Go Even unto Nineveh

Jeffrey Sartain September 24, 2017

Scripture: Jonah 3:10–4:11

A couple weeks ago, a conservative pastor who’s also a shirt-tail relative posted something on Facebook. I don’t really know him well at all and his post really irritated me. I have a personal policy that I don’t engage in arguments online, but this post hit me at a weak moment—so I shot off a response.

My reply elicited another response from him, and then one from me, and then from him. Like that. Escalating in tone—or at least I was escalating. I was on a roll. People were “liking” my rebuttals, giving me those little thumbs up and I even got a “wow” emoji. But then, after I had shot off what I thought was really a clever jab, my phone dinged. He had written me a private message. It said, “Maybe we should go out for coffee, not to talk about this, but so I can get to know you.” And then he added, “I’m interested in you as a person.”

It stopped me. He was interested in me—as a person. I’d been interested in him as a . . . what? I’m not sure. An example of narrowmindedness maybe; an opportunity to make a point; a chance to show off my “superior” theology. I’m not sure I was thinking of him as a person at all during our exchange.

I spent a few minutes trying to justify myself in my own mind, but honestly I knew that while I might have won the debate, he’d made a point I needed to concede. The world has so much outrage these days, and not nearly enough of being interested in one another as persons.

I had a hard time shaking this off, especially after I opened my Bible to the lectionary texts for this weekend.

In the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, we enter the story of Jonah right at the end. He’d already been through a lot by the time we met up with him a few moments ago.

Jonah was a prophet at a time of relative security for his people. After many battles, finally their borders were well-defined and Israel felt strong. Even more than strong, they felt assured that God was on their side. There was, perhaps, some self-righteousness in Israel, some smugness, even privilege on their part. They felt like they had a Manifest Destiny—a sense that, above all nations, theirs was favored by God.

In this context, God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, Israel’s one significant remaining threat. God wants Jonah to go to Israel’s enemy and preach so that the people might repent and be saved.

Jonah is not the least bit interested in the Ninevites. He doesn’t care if they are saved. In fact he would prefer that they were destroyed. He was not interested in them as persons or as anything else, so Jonah runs away.

He boards a ship for Tarshish—the opposite direction. But God is bound and determined. God stirs up a storm on the seas, and when the storm is so bad it is likely to cause the whole ship to go down, Jonah fesses up. He tells the crew that the storm is actually a sign of God’s anger at him for running away—and so they throw Jonah into the sea.

Just as Jonah hits the water, the storm abruptly stops and he begins to sink to his death.

But then, just in the nick of time, God sends an enormous fish that swallows Jonah whole. He prays there in the fish. He prayed, “The waters surrounded me right by my throat, the Deep enclosed me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. I sank down to the roots of the mountains; the vaults of the earth closed me in forever.”

For three days and three nights Jonah rides in the belly of the fish. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber calls it the worst cab ride in history.

Finally this sea-going cab pulls up to the curb and vomits Jonah onto the shore. Once more God call him to go to Nineveh. And this time, he went.

Reluctant but obedient Jonah dragged his feet into the center of town and preached the shortest, most half-hearted sermon in history, just nine words long. He said, “Only 40 days more and Nineveh will be destroyed.” It wasn’t what I would call an affirming sermon. Not very cheerful or gospel centered, but somehow it worked. The people believed. They proclaimed a fast. Their remorse was so great not even the animals were allowed to eat. The decree from the ruler said, “Citizens and beasts, herds and flocks [shall not] taste anything . . . you must all dress in sackcloth and call on God with all your might.” Picturing all those animals is sackcloth is a strange image—but that’s how the story goes.

You might think Jonah would have been pleased that his little sermon moved the hearts of the people of Nineveh, but Jonah was angry. The pouty prophet sasses back to God like an adolescent sibling, “I knew you would forgive them!” Jonah complains, “I knew you were a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, repenting from violence,” as though that were a bad thing. Finally, he is so despondent that God has shown mercy to Nineveh that in a fit of melodrama he cries, “I’d rather be dead than keep on living.” Why? Because God loved Jonah’s enemy—and he just couldn’t handle it.

The story ends with this haunting question, a question not answered in the text, not answered even today. God asks the begrudging, Jonah, “Should I not be concerned about that great city, 120,000 who don’t know their right hand from their left?”—most commentators say that means the infants in the city—so this was a big place.

Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?

If there is one thing that has really gone out of style these days it is God’s call to see those who disagree with us as persons. To see those we might even call our enemies as persons. Rather, it is in vogue to paint the other side of every argument with a broad brush. It is the day and age of demonizing those who disagree, of outrage at every opposition. We want to eliminate those we call evil. We say under our breath or even aloud, “I hate them!

Nineveh was a real place, and it still is today. I mean not only the Nineveh on the map of Iraq, but the Nineveh in your life. Those people we know with absolute clarity represent all that is wrong in the world. I have said to myself—I can’t deal with them and shut them out. You quit listening to the radio so you don’t have to hear his voice, or her voice. You unfriended her on Facebook because even that remote connection felt too close. We felt sick when the network news showed them marching with their despicable symbols and flags.

We should of course stand in opposition to our modern-day Ninevites when they threaten the vulnerable of our society. Our faith compels us to stand for the oppressed and against those who would harm them. But if we forget that they are persons, then we are in dangerous spiritual territory. God’s unanswered question rings out. Should I not be concerned for the people of Nineveh?

Jonah is a very human prophet. He is not a role model. He is a mirror. We can understand his anger. We can relate to his indignation. We can identify with the inability he had in seeing the people of Nineveh as persons. But we must do better for the sake of our own souls.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote:

“You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. . . . For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. . . . That’s what hate does. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.”

Jonah didn’t feel warmth toward Nineveh. He didn’t trust Nineveh. He never prayed for the people of Nineveh. In the belly of the great fish, Jonah prayed only for himself. In fact, the only thing positive he could muster for Nineveh was to acknowledge that God loved Nineveh even when he himself could not. And that made him mad.

That is a low bar. That might seem like a very low level of love—to admit that God might love someone even though you can’t. It might seem like a very small step, but in this time in the world, in this time of such deep divisions and separation, maybe that little step is the step we need to take.

To look upon those we dislike, to look upon those we fear, those we do not trust, or even those we abhor—can we look upon them and remind ourselves that they are persons? And as such, they are God’s beloved ones—just as we are. Flawed of course, but loved—just as we are.

Dr. King preached in Montgomery in 1957, and imagine the context here: Montgomery, Alabama in 1957—the Klan, the bombing of black churches, the blatant discrimination. Into that context Dr. King preached:

“As I look . . . into the eyes of all of my brothers . . . all over Alabama, all over America and over the world, I say to you, ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’ . . . I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love . . . people of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. . . . We will be able to matriculate into the University of Eternal Life because we had the power to love our enemies.”

As people of faith we must resist evil, and protest oppression, and speak truth to power. But we must also guard our hearts from hate. Jesus taught us how; he taught us, “Pray for your enemies [pray for them], bless those that curse you [bless them], be good to those persons who hate you, pray for those people who despitefully use you.”

It is difficult, but God will help us, and it is our sacred calling.

God asked Jonah, God asks us, “Should I not be concerned for the people of Nineveh? Should I not also love them?”