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Jonah 4:1-11 “Invitation to tolerance and compassion”, by Magali do Nascimento Cunha (Pilgrimage Bible study)

The story of Jonah is about the compassionate God whose mercy has no geographical, cultural, political, and economic frontier. The dialogue between God and Jonah (Jonah 4:1-11), which is considered the climax of the Book of Jonah, is an invitation to overcome intolerance and to cultivate compassion. The dialogue consists of two main parts: the anger of Jonah (v. 1-5) and the compassion of God (v. 6-11). In the dialogue, Jonah becomes angry, but God responds to him with two questions: “Is it good for you to be angry?” (v. 4) and “Is it good for you to be angry about the plant?” (v. 9) which indicate the limitless and universal mercy of God. In this way, the story of Jonah invites us to the pilgrimage of tolerance and compassion.

09 March 2018

Bible studies on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace
"Invitation to tolerance and compassion" (Jonah 4:1-11)
Magali do Nascimento Cunha*

1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant[a] and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die,and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” 10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

The book of Jonah is a beautiful literary portion that takes the form of a parable to express a critical view of those who claim to be followers of "Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the earth" (Jonah 1:9), people who consider themselves an elected group and exclusive holder of the saving action of God. Jonah is presented as someone who has faith and receives the call of God to mission but acts very weirdly. At last, when he receives a mission, he escapes from God, ends up doing his job carelessly, and when he explains why he did this, with much anger, he confesses that he thinks God is too merciful, too good!

The story of Jonah represents a call to self-criticism and to examination of conscience of all the followers of Yahweh-God, whose mercy has no geographical, cultural, political, or economic frontier.

Conversion: a central theme

The emphasis of Jonah's narrative is conversion, fed by repentance and compassion. Even though Jonah attempts to escape his mission of crying out against Nineveh and its wickedness (1:2), he decides to die and not take into account the lives of those who were with him on his escape (1:4-12), the sailors who nonetheless convert to Yahweh (1:14-16).

Even though Jonah did his job with ill will, preaching for just one day in a large city that required three days to be traveled (3:1-4), the people of Nineveh believed and repentance reached the king who also converted (3:5-6). God, seeing the actions of repentance and the change of ways of wickedness and violence on the part of the king, and of the population, including the animals, also converted (3:10) and gave up the evil that was he going to impose on the city.

The irony of the text is that only Jonah, who claimed to fear "Yahweh, God who made the sea and the earth," did not convert: he escaped from God and fulfilled his task under pressure, for God did not accept his suicide attempt and saved his life through a great fish that vomited him onto land (2:1-10). God, again, sent him to Nineveh, where he went but performed the mission carelessly in just one day (3:1-4). Jonah became angry at God's conversion and declared his motive for escaping: "God is too merciful and repents." Jonah tries to blackmail Yahweh: he is better dead than to relate to such a good God (4:1-4)! And in one of the fine sarcasms of the text, sure that his blackmail would work (after all, he belonged to the chosen group, separated, exclusive holder of God's compassion), Jonah sat in a cool shadow to watch the destruction of the city, what he wanted and believed God should do (4:5).

Here we come to chapter 4, the ending of the story/parable: the dialogue between God and Jonah and the invitation to overcome intolerance and to cultivate compassion.

Chapter 4 of Jonah is a short passage that represents the climax of the narrative and closes the book, but curiously does not present an end. It ends with a question (characteristic element of the sapiential literary genre), leading readers not only to reflect on the most coherent answer but also to imagine what the conclusion of Jonah's story would have been: has he converted at all? Let us explore this question in two parts: the anger of Jonah (4:1-5) and the compassion of God (4:6-11).

The anger of Jonah

At the beginning of the chapter the anger of Jonah becomes clear as a consequence of the conversion of the Ninevites and God's repentance of the evil planned against them. The destruction that God decides not to make is understood as a great evil for Jonah! It is very important to pay attention to the qualities of Yahweh-God that make Jonah fretful: clement, merciful, slow to anger, of great kindness, repents of evil (4:2). Yes! As a God of Grace, Yahweh can only have much compassion and give no chance for anger and revenge. In Yahweh-God there is no place for evil and violence. Only for justice and peace!

