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.