25 February 2013

a problem with repentance

One of the best stories told is that of Jonah.  Beyond the oversimplified versions which have been passed through Sunday schools and pop-culture references, there is a deep and detailed story which handles a good number of spiritual issues.  It is my observation that most people only have a working knowledge of chapters one and three - skimming over the psalm of chapter two and completely ignoring the shocking reaction of Jonah in chapter four.  (Also, chapter four doesn't really seem like it ended ... we don't know what to do with things that don't have nice-n-neat endings, so we either look the other way, or invent our own wild ending, as in the Gospel of Mark.)

Every now and then I find an excuse to work through the text of Jonah, and I am never disappointed to find another issue to discuss, or another layer of meaning which has been masterfully woven into the narrative.  And, speaking of the fourth chapter, some fresh water has emerged (at least, it is fresh to me).  I'll try to think aloud on a few points ...

Clearly, Jonah is a man with issues.  Following his successful preaching to the pagan Ninevites, he decides to go for a walk.  This isn't because he is tired, or that he is seeking some alone time to ponder God's goodness.  The opening of Chapter Four clearly states that Jonah is angry because of the repentance (and subsequent forgiveness) which had come over Nineveh.  His prayer in 4:2 is actually the first place in the entire narrative where the reader is told why he did not want to go and preach to Nineveh.  Due to an overall lack of literary patience and attention to detail, there is a tendency for us to construct our own reason(s) why Jonah did not go to the city - especially since we don't seem to want to get out of Chapter One without that hanging over us.

But, Jonah does not run away from Nineveh because he is overwhelmed by the task he has been given, or that he simply is a bad seed of disobedience which has fallen off of the prophetic tree.  He doesn't flee from his vocation because he fails to understand God's character.  In actuality, Jonah takes off because he does know God's character of grace and compassion (4:2).  It is a pathetic irony, to say the least, and it goes hand-in-hand with Jonah's constant drive to gain his own death throughout the story.  In his talk with God he affirms a great statement of faith in the divine attributes, but concludes that that is the very reason why he sought to refuse his mission.  Those who have dared to venture into Chapter Four might well be arriving at a simple conclusion - this guy's dropping acid.

I wonder, however, just what about God's moral nature has gotten to Jonah.  Is Jonah angry about God's forgiveness or God's repentance?  Let me explain the difference.  If Jonah is irritated by God's forgiveness - God's granting of grace to a repentant people - to a people whom he didn't think deserved it, then we can simply pass our own judgment on the broken prophet and move on.  We will have learned to widen our understanding of God's love and offer compassion on people even when we think they don't deserve it.  It might not be the easiest pill to swallow, but we get it.  But, if Jonah is angered by God's own repentance - the relenting of divine judgment and punishment once it has been decreed - then the waters might quickly become muddied.

Notice that the entirety of Jonah's proclamation to Nineveh is single-sided: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown" (3:4).  No altar call, no summons to repentance, no hope for another outcome.  It is a simple declaration of the impending doom that will come, and he says it as though there is no option for it not to happen.  Considering his attitude towards his prophetic vocation in the first two scenes, along with his disposition in the final scene, we might suppose that his preaching wasn't the most spirited proclamation.  He seems to be going through the city with the fiery drive of Eeyore, and the willing attitude of a bratty kid whose just been forced to choke down their broccoli.  Nevertheless, much to Jonah's astonishment, it actually worked!  The city - from the king down - enters into a state of mourning, fasting and repentance in the long-shot-hope that God will not destroy them after all (3:9).

If Jonah is indeed angered by God's change of heart, then we might discover a more complex figure than we initially imagined.  Why would Jonah concern himself with God altering his own plan?  Because it can be embarrassing to serve a God who sheds his own dignity in order to save others.  That really seems to be the crux of it, and Jonah thinks that it is stupid that God would send him to announce Nineveh's destruction and then not even follow through on it.  We might wonder for a moment if Jonah hasn't been through this type of scenario before (????).  Regardless, it is quite damaging to preachers whenever they put their own reputations on the line and talk about the seriousness of sin, only to find that God is willing to forgive things so easily.

Do we not all struggle with this on some level?  Regardless of our particular Christian tradition, it seems as though all believers have their view of the world which includes our own versions of judgment.  The church can get into ruts where we see the inside of the faith community verses the outside, who ought to deserve what they get.  Often, this leads us to the same inaction of Jonah (or the barely-give-them-the-gospel action), whereby it appears that we would rather watch them receive judgment than offer them the magnanimous compassion and grace of God.  The elder son was undoubtedly ashamed of his father when he (shamefully) ran to his prodigal son.  Jonah is in the same place when God doesn't even follow through on his word.

Of further difficulty is the devastating paradox that we would wish for God's relenting of our own judgment, but not allow it for everyone else.  And it must be allowed for everyone else, or else it cannot be allowed for any of us.  At the end of the day we, like Jonah, have our own thoughts about who is deserving of God's love and compassion ... and our list doesn't always match up with God's.  Jonah is right about what kind of God he serves, but sound doctrine doesn't always reflect a transformed heart.  So long as we remain unbroken in any part of our spirit, we are missing out on the grace of God which is, actually, quite amazing.

The moment we think that we've got the story of Jonah we discover that the story of Jonah got us.  That's fitting, for it is a story of biblical proportions, scripted ultimately by the one who will stop at nothing to save us from our own destruction, that we might experience his grace and compassion, his slowness to anger and his abounding in love ... a God who relents from sending calamity.

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