A man makes the most progress and merits the most grace precisely in those matters wherein he gains the greatest victories over self and most mortifies his will.
--St. Francis de Sales
Jonah was greatly displeased
and became angry that God did not carry out the evil
he threatened against Nineveh.
He prayed, "I beseech you, LORD,
is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?
This is why I fled at first to Tarshish.
I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God,
slow to anger, rich in clemency, loathe to punish.
And now, LORD, please take my life from me;
for it is better for me to die than to live."
But the LORD asked, "Have you reason to be angry?"
Jonah then left the city for a place to the east of it,
where he built himself a hut and waited under it in the shade,
to see what would happen to the city.
And when the LORD God provided a gourd plant
that grew up over Jonah's head,
giving shade that relieved him of any discomfort,
Jonah was very happy over the plant.
But the next morning at dawn
God sent a worm that attacked the plant,
so that it withered.
And when the sun arose, God sent a burning east wind;
and the sun beat upon Jonah's head till he became faint.
Then Jonah asked for death, saying,
"I would be better off dead than alive."
But God said to Jonah,
"Have you reason to be angry over the plant?"
"I have reason to be angry," Jonah answered, 'angry enough to die."
Then the LORD said,
"You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor
and which you did not raise;
it came up in one night and in one night it perished.
And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city,
in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons
who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left,
not to mention the many cattle?"
Jonah is one of those prophets that I find myself chuckling about when I hear his story, not only because I find the reticence and disgruntled temperament of the man amusing, but I also find it easy to imagine myself in his shoes. Jonah embodies the human quality of resistance to change. He is stubborn to his core; and, especially considering the length of his book in the Old Testament (only 4 short chapters), Jonah is the king of digging in his heels before the will of God. Now, I don’t mean to imply that the book of Jonah is a testament to the inexorable will of God. Rather, I think that Jonah’s story is intended to be an opportunity to look within ourselves, a challenge to find those areas in our lives where we might be silently (or perhaps not so silently) refusing the will of God. I think that, on some level, even the best of us struggle with change and stepping outside of the comfort zones we have unknowingly built for ourselves and had built for us. We accept things that improve our lot in life (as Jonah easily accepts the gourd that God grows for him outside of Nineveh), but when it comes to planting gourds ourselves the matter becomes a bit more intimidating. When we reach out to forgotten friends, when we challenge the status quo at our places of work, when we try to make amends for past mistakes, or when we see a problem and actually stop to become the solution, we are planting gourds. Yet, to be honest, I’m not sure if what I mean to say is that God is constantly calling us to step out of our boxes. He certainly works within our lives as they are, calling us to love our friends, families, and neighbors, but, at the same time, due to our restless hearts and God’s divinity, he may also be constantly hoping for us to do more, to challenge ourselves on a deeper level than we ever have before.
God did this with Jonah, forcing him to confront people he disliked (for the Ninevites were traditional enemies of Israel), warn them of God’s displeasure, and then watch as those enemies changed their ways and became people of God. After witnessing Nineveh’s conversion Jonah clung to his enmity, maintaining the narrow mindset that he had had his whole life. The book ends with God pointing out Jonah’s irrationality, for, much like Jonah’s anger over the gourd plant suddenly dying as he sat outside of Nineveh, Jonah’s hatred for the Ninevites is fruitless. Jonah shows us that anger is a destructive emotion, and it is capable of blinding all people (even God’s prophets). It is not worth investing oneself in, especially because it is usually directed at things beyond our control. Yet, in one form or another, we have all been there, and we will almost certainly be there again. What will we do the next time anger clouds our judgment?
It’s when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart. – Denise Levertov
We are called to plant our own gourds, and one of the best is forgiveness. In today’s readings, it is fitting that Jonah’s story of belligerent, blind anger is followed by Christ sharing the Our Father with his disciples. The prayer is not only a means of communing with each other and with God, it is a way of life. We can be daily bread for each other, and, by those actions, we bring God’s kingdom that much closer to our reality.
“Lord, teach us to pray. . .”- Luke 11:1