The Weed, the Worm and the Wind
February 15, 2015
The writer and Presbyterian minister, Frederick Buechner, says this about our friend Jonah:
Within a few minutes of swallowing him, the great fish suffered a severe attack of acid indigestion, and it's not hard to see why. Jonah had a disposition that was enough to curdle milk.
When God ordered him to go to Nineveh and tell them there to shape up and get saved, the expression on Jonah's face was that of a man who has just gotten a whiff of trouble in his septic tank. In the first place, the Ninevites were foreigners and thus off his beat. In the second place, far from wanting to see them get saved, nothing would have pleased him more than to see them get what he thought they had coming to them.
It was as the result of a desperate attempt to get himself out of the assignment that Jonah got himself swallowed by the great fish instead. But the fish couldn't stomach him for long. Indeed, Jonah's relief at being delivered from the fish can hardly have been any greater than the fish's at being delivered of Jonah.
In the end Jonah went ahead, and with a little more prodding from God, did what he'd been told. He hated every minute of it, however, and when the Ninevites succumbed to his eloquence and promised to shape up, Jonah was furious.
It was an opening that God could not resist.
The mission to Nineveh is over, but the crux of the book is here, in chapter four, in the lesson God hopes to teach the angry prophet.
- Just as the giant fish was commissioned to place Jonah’s feet back on the path of the prophet,
- so the weed, the worm, and the wind are commissioned to place Jonah back on the path of compassion.
Jonah departs from the repentant city, sits down on a hill to its east, and watches to see what will happen.
God's lesson begins with a plant. If we knew Hebrew, we would know this right away: the Hebrew name for “the plant” (qiqayon) is a play on words: a combination of what the fish did too rid itself of Jonah (qāya', “vomit”) with Jonah’s name yônah. God will use the plant as a parable, to teach Jonah not only about God’s concern for Nineveh, but about Jonah himself.
The plant grows tall and shades Jonah from the hot sun, which makes him very happy. But the following day, God sends a worm to smite the plant, along with a sultry east wind to “beat down on his head.” This makes Jonah very unhappy. Taking advantage of Jonah’s acute discomfort, God continues the lesson:
Then God said to Jonah, "Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?" "Yes," he replied, "so deeply that I want to die."
Jonah’s heart clings to its bitterness. He would rather hang on to his pride than embrace God’s mercy. He would rather die than forgive.
God is not put off by this answer: it is honest. Jonah has lost an unexpected good--the joy and comfort he found in the plant. Now God compares the plant to Nineveh: Jonah cared for the plant God made, and grieved when he lost it. He didn't labor over it, he didn't raise it. It came one night and was gone the next. What about Nineveh? How should God feel about Nineveh, a city with 120,000 people who don't know their right from their left-- they don't know which way to go, don't know the difference between right and wrong--and so many innocent cattle? They are God's creatures all, and as the plant brought Jonah joy, so their repentance has brought God great joy.
Don’t the Ninevites deserve mercy? Don’t they deserve to be saved? And if God cares about everyone, even the cattle, what does this say about God’s justice? Where is the justice in God's grace?
The story ends with this question, with Jonah still sitting outside the city. We never know, in fact, how Jonah responds. The matter is left completely open-ended, without response and without resolve.
Just like Jonah, we are left wrestling with the goodness of God, a goodness that is not a respecter of persons or even animals. Just like Jonah, we are left wrestling with the goodness of God that demands that we be God's grace to our enemies, and to the innocent in their midst.
Preacher Lillian Daniel says that worship prepares us for the strangeness of life. That the heart of why we come together every Sunday is to hear these strange stories from the Bible and to understand that these stories are not about people thousands of years ago. They’re about us.
The goodness of God hounds us, follows us into the belly of the beast, into every place where we try to escape our calling, and calls us out to speak the saving truth of repentance and mercy for all of God's creatures.
But our hearts, like Jonah’s, prefer to cling to bitterness. Like him, so often we would much rather cling to pride than embrace mercy, so often we would rather die than forgive.
