Not a Happy Ending

Jonah 4:9-11

A Guest Post by Rev. Lisa Beth White

I have known Rev. Lisa Beth While for many years now. I have not known her longer than Paul Woodworth from last Friday or W.C. Hall from last Monday, but I can’t think of anyone else ahead of her on that list. Lisa Beth has the distinction of, I knew her before she was really even considering ministry. We were students together at Sam Houston State University. We met at the Wesley Foundation there and both played an active role there. Before I graduated her oldest daughter was born. While I was in seminary, the spring semester of her first year and my last, I took Celia to school so Lisa Beth could stand in line for registration. Preaching classes were hard to get. It is hard for me to believe that both of those “little girls” are now young women, working to make their way in the world. Lisa Beth has a Bachelor’s degree from Sam Houston State, a Master’s of Divinity from Southern Methodist, and a Master of Theological Studies from Boston University. She has served First UMC in Liberty, Bering Memorial UMC in Houston, Moody Memorial First UMC in Galveston, She served a small congregation, First United Methodist Church in Melrose Massachusetts and currently serves at  Swannanoa UMC and Tabernacle UMC, in Black Mountain, North Carolina. She is also fluent in American Sign Language and works diligently with missions for the United Methodist Women and the United Methodist Church.

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ (Jonah 4:8-11, New Revised Standard Version)

When my children were toddlers, our United Methodist Women’s circle gave us a fabric activity book.  Each page had a Bible story and activity.  There was Joseph in a colorful coat to button and unbutton.  There was a star, moon, and sun to Velcro off and on the page.  And there was a big blue corduroy fish whose mouth zipped and unzipped, and a smiling Jonah made out of a clothespin with a brown cloth cloak.  We also had a small children’s Bible that had illustrations drawn in crayon by children, with Jonah going head first into a big dark fish’s smiling mouth.  The story ends with “at last Jonah listened to God and went to Nineveh.  It’s always best to listen to God.” 

Children’s bible stories about Jonah always seem to end on that happy note.  Jonah goes to Nineveh as God commands, preaches redemption, and everyone is happy.  But the Biblical story reveals a far more complicated situation.  Jonah does go to Nineveh, he preaches an eight word sermon, the people lament, repent, and God relents, decides not to destroy the city and all the people in it.  Jonah sees that God was merciful and is angry.  In fact, he complains that God’s mercy is the reason he ran from God’s call to preach.  “It’s better to die from my anger!” he says. 

God does not tell Jonah that he should not be angry.  Throughout the book, God never tells Jonah how to handle his anger.  God asks Jonah questions that allow Jonah to think about his anger in the light of the nature of God.  Jonah’s anger was burning inside him.  We aren’t told how he felt about the people of Nineveh.  We don’t know if he thought they deserved judgment rather than mercy.  The text only tells us that God’s mercy to the people of Nineveh was enough to make Jonah burn with anger. 

As I write this post, there are scenes on all the news channels of police violence, peaceful protests, buildings burning, and looters taking advantage of the chaos.  The U.S. hasn’t seen situations like this since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.  Now, as then, it’s easy to divide people into groups, to label this group good and that group bad.  It’s easy to become angry about things and to let that anger burn inside us.  It’s easy to wish that this group or that group would receive the thing that our anger says is right. 

God asks Jonah “is it right for you to be angry?”  Jonah has the opportunity to consider God’s mercy.  Instead he sits and lets his anger burn.  God does not abandon Jonah.  He stays with Jonah, gently teaching him and asking him to think about his anger.  God also does not abandon Nineveh, waiting for them to hear the good news of God’s mercy, to turn and listen to God.  When they do, God is merciful, not angry.

Perhaps that children’s Bible was right – it is always best to listen to God.  Jonah listens to God’s questions about his anger.  The text doesn’t tell us how Jonah resolved these questions.  They are left for us to ponder about our own anger and how we think about other people and the earth.  How is God asking you today to consider mercy?  How is God asking you today to consider the people who make you angry?  How is God asking you today to consider our call to care for creation? 

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