Jonah earns the title for the worst prophet in the Bible.
He was a proud patriot. 2 Kings 14 tells us he expanded Israel’s territory northward. He was a herald of military glory for his people, all of it divinely inspired.
But then God called him to minister to Nineveh. Its city walls housed the enemy, the Assyrians, who dragged prisoners from smoldering ruins with chains through their lips. It represented all Jonah despised — a threat to Israel, a culture apart from God, a seat of violence and depravity. A people unworthy of forgiveness.
So Jonah, the prophet to the kings, ran from God. He fled 2,500 miles in the exact opposite direction, across the blue expanse of the Mediterranean. God pursued him, churning the sea into froth and pelting his boat with the wind, and instead of repenting his disobedience (and foolishness. . . who can escape God?? (Ps 139:7-10)), Jonah fell asleep. He abandoned the crew on board to strive and to perish, and hid below.
When God appointed a great fish to save him from the depths, Jonah brought to the end of himself, seemed to relent. . . but then, when the Ninevites repented and God forgave them, still he grumbled, barking at God like an insolent child. These people aren’t worth your forgiveness, he claimed. When he cried, “I am angry enough to die!” we can imagine him with arms crossed, perhaps stomping the ground in a tantrum.
It’s easy to dismiss Jonah, to roll our eyes and scoff. He was God’s prophet. He should have known better than to deny others forgiveness, when he required it from God himself.
But aren’t we the same?
The book of Jonah ends with a question:
10 And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?
The book ends at “cattle.” Jonah gives no answer. The narrator offers no resolution. Why? Why would God pose a question, and the writer not include the answer?
Could it be God is asking the question of us?
The Bible consists of threads that weave themselves into the narrative repeatedly, like strands through a pattern. We see Jonah elsewhere in the Bible, many centuries later. In Luke 15:11-32, after his father runs to embrace a prodigal son, another character behaves similar to Jonah:
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’
Jesus told this parable not only to teach listeners of how God pursues His children, and how He longs to forgive them, but also to warn the Pharisees of their own self-righteousness. Like the elder brother, those who should have been most humble before the Lord — who supposedly knew Him — instead were hypocritical and insolent. They withheld forgiveness, when they themselves needed that same forgiveness as desperately than ever.
The Pharisees should have known better. Jonah should have known better.
We should know better, too.
As a doctor, I prided myself in my empathy. Heck, I actually earned awards for empathy in medical school (I’m not kidding!). I wore my status as “the caring doctor” and “the compassionate doctor” like a precious cloak, or an adornment I flaunted before the lowly.
But that “empathy” was more a badge of honor, than something I knew, deeply, down to my core. It was something I strove to personify, but it didn’t course through my veins with each God-given pulse of my heart.
I know this, because for years, I thought Pip’s struggles were misbehavior. . . and I seethed with frustration. Then when we determined a neurological underpinning to his daily meltdowns, I understood, but my heart was still more stone than flesh, more bitterness than flowing stream. I knew we needed to support him, but I didn’t empathize. I didn’t truly understand what his life looked like and felt to him day-to-day, how the confines of his own body seemed intolerable to him.
Then around Christmastime, the kids asked to learn some art history. They picked Jackson Pollock’s No. 6 (pictured above). With Louis Armstrong playing in the background and a spoonful of cereal still tucked into my cheek, I explained that abstract art aims to evoke thoughts and feelings, rather than represent something in real life. I asked Pip and Bean what Jackson Pollock’s No. 6 made them think and feel.
Without hesitation, Pip said, “It reminds me of SPD.”
SPD? This is what sensory processing disorder looks and feels like to him? This jarring mess? This tangle of dark lines and shadows? The noise? The chaos?
I’d won awards for empathy. I should have known. I should have sought to see the world from his tender eyes, to enter into his experience. I should have comprehended that when he would drop to the ground, kicking, even growling, he wasn’t having a tantrum, but instead fleeing a world that threatened him, a menacing world in which the messages knotted together, and the signals twisted into vulgar snarls.
Even more importantly: I should have been quicker to forgive. (Eph 4:32) I should have been quicker to hold him when he would shout, even if the words hurt. I should have been quicker to acknowledge my own brokenness, the shards of my own life splintering and jagged with pride. Because none of us deserves the forgiveness He gives us in Christ. The Ninevites didn’t. The prodigal son didn’t. But Jonah, the elder brother, and the Pharisees certainly did not either. The Ninevites, in humility and ashes, repented, and embraced God’s grace for us. (Matt 12:38-42)
Will I do the same?
Or like Jonah, will I grumble on a hilltop, resentment burning in my heart as a hot wind scorches me?
We all know better. We all need forgiveness.
And the grace and majesty of the cross, is that He offers forgiveness to us, His hands scarred but open, when we don’t deserve it.
May that grace steel us against the tides of our own pride. May it abolish the self-righteousness that clads our hearts in iron, and pitches us into spiritual slumber while the winds howl above.
May it give us the empathy to perceive the world through the eyes of another. And to partner with one another, loving one another as He loved us (John 13:34-35), walking with hands interlocked through the tangled messes that ensnare us.