Jonah’s Pout (Artful Devotion)

Jonah (Menologion of Basil II)
Miniature from the Menologion of Basil II (Vat. Gr. 1613, page 59), made in Constantinople, 976–1025. Vatican Library, Rome.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 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. 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?”

—Jonah 3:10–4:11

After Jonah, at God’s behest, reluctantly went to preach to the pagan city of Ninevah, its people repented and were spared destruction. (Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, Israel’s enemy.) This is where Sunday’s lectionary reading, the final chapter of the book of Jonah, picks up.

When God extended his mercy to Jonah earlier in the story, it filled Jonah with thanksgiving (Jonah 2:9), but when God is merciful to Ninevah, it fills Jonah with anger. Jonah believed that the Ninevites should be punished for their sin, that they are not worthy of God’s forgiveness. He wanted them to be crushed, not saved! Thus accusing God of injustice, he stalks over to a spot east of Ninevah, plops himself down, and pouts.

The book of Jonah condemns the title character’s bigotry and ethnocentrism, portraying him as a rather ridiculous figure. The idea that God loves only “us,” not “them,” is one that has persisted down through the ages and that’s satirized in this quatrain:

We are God’s chosen few,
All others will be damned;
There is no place in heaven for you,
We can’t have heaven crammed.

(This is sometimes attributed to Jonathan Swift, but it’s not in his collected works; if you know the original source, let me know!)

Jonah wants God’s love to have boundaries that hem him in and others out. To expose the faultiness of Jonah’s thinking, God “appoints a plant” to provide shade for Jonah, relief from the heat, but only for a day. The next day God destroys the plant, and Jonah is so upset that he wants to die. God then questions why he grieves the destruction of a mere plant but not the prospect of an entire city being destroyed.

The narrative ends without telling us whether Jonah receives the lesson well and repents of the hatred he harbors.

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SONG: “Jonah Blues, Ch. 4” by Branches Band, on Grow in the Vine (2019)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 20, cycle A, click here.

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