Wednesday, 7 September 2016

God's bad-tempered prophet

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became very angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home?... I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love...” Jonah 4:1-2
It’s hard not to be impressed by the prophets of the Old Testament. So passionate about God! so deeply spiritual! so inspired in their utterances!

There’s Isaiah, with his uncanny vision of the coming “servant of the Lord” who would be “pierced for our transgressions”. There’s Hosea, who learned deep lessons about God’s love through his own painful experience of marriage. There’s Jeremiah, made to suffer so much and, seemingly, achieve so little. There’s Habakkuk, who prayed agonisingly to understand the troubling, mystifying way the world was going. I could go on.

And then there’s, er, Jonah.

Ah, Jonah... Disobedient, grumpy, bad-tempered. His preaching is massively successful in turning a whole nation to God - yet all he can think to do is shake his head and complain about the generosity God shows to his enemies. His last word in the book is to tell God that he is “angry enough to die” (4:9). As if to say: “Look, God, if that’s the way you insist on treating bad people - with mercy and forgiveness, for goodness sake! - well, sorry, but I really don’t want anything to do with you.”

Some prophet. Some man of God.

I read an article recently by the Roman Catholic cardinal, Vincent Nichols. He wrote, “The overall burden of the book is that Jonah’s small mind reveals God’s big heart.” Yes, I think that sums it up pretty neatly.

What makes it all especially sad is that Jonah’s own suffering - his near-drowning and the episode with the whale - seems at one point to have brought him to his spiritual senses. He prays a beautiful prayer “from inside the fish” in which he recognises God’s great goodness to him. And he speaks these words: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs” (2:8).

“The grace that could be theirs...” This is so ironic it’s almost funny. It shows that Jonah did in fact have a real grasp of God’s “grace”. Yet somehow he had a blind spot when it came to applying it to the Ninevites. But “clinging to worthless idols” is exactly what the benighted people of Nineveh didn’t do! No, they “believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (3:5). 

Jonah, shouldn’t you be rejoicing? Jonah, shouldn’t you be thrilled that the same love that God poured out so undeservedly on you he has now poured out on the people of Nineveh? Oh dear!

It’s an odd little book, isn’t it, this Book of Jonah? You might almost wonder what it’s doing in the Bible at all, given what a bad light it sheds upon a servant of God. But such is the wonderful honesty of God’s word. And it’d odd too in that, unlike the other books of the prophets, it’s a story about the prophet rather than a collection of his sayings and writings: does it really belong among the books of the prophets at all?

But I’m so glad it’s there - it makes me smile; it puzzles me; above all it makes me search my own shrivelled, crabby, mean-spirited heart. Can’t I be rather like God’s grumpy prophet? Can’t you?

Every time I hear of another appalling act of terrorism, perpetrated by Isis or whoever, I feel like praying, Jonah-style: “God, it’s time to wipe them out! Destroy them! Zapp them! If ever a few thunderbolts from heaven were called for, surely it’s now!”

I was reading yesterday about the two hundred “Chibok girls”, abducted over two years ago by Boko Haram in Nigeria; it’s quite monstrous to think of the agony, the strain of both these girls and their families. Surely indeed a time will come when God will pour out his wrath on all who persevere in such wickedness. But it is for God to choose that time, not me.

I find I have to preach myself a little sermon. Which would I prefer, the immediate destruction of the wicked? or that, like the people of Nineveh, they might repent of their sins and turn humbly to God? Yes, it takes some faith to imagine a mass conversion of Isis or Boko Haram. But isn’t it something I should be praying for?

And all along I need to remember, when I use that word “wicked”, that it isn’t just the grossly, egregiously, flagrantly bad that it applies to, but also to plenty of outwardly decent, respectable people - people, in fact, just like me.

God’s last word to Jonah is a word of rebuke: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (4:11). Well, if God himself is “concerned” about people still in darkness, shouldn’t I be too?

Lord God, help me to see all people, whoever they might be and whatever they might have done, with your generous, loving, gracious eyes. Amen.

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