Here's the thing about Jonah.
The more I read, the more tragicomic
the book and its main character seem. Jonah's the most
successful prophet in all of Tanakh -- all he has to do is walk
through Nineveh proclaiming its imminent destruction, and everyone
promptly makes teshuvah, down to the
cattle in their stalls! But the story isn't really about the
Ninevites; it's about Jonah's reluctance to serve.
Jonah has the tremendous good fortune of not only
feeling, but also quite literally being, called by God. His vocation is
clear. He has instructions. But he's tortured, somehow, by the
feeling that he can't fulfill the calling; he knows what God
wants of him, but can't bear to do it, perhaps to think of himself as
worthy of the instruction. He flees, as though he could find a place where God is not.
He offers something
very like a psalm at his literal
lowest point: in the belly of a fish at the bottom of the sea, as
low as humanity can physically go. In his depression
he's capable of reaching out to God...but once he's back on dry
land, he's as surly as ever. He can't stand the notion
that the Ninevites, wicked as he understands them to be, will be
forgiven by gracious God. And when God does, in fact, forgive them -- because that is what God does; it is God's nature --
Jonah wails that he wants to die.
The kikayon plant shades him, and he feels a brief joy. But when the vine withers, he returns to
his normal state of wretched fury. And what does God do? God just
smiles -- I am taking liberties, here, but I could swear I see it
just between the lines of the text -- and asks leading questions.
"Are you really so angry about the state of the world? Are you really
so angry about the vine, which you neither planted nor nurtured?
In my imagination God pays a pastoral care visit to Jonah,
who practically quivers with petulance and rage. And God merely
raises an eyebrow, and says, "Ahh. I see. Can you say more about that?" God extends mercy and understanding -- precisely the qualities
which leave Jonah so cranky when God extends them to others --
to the reluctant prophet who resents his own being.
And we? If we hear God's voice telling us where to
go, what to do and teach, we're liable to flee in the wrong
direction just like Jonah did. Because anything would be easier than facing our
obligation to go forth into the world and make matters better. Anything would be easier than accepting God's infinite compassion,
which extends even toward those we deem hateful and wrong. We may
even, like Jonah, cry out that we would rather die than live
with the reality of the world in which things
don't turn out the way we want them to, in which the wrong parties take power and wicked people are forgiven and we daily do
appalling things to one another around the wide globe.
And God, infuriatingly, just asks us to explain to
ourselves why we find this so difficult. And the story ends there:
You cared about the kikayon-vine, for which you did
not labor and which you did not cause to grow; which between one
night and the next, came into being and perished. And I -- should I
not care about Nineveh, the great city, where there are more than a
hundred and twenty thousand people who don't know their right hand
from their left, and a great many beasts as well?
We never get to see Jonah transformed by his questioning, nor
by God's response. Because this story is not about new insight, but about living in the struggle. In the daily frustrating
grind of trying to come to terms with who we know ourselves to be,
and who we're called to become. In the disjunction between
the world as we yearn to see it, and the world as it is, and the
role we don't want to have to play in bridging that chasm.
The story ends on a rhetorical question; the answer is up to us.
Technorati tags: religion,