Missing the Point

Jonah's Fish Story logo Slide copyMatt T.Jonah Series – Week 4
Teaching notes by
Matt Thompson
January 31st, 2016
Scripture Passage: Jonah 4

When we first pitched the idea of Jonah, we wanted something that would be different than the traditional lead up to Lent. Jonah, as we knew the story from many illustrated kids studies books, was mainly told as a story about about a man and a whale.

We thought it would make for an interesting lead up to Lent, even if we didn’t know how. It was under Randy’s team leadership we were able to see this turning into a story that was far more complex and topical to us, and our community. The decision is not about you.

I feel like I need to bring us up to date with where we’ve gone with Jonah so far, so that there is a larger narrative that emerges once we put all the pieces together.

Nick began the series by undermining our expectations of Jonah. He did this by changing how we understand the people of Nineveh. The story is about Jonah yes, but what we saw in Jonah 1 was how Jonah wants his enemies to remain his enemies. Why? Because Jonah’s enemies have caused suffering. Jonah wants the people of Nineveh to not be given a chance to be kinds of people who would repent. Jonah wants the people of the city to suffer at the hands of God’s justifiable and righteous judgement judgement. From Nick the kicker of the story is this: We are just like Jonah, we all have Nineveh’s in our lives.

Jeanette took us into Jonah 2, and the idea that there is pain in Jonah’s world and in our world. What matters is how you respond to it, and that you have to live through it, you have live in spite of it. There is the acceptance of the reality of suffering. The thing is that Jonah’s pain is a pain of injustice. Jonah’s pain is that he wants to see the people of the city “get what they deserve”. Even after God has given so much to Jonah.

Last week for Jonah 3, Randy asked us to carry about a piece of sack cloth. The cloth represents and is a reminder of the repentance the people of Nineveh had before God. The people knew they were wrong in their ways. They changed.

I think what Randy wanted us to take away from this is that none of us are above the idea that we too need to change our ways, either before each other and before God. This idea of the righteousness of the inward looking self becomes a form idolatry. This is the self-idolatry that causes Jonah to despair. The opposite of that idolatry knowing that are being called to something better, and that calling just might not be of our own making.

So, where are we know?

Ruth Jonah Esther CoverThe City has been saved. The people have changed their ways. We are far away from the whale story that we know so well. As Eugene Roop puts it: “God has decided not to carry through the divine intention of judgement. Evil that has come before God and affected God’s own intentions has been resolved in peace.”

“How can Jonah not rejoice?”

Good people are doing the right things, but yet here Jonah stands, distraught and angry. So angry in fact that he has left the city and made small hut or booth east of the city. The land is barren, hot, dry and windy. It’s in that booth that Jonah 4 takes us into more conflict: Jonah’s will vs the actions of God. Jonah still wants justice. Jonah wants a further justice that overrides compassion, because God’s compassion has acted otherwise and not been enough for Jonah.

This leaves Jonah in a very challenging place, being in conflict with God

It is at this point that the commentary makes an incredible observation: Jonah’s suffering should also be read alongside the challenging suffer Job, who also suffered greatly. As the commentator points out, we have two cases of suffering: one of the most righteous man, the other of the man who suffers because the wicked have been pardoned.

Back to the booth: The booth is Jonah’s in making. Jonah, himself, creates shelter, and he knows his own actions. God then provides a plant, which too provides even better shelter from the wind and the heat. The plant is that turning point in Jonah’s angst. Jonah remembers the past, the rituals involving shelter, where God provided. Jonah almost is ready and able to move forward.

Almost.

And then God sends a worm. The worm eats the plant. The shelter that was provided is now gone. Jonah again, is near the end of what he believes to be manageable in life. Jonah is back to the point of despair and injustice.

The dialogue that ends Jonah 4 becomes so interesting, because the book ends on a dialogue:

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

So Jonah ends. With a dialogue and with a question as the commentator points out is about: “justice provides fairness and coherence in the world. Divine compassion can undermine that coherence”. By ending on a question I think Jonah ends with us becoming Jonah ourselves, still weighing these two ideas: justice and compassion.

This is why Jonah is for us, as where we’re going with Lent. As we know, the Old Testament gives us a premonitions of the New Testament. We know where Jesus and the New Testament is taking us when it comes to compassion, it’s in our DNA. We want to believe that compassion is built into our values, right? This is what Randy talked about. What Jonah does is lead us into Lent without assurance or certainty. We leave Jonah with a question that we(whatever that we looks like) need to come back to:

”Can a speech of repentance, no matter how sincere or a moment of fasting, no matter how earnest, erase the violence and death that Nineveh has visited on Israel, Judah and other people. Where amid the compassion of God has showed toward Nineveh do we find fairness for the victims of violence?” (Eugene Roop commentary p154)

What we end with isn’t something easy for us, like the Jesus and the Sermon On The Mount. We end Jonah with a question that is both about us and also far beyond any one of us. It’s a question that’s meant to haunt us, that we must work through, between ourselves, our community and in our relationship with God. This is what we need as we lead into Lent. A story that we thought we knew, but really, has just left us with more questions.

Discussion Questions:

  • Jonah and Job: Who are the Jonahs and Jobs in our lives? How do/should we respond to/with them?
  • Compassion and Justice: What do we do with these seemingly conflicted ideas? How do we accept that both are part of our lives?

Fish Story: the tale of Jonah