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As you recall Jonah was a prophet in Israel. God came to him and said that he should leave his nation and go over to the capital of one of his country's fiercest foes...Ninevah in Assyria. Jonah did not want to go. So he went down to the seaport of Joppa and got on a boat headed for Tarshish in Spain. The direction was exactly opposite the one God wanted him to take. Jonah did not want to preach to the Ninevites. After all, in the eighth century BC when Jonah preached, the Ninevites were his generation's Saddam Husseins - they were mean, vicious, and brutal in their conquests. Why should a preacher want to go to people like that?
Now, do not get the wrong idea...Jonah was no coward. He did not avoid God's assigned task because he was afraid of what might happen to him. He tried to skip out because of what might NOT happen to Ninevah. He did not want them spared.
You remember the story. The boat ride, the storm, Jonah being thrown overboard. Of course, Jonah did not drown. The story has him being swallowed by a big fish. Three days later he would be deposited on the beach, none the worse for wear, ready to do God's bidding.
As far as most people are concerned, the tale ends there except for the little postscript that lets us know that Jonah did indeed finally go to Ninevah to preach. The message that comes through is that you cannot run away from God, no matter how hard you try. Jonah comes across as a sympathetic character...a little misguided to start out, but one who eventually sees the light. A nice story. Not altogether true...but nice.
Unfortunately, to stop the story with the landing on the beach is a problem. The book of the Bible that bears Jonah's name contains only four chapters, but the part of it that refers to his adventures at sea is found only in the first two. Chapters three and four fill out the picture of this ancient preacher and show a man completely different from the one of popular understanding. Instead of a slightly bumbling but nice enough fellow, we see a petty, irascible, mean-spirited bigot.
Follow along with the story. True, Jonah was deposited safe and sound on the shore after his attempted escape. The Lord came to him again. "Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now? Good. Go to Ninevah." This time he went.
He preached the message that God had given him...one of repentance in the face of divine wrath. He said, "Just keep on going in the way you are headed, Ninevah, and in forty days, God will destroy this city."
Well, Ninevah heard what he had to say, Saddam Husseins or not. A time of national fasting and repentance was declared. God saw what was happening and relented in the plan to do them in. Once again, God's mercy proved stronger than God's anger.
How did Jonah react? Gee, any preacher worth his pulpit should have been thrilled at the way his message had been received...but not Jonah. He was mad...not just a little peeved...he was really hot!
He said, "See, Lord, I knew this would happen. These Ninevites would hear the word of repentance and, sure enough, they would repent and you would spare them. It ain't right, I tell you. They are not WORTH saving. That is the reason I wanted to go to Tarshish...because I knew if I came here, this is exactly what would happen. They would repent...and you are so merciful, nothin' would happen to them. Why do you make me suffer like this, Lord? Why don't you just kill me and get it over with?" Lovely fellow, this Jonah. He wanted Ninevah to burn. After all, they were not his kind. This preacher was a bigot.
The Lord tried to placate him. He pointed out that Jonah had no right to be angry. But Jonah would not hear any of it. He just went outside the city walls up on to a hill, made himself a little lean-to and sat down to watch what would happen. Maybe their repentance would not last long enough to make any difference. Maybe God would wipe `em out anyway. Jonah would just sit and wait. As a little peace-offering, God made a vine to grow up over Jonah's shelter to provide a bit of shade. That cooled the preacher down...some. But he was determined to sit it out to see what would happen.
When Jonah woke up the next day, he rubbed his eyes, looked out of his nice lean-to, and could not believe what he saw. That nice vine that God had provided yesterday...it was shriveled up and dead. You see, besides the vine, God had also provided a worm. The vine had been the worm's breakfast. For the rest of the day, Jonah just sulked until finally the hot east wind and the scorching sun made him feel faint. Again he said, "God, why don't you just let me die?" By now, the prophet was more mad about what had happened to the vine than about what had NOT happened to the Ninevites.
Finally God spoke to him. "Jonah, you are really a love. You are all upset about what happened to a vine that grew up in one day and was gone the next. You think that poor little vine has gotten a raw deal. But right down that hill there, you will find a lot of people, including 120,000 little kids. I do not want THEM to get a raw deal...so just shut up and don't bug me anymore." That is the end of the story.
But, at least, that is the WHOLE story...not just the romanticized part about survival at sea. The message becomes more than one which says you cannot run away from God. It turns out that what you cannot run away from is the fact of God's love for ALL creation, no matter how we might feel about certain parts of it. There are NONE not worth saving...not even Ninevites.
That is not a bad message. Rather comforting, really. But there is a disturbing part of it too, and it is this: there is a whole lot more of Jonah the bigot in us than we would care to admit...and that is bad - bad individually, bad as a church, and bad as a nation.