In naming these attributes of God, Jonah asks for death (4:3). He has already given himself over to death, in chapter 1, and now he again evokes death as an outlet before the greatness of God that he cannot control. The life of Jonah would only make sense if God were to impose on Nineveh his revenge with death and destruction.

God's response to Jonah is significant: "is anger good for you?" (4:4). A beautiful and good experience that involves repentance and change of direction towards good is source of anger for him. And it is in this response that God opposes compassion to Jonah's anger.

Gods compassion

Jonah attempts to blackmail God: he asks for death and then seeks a shadow to watch the destruction of the city, thinking that God would give him the preference of the chosen group (4:5). For the first time we learn that Jonah is capable of rejoicing: in the booth, God grows a plant that brought more shade to deliver him from the evil that grieved him (4:6). God wants to teach Jonah a lesson, so the joy lasted little: God sent a worm that dried the plant and even reinforced the malaise with a dry east wind and with the hot sun. Jonah now resumes his plea for death (4:8).

Again, God asks Jonah: "is anger because of the plant good for you?" And the answer is immediate: "yes, it is good, I even prefer death" (4:9). We come to the end of the story, which is a question to Jonah that echoes as a matter to the followers of Yahweh: "If you have compassion on the plant with which you have not laboured, I will not have compassion on the great city of Nineveh, wherein are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who can not discern between the right hand and the left hand, and also many animals?" (4:10-11).

God makes it clear that Jonah has compassion, but a selective compassion, directed to that which gives him pleasure, to what is good for him. Guided by the principle of revenge against those who practice violence and evil, Jonah disregards repentance and changes of course as a possibility to see life prevail. Moreover, he wants God, in whom he believes and follows, to act through the same principle.

In this understanding expressed by Jonah, the sense of God's grace is discarded and retribution is emphasized: only those who live in certain patterns established as God's will have the right to receive compassion and mercy. These patterns are composed of social, cultural, geographic, political, and economic practices established with religious value. This is the source of all intolerance.

Yahweh-God does not conform to human standards. This is the message from the parable of Jonah. God is entirely love and because of this God is clement, merciful, slow to anger, of great kindness, and repents of evil. All of this is compassion, without selectivity or exclusivity. It is for all Creation: the sea, the earth and all that dwells in them!

In pilgrimage

To those who follow Yahweh as pilgrims in the journey of life, these attributes must be cultivated in themselves and in their collective, in a permanent process of conversion, stripping away all rage, violence, rancor, revenge, and responding to the invitation out of tolerance and compassion. In this sense, it will be a pilgrimage of justice and peace.

Questions for reflection and discussion

  1. How do you imagine an ending for Jonah after the lesson God applies to him? What could happen to him after hearing God's question?
  2. What are the concrete situations in your context that demand compassion for overcoming all intolerance fueled by anger and revenge?

Invitations to action

  1. From the answer to question 2, it is urgent that communities of faith have a plan for concrete actions that represent compassion and solidarity in relation to families, neighborhoods, cities. It is also possible to act with regard to the country, to the world, with actions at a distance that can be realized by the countless digital spaces available today.
  2. Intolerance fueled by anger and revenge is a very present element in digital spaces, such as social media. Exchanges of insults and fake news that feed hate are frequent. Avoiding these spaces or retaliating with the same kind of content is not a path of justice and peace. Think about how your community can feed individual and collective spaces on the Web with content that expresses compassion and evangelizes the participants, while educating and denouncing what incites hatred and revenge.

Document by Vatican, World Evangelical Alliance and WCC on missionary conduct, Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-programmes/interreligious-dialogue-and-cooperation/christian-identity-in-pluralistic-societies/christian-witness-in-a-multi-religious-world

* Prof. Dr Magali do Nascimento Cunha, from the Methodist Church in Brazil, serves as a member of the International Reference Group for the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. She holds a PhD in Communication Sciences at Sao Paulo University.