Sunday, September 24, 2017

Proper 20

Jonah 4
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

In a world of trouble, forgiveness is big news.

Perhaps the most famous example in recent years is the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. The pope survived, and even in the early days of his recovery asked that the faithful pray for the assassin. Two years later the pope visited his would-be assassin in prison, and even advocated for a pardon.

Or Malala Yousafzai, having survived a brutal attack by a member of the Taliban, made it known that she had forgiven her attacker. She noted how young he was and how nervous he seemed, and wished him no harm.

Or Nelson Mandela, who made several gestures to further reconciliation between black and white South Africans, including dining with his former jailers, forgiving the prosecutor who sought the death penalty during his trial, and even donning the rugby jersey that was once a hated symbol of Apartheid.

These stories are famous because they involve famous people, and because they demonstrate the journalistic principle of “man bites dog.” The idea emerged sometime in the late nineteenth century and the source is uncertain, but the concept is clear: ‘When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.’

In other words, if John Paul had ignored his assailant, or Malala cursed her attacker, or if Nelson Mandela had used the office of President to pursue charges against those who persecuted him, we would nod and say ‘that makes sense’ or ‘I would do that too.’ Rather, we are confronted with surprizing and unexpected forgiveness. I say ‘confronted’ because everyone reacts differently to grace, something that becomes clear in scripture.

All of the suggested readings for today pick up this theme of suprizing forgiveness or generosity and the reaction of the people around. In Exodus, the people complain that God has liberated them only to bring them into the desert to starve. And their reward for complaining is food—not the best food—but food nonetheless. In Matthew, the vineyard owner gathers labours throughout the day, then does the unexpected—pays everyone a full days wage. Those who worked all day resent this sudden turn of generosity, even thought they received what was promised.

So how does Jonah and the whale—that classic story of running from the call of God—fall in with these other stories? It’s all about the ending. But before we get to the ending, let me recap the story we might call “fish catches man.”

It begins (as these things often do) with the word of the LORD coming to Jonah: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because I can’t stand their wickedness any longer.” So Jonah got up, and set his GPS for points as far from Nineveh as he could.

His escape, of course, involved a sea voyage. And just as spring leads to summer and fake-summer leads to more summer, any time someone boards a ship a storm will surely follow. And the crew, being as superstitious as all sailors, cast lots and discovered that the cause of the storm is on the ship, sleeping peacefully below deck.

They wake him and pepper him with questions: “What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” Sifting through his answers it quickly becomes obvious that running from the Most High won’t end well—certainly not for Jonah and maybe not so well for the crew either.

But Jonah has the solution: “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he says, “and the storm will end.” At this point I should brief you on the Racing Rules of Sailing, Part 1, Fundamental Rules, section 1.1, which reads:

Helping Those in Danger: A boat or competitor shall give all possible help to any person or vessel in danger.

So what happens next should come as no surprize, since the Racing Rules of Sailing were in force: they did everything they could to row back to shore. It didn’t work. As the storm grew and their situation became worse they finally accepted that Jonah was right and over he went.

But God wasn’t finished with Jonah. Three days and three nights he spend in the belly of the whale, until he finally made peace with his call and prayed to the Most High. Next thing Jonah is on the beach, coughed up like a Judean furball, ready to take a message of repentance of the people of Nineveh.

It goes surprizingly well. He enters the great city—a three-day journey across—and shouts for all to hear: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Within hours of his arrival the people repent, the king repents, everyone puts on sackcloth (even the animals) and everyone is pleased. Except Jonah.

Jonah is furious. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God,” he says, “slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. So kill me now, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Well, is it? Big storm, belly of a whale, that awkward moment at the beach, shouting at people in the hot sun—it’s almost like the utter destruction of Nineveh was going to be his reward, the predetermined—and somewhat satisfying—conclusion to the story that never come to be.

Jonah felt cheated, much in they way the older brother felt cheated in the parable of the prodigal son and the daylong workers felt cheated because nothing rankles quite like unexpected generosity you witness but don’t get yourself.

My buddy Jeff tells the story of a flight he took some years ago, and an unusual request as the flight began. The pilot spoke to the passengers and requested help for two college students who were on the flight studying economics. The project was comparing the cost each passenger paid for the same type of seat on the flight.

As the students made their way through the plane, people answered their questions but also listened in to other responses. And almost no one was pleased. The prices were quite varied, and most of the people who paid more we angry. Complaints would be made, legal action threatened, all because people paid different amounts for the same service.

Strange creatures, we are. We love undeserved rewards if we are the ones getting the reward. We love forgiveness and grace and something for nothing unless someone else gets forgiveness and grace and something for nothing and we don’t. We can go from pleased to resentful in about the time it takes for all the workers to get the same wage and all the dogs and cats of Nineveh to put on their little sackcloth outfits and get spared the destruction that God never wanted to do in the first place.

And that’s the thing with this God of the storm and God of the threatened destruction. There is always one more chance. And then another. And still one more. Jonah should have figured this out when he was in his three-day tomb, the very place that God could have left him to die. Jonah gets a second chance but doesn’t want to extend the same second chance to Nineveh and their adorable animals. But God always has other plans.

In the same manner that God-in-Jesus forgives us from the cross, and turns his three-day tomb experience into the liberation of us all, Jonah learns the hard way that God is God and we are not. We keep score, even when it’s generosity extended to others, but God cannot. God IS generosity, and thank God for that. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home