Wednesday, June 24, 2020

A Miserable Prophet

At the end of the book of Jonah, we see the prophet sitting on an overlook, watching Nineveh repent from her wicked ways and receive the mercy of the Lord who loved them enough to send them a prophet. Jonah is miserable; he doesn't have the same love for Nineveh that the Lord does, and he's miffed that God would send him to such a detestable place. As he sits and pouts under the hot sun, God grows for him a shade plant to offer some relief, and Jonah settles into the coolness of the shade. Then, the plant withers and dies, and the prophet is more miserable than he even began. 

God asks him if he's right to be angry, if his fuming is doing for him whatever it is he thinks it's supposed to be doing for him, and Jonah defends his misery. Of course it's right. Of course this is what his reaction should be. He has every right to be angry - about Nineveh, about the plant, about everything. 

But not a story about a prophet's anger. 

It's a story about a prophet's shame. 

To understand what's going on here (and let's be honest - most of us have read the ending to the book of Jonah and been left with a great big "huh?"), we have to go back to another story where God provided a little greenery to cover shame: Adam and Eve. 

Adam and Eve had broken God's one rule in the Garden of Eden and eaten the forbidden fruit. Their act had opened their eyes to their own nakedness, and when they heard God walking around in the cool of the day, they dove into the bushes to hide their shame. For the first time, they realized how vulnerable they were - how weak. They realized the magnitude of what they had done, how much lesser they were in this moment than God had intended them to be. They had failed to live up to their creation and their calling. 

Then, God calls them out of the bushes and asks them about their shame. He creates this space that exposes fully their nakedness and, with tender mercy, knits for them coverings out of the fig leaves. They live the rest of their lives under the hot sun, exposed and naked except for the covering that God has given them for their shame. And that covering is enough to help them move past their shame and into something better. 

Fast forward to Jonah. Here is a prophet who has been exposed. He isn't as loving as the God who created him. He doesn't believe as much in redemption as the God of mercy who sent him. He desires nothing good for Nineveh, even though God desires the best for everyone. Jonah himself has been saved by the very hand of God, but he isn't interested in sharing that saving grace with anyone else. He has failed to live up to his creation and his calling. He went to Nineveh. He spoke to them. But he didn't love them. 

He looks angry on that hill; he does. But who among us doesn't know how combative we can become when we're exposed and vulnerable? Who among us doesn't understand how angry we get when we're ashamed? It's a defense mechanism. Jonah isn't really angry, not with anyone but himself. He's ashamed. He's ashamed that he just doesn't care about Nineveh the way that he's supposed to. 

How do we know? Because he's on a hill watching their redemption play out. He can't turn his eyes away. None of us completes a task we truly hate and then sticks around to see how it turns out. None of us does a begrudging duty and then cares a lick about what happens next. If Jonah were just putting in his time as a prophet, if the whole thing for him was about doing or not doing the action that God asked him to do, then Jonah goes to Nineveh, gives them a message, walks away, and doesn't look back. But there's something about the whole thing that just doesn't settle well for Jonah, and it has to be his own lack of love. So here he is, watching from the hillside. Trying to muster up love in his heart for these people that God loves. He pouts because he knew God was going to save them - that's what he says - but part of his pouting is that he just can't see with his own eyes why. Why are these people worth saving? 

Nestled in his own lack of love, even as the city below him repents of their sins, Jonah feels deeply his failure as a prophet. And the hot sun beats down on him.

That plant is just like the fig leaves that God knit together for Adam and Eve; it is a welcome respite in a glaring shame. It is a comfort. It takes away the heat of the sun. It takes away the accusing brightness of the day. It cools Jonah down when he's flush with shame and his face beats red hot. And then, just like it came, it's gone. And Jonah is left in the fullness of his shame once more. Exposed.

Imagine if God had stripped Adam and Eve naked before He pushed them east of Eden. That's what's happening here. Jonah's shelter from his shame is gone, and the sun seems even hotter now than it was before. Because he knows that God knows the shame that he feels...and he knows God has chosen to leave him in a little longer. 


You have to give the prophet some credit; he doesn't run away. He doesn't give up on the whole thing and walk away. He doesn't turn from Nineveh and give up on this moment. He's still watching, still trying to figure it out. Still pushing himself to try and find the love that he's missing. Still wanting to be a better prophet, a better man. Still trying to take hold of the kind of mercy that he's experienced...and desire it for others. He doesn't run away, and that says a lot for a descendant of a sinner who was found hiding in a bush. This man knows he is less than he was intended to be, and he wants to be more. So he stays. In the hot sun, he stays. After the plant withers, he stays. He's angry, but he's not really angry, and that's the point I think God is trying to make when He questions the prophet. 

You're not really angry, Jonah. Is this anger thing you're doing giving you the satisfaction that your soul is seeking on this hillside? Of course it's not. Because your problem isn't really anger; it's shame. 

Recognizing that changes the way that we read the end of the story of Jonah. It changes the way we read our own stories. It has to. 

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