University Congregational Church
June 14, 2015
“Jonah’s Withered Plant”
Jonah 3:3 – 4:11
Sometimes, words in a story paint such a vivid picture that you can’t help but see it in your mind. Although you may forget the story, it’s unlikely that you will forget the picture because it is so embedded into your memory. Our story from the scripture today paints that kind of picture. The story ends with a pouting prophet sitting under a withered tree as he burns with resentment. Can you see him there, slumped under a dying vine, petulant and pouting, sulking and indulging his immature thoughts?
It’s Jonah we’re seeing… yes, the Jonah known for being in the belly of a whale. Most of you know about Jonah and the whale; but have you heard of Jonah and the withered plant? Read Jonah 3:3 – 4:11
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
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 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Jonah’s story starts with God asking Jonah to go to Nineveh to tell the people there about their sin and God’s grace. Jonah knew about Nineveh and frankly, he wasn’t impressed. He didn’t like the climate there; and although he didn’t know the people there, he had heard that they were not his kind of people. Perhaps they were poor, or of another religion, a different race or sexual orientation… but whatever it was didn’t matter… Jonah wasn’t interested in going to meet them at all. Have you ever felt that God was asking something of you that was uncomfortable or distasteful?
Like many of us, Jonah initially told God “no” – he would not go to Nineveh. And that’s why he ended up in the belly of a whale – because he told God “no”. Consequently, God thought that Jonah should have some time to think about his answer, so God gave him a little time –
- away from daily life stress
- away from the kids and the wife,
- away from the list of “honey-dos” to keep the tent in shape
- away from his friends
- away from the world.
That’s why Jonah got to spend some time in the belly of a whale. Now, let me ask you, have you ever told God “no” and ended up in a proverbial mess, like in the belly of a whale?
After Jonah had time to think about his response to God, he decided to go to Nineveh after all (imagine that!). The scripture says that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time… go to Nineveh and cry into its ear the words I give you to cry. Jonah told the Ninevites that they had forty days to turn away from their sin. Forty days – a window of opportunity. If you do anything for forty days, it can become a habit (good or bad). The Ninevites found out that forty days did make a difference in their lives and in their hearts. They were changed forever. God saw what they had done during that time and how they had turned from their bitter ways, and God was compassionate.
Now the story gets interesting. Jonah, that prophet who didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place, who had prejudices against the Ninevites, but who went begrudgingly and who warned the Ninevites about sin, was angry because God showed mercy to the Ninevites. Why? Well, Jonah’s own heart had not been converted yet. Jonah had done as God had asked, but he did it unhappily. Jonah’s heart was not in his work. Jonah was bitter about going to Nineveh. He was angry about being in the belly of a whale. Jonah still didn’t like the Ninevites. And when God decided to save them, Jonah left the city and sulked under a tree. That’s how the story ends… with a pouting prophet sitting beside a withered broom tree as he burns with resentment.
Jonah was going to sit in the shadow of the tree and watch thousands of people die, watch them suffer the dire punishment that he, Jonah, had been sent to predict. But the one thing Jonah didn’t expect as he sat in the shade was that he was sitting under a tree of forgiveness.
It’s easy to think Jonah immature. It’s easy to shake our heads and judge him. Yet, this story is our story. This story challenges our cultural, religious and pious beliefs. Perhaps we are more subtle in our exclusions, even talking a good game about those who are different from us. But the truth is we have a lot in common with Jonah. The truth is we prefer not to deal with inclusion in our lives. “Oh,” you say, “I’ve been working on sexism, racism, ageism, and all those other ‘isms, and I think I’m doing pretty well.”
But the story asks us to really get honest with ourselves and identify those folks we don’t think are worth our time or even God’s time.
… those who are ugly, lazy, or overweight
… those who don’t speak English, although they live in the US
… those whose children are sloppy, unmannered or ill behaved
… those who drive 20 miles an hour on a street with a 45 mph sign
… those who remind us of someone else we didn’t like
… those who don’t treat us nicely, are arrogant or rude
… those who don’t bathe or who dress sloppily
… those who show there obvious disdain for us
… those who are convicted felons
… those who have been divorced 4 times and have 6 kids, each with a different last name
… those who are religious fanatics and think they own the “truth”
… or those who are prejudiced themselves
Maybe there are those with whom we’d rather not associate. Like Jonah, we are happy to talk to people about their sin, but we don’t really want to share God’s grace with them!
Some sociologists and psychologists have termed this problem the theory of “limited good”. Somehow, in the back of our minds, we are convinced that there is a limit to good things – good luck, good fortune, good reputation, good employment, good family life, etc. And if someone else has something good, there is less good available for us.
While most of us would intellectually deny this philosophy, there are likely ways in which we live that indicate the philosophy of “limited good” does bite us. It is an unusual person who doesn’t find just a teensy bit of pleasure in seeing “them” get what “they” deserve. Because, when it really comes down to it, if those people we automatically don’t like are the ones upon whom God shows mercy, and we are the ones who spend time in the belly of a whale, we are not happy. We, with Jonah, are tempted to go out of the city to sit under a wilting tree and sulk. When we think this way, we deny the nature of God’s incredible grace.
The ironic twist in the story is that Jonah went to convert the Ninevites when he, himself, was the one in need of a conversion. And isn’t that they way it sometimes turns out – that we are the ones in need of being turned around, not those people “out there” who are obviously without God.
As one person said, “Jonah brings us down to earth… helps us accept our full humanity, and such acceptance is humility.” He does it by allowing us to laugh. It is surely no accident that these three words share a common root: humor, humility, humanity. The best definition of humility I know of is from Roberta Bondi’s book, To Love as God Loves. She writes, “Humility is a world-transforming attitude of heart that lives out the conviction that all human beings are beloved creatures of God and that we all have a different struggle that only God is in a position to judge.”
The good news of the story is that God was gracious to the Ninevites. And if God can be that gracious, the implicit message is that God can be gracious to Jonah too. That means there is hope for us, as well as for the ones from whom we keep our distance. Hopefully, we won’t have to spend time in the belly of a whale before we realize that we are the ones in need of God’s grace. And God’s grace is enough for all of us, even those who preach the good news without believing it or living it.
Joan Robey, “The Pettiness of Jonah”, The Disciple Magazine.