When I say “Jonah,” I bet most people think about the story of a reluctant prophet. Balking at God’s call to go to Nineveh, Jonah took a boat as far as you can go in the opposite direction.
Famously, after a storm at sea threatens to swamp the boat he’s boarded, Jonah announces to the sailors that his disobedience has caused the storm. Despite their protests, Jonah insists on being tossed into the sea to appease God’s wrath.
As Jonah sinks, a fish swallows him. That same divinely inspired fish swims him back in the direction that God intended in the first place and barfs him up on Nineveh’s shore.
Quite a story! No wonder people think of it first when they hear Jonah’s name. For instance, the renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow named a neurotic condition after it: the Jonah Complex. Inspired by Jonah’s flight, Maslow says that many of us so fear success that we block our own growth toward self-actualization.
While Maslow’s personality theory has its merits, his reading of Jonah’s motivations misses the mark entirely. He was narrowly focused on this fabulous episdode. But Jonah is not afraid of his own greatness. He’s resistant to and even resentful of the wideness of God’s mercy. Let me explain.
God called Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh. After Jonah finally makes his roundabout way to that huge city, he does a half-hearted job of urging them to repent. Basically, he walks through the street shouting, “You’re toast! God’s had it with you! Duck and cover!”
Despite Jonah’s puny, mean-spirited effort, the king and all the king’s subjects repent. Even the animals repent! Every Bichon Frise and Guernsey milk cow put on sack cloth and ashes. And God forgives the Ninehvites.
Jonah went into an atomic sulk.
Sitting in a heap, arms crossed over his chest, and lower lip protruding, Jonah said, “This is exactly why I didn’t want to come here in the first place. I knew you would do this. You’ve made me look like a complete idiot!”
In other words, Jonah was really big on divine justice. God’s mercy? Not so much. And to be fair, he was pretty consistent about it.
Remember what he did when the storm almost sank his boat? He demanded that the sailors toss him over the gunwales. He never for one moment sought God’s mercy. He insisted on getting the punishment he deserved.
And speaking of deserved punishment, Nineveh really had it coming. At least, that’s the way Jonah saw it.
The Book of the Prophet Jonah was written after the return from exile. The Babylonians has defeated Israel, destroyed Jerusalem, and force-marched thousands of Israelites into captivity in distant Babylonia. Eventually, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and continued to oppress their Israelite captives.
So, even though Nineveh was geographically speaking the capitol of Assyria, in the Jonah story it’s probably a narrative stand-in for the Persians. The Persians had harshly oppressed the Israelites in captivity and then continued to treat them as a sort of vassal state or colonial outpost once they were allowed to go back to Jerusalem.
From Jonah’s perspective, justice required that the cruelty of the Persians be punished. Mercy would be a kind of permissiveness that did nothing more than undermine the justice Jonah demanded of God.
If justice is retributive in its essence—if justice makes things right by issuing proportional punishments—then mercy must always be a failure of justice. Somebody’s gotten away with murder. Literally.
But apparently God doesn’t subscribe to retributive justice. You’ll never make something broken whole again by breaking more stuff. And breaking stuff is just what punishment does. God’s justice comes in the form of healing.
When God calls for repentance, God is urging us to submit to divine treatment. That treatment is the transforming power of love.
Take for instance the story of Scarlett Lewis and her son Jesse. Shortly before Christmas of 2012 Adam Lanza killed six-year-old Jesse along with 25 other people at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Just a few years earlier, Scarlett had been reading an account of the Rwandan genocide while Jesse slept snuggled next to her in bed. A survivor recounted how thousands upon thousand of her fellow Tutsis were hacked and mutilated by Hutus in an orgy of ethnic cleansing.
The writer of the Jonah story used the title character to speak to the struggles of thousands of post-exilic Israelites. They too had experienced terror. They had seen their friends degraded, abused, and executed by the Persians. Forgive? Forget it!
By contrast, the Tutsi survivor wrote that, against all odds, she had found her way to forgiveness. Not unlike Jonah, Scarlett thought something like, “If somebody did that to my family, I would never forgive them.”
And then, three years later, Adam Lanza murdered her little boy. Poised to hate Adam Lanza, Scarlett found an alternative path—a healing path—in a note left by Jesse on the kitchen blackboard. “Nurturing Healing Love.” It’s not the sort of thing any six-year-old would write, including Jesse. But that’s what he wrote. On his way out the door on the last day of his life.
Scarlett took it as a message. As a call. And she has devoted her life to teaching children compassion. Her dream is to save any future Jesses and any future Adams.
The Jonah story challenges us to pursue justice as healing. God calls us to the relentless pursuit of making things right by seeking wholeness for everyone. Even the ones who shattered our lives in the first place.