One of the things that makes it bad is that we do NOT admit it. The kind of mindset that allows us to think of ourselves as somehow superior to others in the sight of God is not one which causes a great deal of remorse. We do not feel any burning need to confess our guilt about it. Our conscience is not bothered the way it might be if we had murdered or robbed someone. We are content to continue feeling the way we do because all that is involved is the free exercise of our own good judgment. We have to protect ourselves and our heritage by separating ourselves from unhealthy influences. Right! Jonah could not have said it better. He would not have admitted his prejudice either.
Look at what we do. As individuals we are constantly making the kinds of judgments that keep us away from the "wrong" kind of people. If they do not dress as we do or talk as we do or have the same kind of education that we do or (perish the thought) have the same color of skin that we do, we do not want to associate. Some evil influence might rub off on us. We have got to be especially careful about our children. We have to watch who their friends are, because, after all, some playmates just are not suitable. And we teach them that right early.
In the Broadway musical South Pacific there is a song that says it all:
You've got to be taught from year to year;
Why, it's got to be drummed in your dear little ear;
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade;
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught, before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate;
You've got to be carefully taught.(1)
That is why we have the racial problems we do in this
country. From the time we were old enough to understand, the
message came through that those not just like us, those of a
different color, are somehow inferior. Our own parents might not
have taught us, but there were others who were glad to handle the
task. We even learned the little pet names: niggers, coons,
spades, darkies. Carefully taught.
Perhaps the nation should thank Sen. Trent Lott. By scraping the scab off the wound of America's racist past as he did last fall he has reminded the country of what it preferred to forget or even to pretend never occurred. Thanks to Lott's fond remembrance of the racist presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats in 1948, which cost him the leadership of the Senate, we are keenly aware of what it is we celebrate today. This is one Martin Luther King Day when no one should feel compelled to question whether such a holiday is justified.(2)The day after Dr. King was assassinated, a civil rights worker, Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, confronted a group of teenagers who seemed ready to join in the looting and rioting. She urged them to shun the temptation to break the law. "Think about your future," she said.
"Lady, why should we listen to you?" one boy answered angrily. "Lady, I ain't got no future." Was the boy right? Thirty-five years later, black unemployment remains horrible, black opportunity remains limited. According to current CDF figures, black youths across all age groups are more likely to be victims of violent crime than their white counterparts. Black males, ages 15-19, are murdered at a rate more than seven times that of white males in the same age group. Thirteen-hundred juveniles were murdered in 2000 (the latest year for available statistics) - a disturbing 45% were black youths(3) even though they make up only 10% of the youth population. Sad.
I wish the church did a better job. Oh, we know that the gospel is for everyone, but we all know that the most segregated hour in America is 11:00 o'clock Sunday morning. Through the years the churches of this nation have sent the message loud and clear...NO NINEVITES WELCOME HERE!
I heard a story sometime back. It concerns a little old black man who came to a lily-white southern church one Communion Sunday. The usher showed the man to a seat right down in the front, then when it came time for the distribution of the elements, he served the man just like everyone else, all the while unaware that an explosion was about to take place.
After the service, several of the leading members of the congregation came up to the usher and asked, "How in the world could you do such a thing?" Serve a black man in this church...INDEED!"
The usher was not really quite sure how to respond. Finally he said, "I am sorry you all feel that way. I simply assumed that the man would not have come here in the first place if he had not been a Christian. I noticed that he was getting on in years and since so many older folks have trouble hearing, I gave him a seat in the front. I certainly could not think of any good reason not to serve him Communion. But I did think of one more thing. Seeing as how the man was much older than I, and considering the fact that he was a Christian, I assume that he will get to heaven before I do. When I get there, I might find that HE is the one who is the usher at the door. And considering that, I want him to remember me kindly."
There is no question that the church has a long way to go, that we as individuals have a long way to go, that this nation has a long way to go. We look at our country's bright record of accomplishment shining high for all the world to see...and right in the middle of it is a great glob of mud called racism. We fought a terrible war a century and a half ago because of it, the only time Americans ever took up arms against other Americans. That should have taught us something, but it did not really. The Jonahs among us went up on a hill and sulked, waiting for God to pour out divine wrath. But God did not...and God will not...not because of that, at least; not because we would dare break down the barriers that separate one group of God's children from another. We have made a beginning, but as should be obvious to all, we have a long way to go.
We have to learn the lesson that Peter learned when he was called to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, somebody who was not Peter's "kind." Peter finally realized that God loves the WHOLE world and not just one race or people. He said, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism."(4)
That is what we need to learn from the story of Jonah...not just that we cannot run away and hide from God, not just that God has power over winds and waves and whales, but the word that says, "Jonah, don't ever tell me who I can love and who I can't. You can take your self-righteous bigotry and go to Hell.
1. "Carefully Taught," Rodgers and Hammerstein, South Pacific
2. Bradenton Herald, "An Incomplete Work: Lott Affair Showed King's Dream Elusive," January 20, 2003, 8B
3. Facts on Black Youth, Violence and Crime, http://www.cdfactioncouncil.org/blackyvc.htm
4. Acts 10:34