonah’s home life: of what he was leaving behind or whom he was leaving behind. We are not told that the Ninevites were sworn enemies of Jonah’s people, the Israelites, and perhaps had killed many of Jonah’s friends or relatives.
The first phrase alone raises many questions: The word of the Lord came to Jonah.
Jonah was fortunate (or perhaps cursed?) to hear the actual voice of God. We don’t hear the voice of God anymore. At least no one I know has ever heard it. We believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit to speak to us and guide us. That often comes as a whisper, a gentle prodding. And, fortunately, a whisper is easier to ignore than thunder. Its punishment less severe. How many times have I ignored the prodding of the spirit?
I ignore it, then justify it. “I tithe ten percent of my income,” I argue. “If I gave a dollar to every homeless person on the streets of L.A., it would go on forever. Los Angeles is the homeless capital of the world.”
A few months ago, I was parked at the Carl’s Jr. near LAX, waiting for a friend’s flight to arrive. I had my window down. Another man was waiting in his car beside me, evidently doing the same as me. A homeless man approached on bicycle. He asked the man for a dollar so he could buy food. The man turned him down. Before I could raise my window, he circled around to my door and asked me the same.
“I’m sorry,” I told him.
He didn’t look away. Usually, homeless people look away. But this man didn’t. His eyes burrowed through mine. I reached for the window control. “God bless,” I offered.
There, I had done my duty—spoken the name of God to him. Now get behind me, conscience!
He turned his face askance; he wrinkled his brow. “God bless?” He shook his head and began to pedal away. “God bless?” he repeated.
A dollar. That’s all. Before I bash on Jonah, I’m going to put myself in his situation and see if my judgment holds up.
What if Jonah was engaged to be married next week? Or had just gotten a huge promotion at work? And here God calls him to leave his fiancé or turn down the promotion to travel to a war-torn land where the people hate him. This wasn’t a morning trip to the Union Gospel Mission to hand out soup bowls. For all Jonah knew, he would never be coming home again; and if he did, it might be in a wooden box.
We judge Jonah; yet, what conveniences are we unwilling to give up?
A friend of mine said, “I read the church emails about upcoming service projects, but they’re always at some ungodly hour of the morning. I don’t want to get up that early on Saturday.”
I’m not sure I do, either. I asked a different question. “What are the things in your life that you dread God calling you to? Or the things you dread God not giving you?
There was a moment’s silence. Finally, a woman spoke. “Two things,” she said. “I fear God saying that he wants me to be single, and that I’m going to have to live in America the rest of my life and not get to travel.”
I found her honesty refreshing. It reminded me of something. Several months ago, I was walking through downtown Culver City, clearing my head and thinking about things in my life. I stopped at an intersection and was waiting for the light to change when the thought crossed my mind, “What if God said, ‘I’m not going to give you the things you want most in life?’”
My answer was instant. “Well, don’t expect me to be cool with it,” I said. “Because I’m not, and I’m going to raise hell about it the rest of my life.”
Like I said, I get Jonah because he’s a lot like me.