“Jonah 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.’”
The story of the resistant Jonah is one with which I have always resonated. As the daughter of a pastor and an elder, I had no interest in joining the ranks of leadership in the church. The story of this Hebrew prophet running in the opposite direction of where God called was a path I understood and chose. The reluctance of inviting people who I deemed as evil into God’s grace and repentance is one I recognized. I could relate to Jonah’s self-righteousness and anger at God. Perhaps you can relate to aspects of this timeless narrative – as it clearly reflects familiar dynamics of today – the temptation to run away from God’s call to embrace the unembraceable.
It is no secret we are living in a season of dramatic breaks in relationships with family and friends because of the cultural dissonance fueled by partisan politics, racial and economic injustice. This climate has dangerously caused us to lose the centrality of who we are called to be as a people of Jesus. The story and temptation of Jonah reminds us of the intensity of our human resistance when it comes up against God’s grace for those we do not like.
When God asked Jonah to bring the possibility of forgiveness to the Ninevites, his response to God’s directive is brutally honest. Jonah had no interest in sharing God’s grace with the Ninevites. They were not his people. Jonah does not believe the Ninevites should be given the opportunity to repent. So deep was his conviction that he takes a boat and flees in the opposite direction – causing upheaval in the ship and landing him in the belly of a “whale.” Now I have never found myself inside a whale, but I have indeed been in that dark place of resistance and self-righteousness that have caused my assumptions about others to be challenged by the Spirit of God and the teachings of Jesus. It is a challenge that continues with me today.
As a woman of Latinx heritage, I remember serving a large and affluent Caucasian church. Coming from a predominantly working-class, Spanish-language community of faith, I understood the Gospel to be a gospel of liberation for people who came from “my” background – with parents who persevered against all kinds of economic and societal assumptions. I remember quietly wondering how I would reflect Gospel values in a place I “assumed” did not come from much poverty. I quietly wondered what kind of redemption would they need.
I quickly learned about spiritual and psychological poverty. I quickly learned that not all that looks shiny is reflective of grace and love. I learned how the desire to appear perfect coupled with the quest for excellence could create spaces for hiding, making our hearts hard and intolerant of others. But I also quickly learned to love and be loved by that community of faith. For 13 years of my life, they claimed my heart – as we shaped one another’s journeys of faith. I learned that my assumptions – based largely on bias and fear of rejection – could be wrong. There is no escaping that who I am today has largely been shaped by that extraordinary and committed journey in a land I would not have chosen for myself. Had I allowed my assumptions to guide that season of my life, I would have again run in the opposite direction and cheated myself of countless blessings. I am grateful that God caused a stirring in my spirit that allowed me to lean into those relationships – breaking down the assumptions I carried.
This experience makes me wary of the assumptions we can carry about others. But the truth is, it is hard to offer grace to a people who you believe are not worthy; who you perceive to have hurt you; who have hurt others. It is hard to offer forgiveness to our contemporary Ninevites – whoever they might be in your life – people who bring differences into the room, causing us to become uncomfortable. Our Ninevites today include our theological assumptions, our political assumptions, our social assumptions. Our Ninevites include people of other races, nationalities, faiths. Our Ninevites include “those people” – whose assumptions about the world collide with our own.
But, as the story of Jonah reminds us, God’s grace is always far more generous than the limitations of our hearts and our assumptions. You and I are called to step into that place of grace – even as we speak out against all the human ills that keep us from God and one another. You and I are called to pray for our enemies – whomever they might be – even as we struggle to dismantle systems that do not honor the intentional diversity of God’s creation. You and I are called to be vessels proclaiming grace and forgiveness in those broken spaces in the name of Jesus.
And Jesus – well Jesus is the polar opposite of Jonah. Jesus does not run – he leans into his call – resisting the ways of oppression and taking on the pain and darkness of the world on the cross. He embodies our call to lean in to those broken spaces of the unfamiliar and uncomfortable – offering hope amidst the despair and hopelessness that continues to frame much of 2020 – even to those Ninevites we would much prefer to be destroyed.