Rev. William Carl says there are some who understand God’s goodness, and whose love for their enemies transcends their hatred.
“I suppose I will never completely understand Maake Masango,” Carl writes, “the black South African pastor whom I met when he was studying in the United States before the fall of Apartheid. I suppose I will never understand his forgiveness, his openness, as he headed back to South Africa, as he headed back to Nineveh and the probability of prison.
“Unlike Jonah, Maake Masango had a vision of the wideness of God's mercy that carried him beyond the natural hatred he felt for the Africaaner. For Masango’s model was not Jonah, but Jesus. And his motto was not ‘Punish them, Lord’ but ‘Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.’
Jonah remains a tragic character to the end. But we don't have to.
The book of Jonah ends without an ending. Which means we are being given the chance to write our own endings. Will we be Jonah? Can we be like Jesus?
I think we need to admit that, as individuals, very few of us are able to forgive as Jesus did. But what about us as a church? Can our church be like Jesus? Very few of us have the courageous ability to forgive as did Maake Masango, and Nelson Mandela. But perhaps as a church -- as the body of Christ -- we can. We can help one another to offer forgiveness where we would fail to do so as separate individuals. We can call each other away from our sulking, away from our clinging to pride and revenge. We can reach the Ninevites. We can embrace even the Jonahs.
The church, Richard Hays says, is “God’s eschatological beachhead, the place where the power of God has invaded the world.” We are the “sneak preview of God’s ultimate redemption of the world.” In his life, in his death, in his resurrection, Christ embodies God’s forgiveness. He is what forgiveness looks like Now we are his body, the worldly manifestation of the one who is the expression of God’s forgiveness.
The pastor of an inner-city church headed out his office door to the parking lot. There he found a crisis in progress: an elderly man was lying on the sidewalk; he had been walking past when he evidently suffered a heart attack. Another passer-by called an ambulance while the minister rushed over to the man, loosened his collar and reached for his hand. “Try to relax. We’re right here with you and an ambulance is on the way.”
To the pastor’s surprise and puzzlement, the man looked up at him and said “Forgive me, Charlie.”
The pastor squeezed the man’s hand reassuringly and said, “I’m not Charlie. My name is Sam. I’ll stay here with you until help comes. Don’t be afraid.”
But the man responded in an urgent voice, “Son, please. Forgive me.”
“I’m not your son,” repeated the pastor. “Stay calm now, we’ll get you into a hospital soon.”
Abruptly the man’s breathing changed and his face turned ashen. He whispered, “Charlie, I’m begging you. Please forgive me.”
It was clear to the pastor what he must do. He embraced the dying man and said, “I forgive you. I forgive you.” The man’s breathing stopped and he was gone.
The next day the pastor wondered and worried about what he had done. What right had he to speak a word of forgiveness on behalf of the man’s son? The son was not there; father and son were still estranged. What right had he, a stranger, to speak words of forgiveness when the brokenness was still ongoing, when father and son were not reconciled?
Gradually it came to him that his entire ministry, indeed, all of Christian life is this way. We live in a broken present as a sign of future wholeness. The good news we bear is always a word of reconciliation from God, spoken ahead of its time.
Jonah spoke that word to the Ninevites, but we will never know if he learned God’s lesson.
Jesus lived that word. He was that word. And he offers that lesson to us, that we might be the church, the living embodiment of God’s mercy to all.
Anathea Portier-Young, Commentary on Jonah 3:10-4:11. Posted on WorkingPreacher.org on September 21, 2008. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=158
Michael J. Chan, Commentary on Jonah 3:10-4:11. Posted on WorkingPreacher.org on September 21, 2014. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2011
Lillian Daniel. “The Stand-In Church, John 13:1-17.” Day 1.org, July 24, 2011. http://day1.org/3040-the_standin_church
William Carl, Tickets for Tarshish: Jonah 1:1-3;3:1-5,10;4:1. Day 1.org. November 9, 2008. http://day1.org/1118-tickets_for_tarshish.print
Thomas G. Long. “To Err is Human, To Forgive…?” Forgiveness. Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics. Waco, Texas: The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 1989.