Jonah: A journey from sloth to sympathy
Hespeler, April 2, 2-17 © Scott McAndless
Jonah 3:1-10, Jonah 4:1-11. Jonah 2
f all the prophets in the Bible, Jonah, I think is the one who just gets me. I mean, here is a guy who is just going on about his own business one day when he receives a message from God. “Wow, Lord, me? You think that I’m important enough to give a message to me?” But then, as Jonah listens or attends or does whatever you do when you receive a message from God, he begins to realize that this is not really a message that he likes or wants to receive: “Jonah, go an
d preach my message to the people that you hate most in the world:
And then what does Jonah do? He behaves as if he was Donald Trump and the German Chancellor just asked him to shake hands. “What? Message? I didn’t receive any message. As a matter of fact,” Jonah goes on, “I think I just remembered that I gotta do something in completely the opposite direction of Nineveh. Yeah, that’s it, I have to get in this ship and travel to, uh, Tarshish instead. Yeah, Tarshish – it was planned months ago.”
What I’m saying is this: different people will react in different ways when they’re in an unwelcome situation like being asked to do something that they really don’t want to. Some will get aggressive and attack. Some will do it but complain the whole time. Some will talk themselves into thinking that it was all their own idea all along. But I love the way that Jonah deals with it. He just avoids the whole thing. He just gets out of town.
Why do I love that response? Because that’s exactly what I would do. Given a negative situation, something gone wrong, some unexpected conflict, my first instinct is always to avoid the situation in whatever way I can. You see, for the last eight weeks, I have been spending time here going through various personality types and trying to understand them according to Biblical characters who seem to represent them. I have found some common ground with some of these characters but there has not been one with whom I can completely identify – until now. But Jonah, I am just like Jonah in so many ways. And so he represents a personality type that I would very much like to explore.
You see, for whatever reason, when he was growing up Jonah felt kind of overlooked. I figure that he was probably a middle child and, for whatever reasons, the other kids, older than him and younger than him, just managed to capture the lion’s share of attention in the household. I don’t think it was that anyone purposely neglected him. It is just one of those things that sometimes happens.
So, when he was already feeling as if he was disappearing and no one was paying any attention, Jonah just developed the habit of actually disappearing in whatever ways he could when things didn’t go his way. And, what’s more, he convinced himself that that was that he really wanted anyways, that he didn’t care that much about anything and was only too happy to let everyone else have their way. This becomes a lifelong strategy for dealing with any unfavourable circumstances when you are somebody like a Jonah.
This why the sin of a Jonah – the one that besets people like him more than other types – is sloth. Sloth is, I would suggest to you, not quite the same thing as laziness, though it may look like it from the outside. Jonah avoids doing a job that God asks him to do, but he actually does so rather energetically. Laziness is about not being willing to expend any energy but Jonah actually expends lots of it. Sloth is more about actively avoiding something because there is something about it that you don’t like. It is a sin of active and sometimes energetic avoidance.
And that is why I can say that I identify so much with Jonah. I am not a lazy person. I know that I have the capacity to work very hard, especially when I am working on a project that I really care about. But I also know that, when I come up against a situation when I don’t feel comfortable, when there is conflict or when people are not being appreciated or treated right, my first instinct is not to fight or to submit, it is to avoid. Now, that doesn’t mean that I will always actually do that. I have had to learn that it is not always the best response. But there are reasons why that is my first inclination – reasons related to my personality type.
I am not alone in this. Jonah represents a personality type that is actually quite common in our world. There are some people who are so adverse to conflict that they will avoid it in whatever ways they can. But what is fascinating in the whole story of Jonah is how God deals with him in the whole arc of the story. I think it is representative of how God likes to work in the lives of people like him – maybe in people like me too.
The first and most obvious thing that I can observe in this story is that God has a way of thwarting all of Jonah’s attempts at avoidance. Jonah gets on a ship; God sends a storm. Jonah tells the other men in the boat that they might as well just throw him overboard because the storm is probably all his fault. (This is, by the way, a classic passive aggressive avoidance strategy that people like me employ all the time: “Oh, it’s all my fault, I can’t do anything right, just give me my punishment.”) So Jonah employs that strategy but God sends the big fish. When God has decided that we actually need to deal with something, he is not going to let our avoidance strategies get in the way and that is a good thing. God is doing it because he loves Jonah.
But God seems to be most intent to work on Jonah once he actually arrives in Nineveh. Now Jonah had a real reason why he didn’t want to go and it was, as far as he was concerned, a very good one. The Ninevites, you see, were pure evil. This is an established historical fact. Of all the horrible bloody empires that filled the history of the ancient Near East the Ninevites were the bloodiest and horriblest. They brought more death and destruction to their enemies than anyone else and Jonah had very good reason to hate them.
But here is something else you need to understand about Jonah’s personality type. They are people who, when they finally get into a situation where there is potential conflict – when they finally cannot avoid it any longer – have an incredible gift. They can understand the positions of people on both sides of an argument really well. They understand and appreciate where people are coming from.
I have experienced this myself often enough. I get in the middle of a discussion where people take opposing views and find that I, more than anyone else in the room, am prepared to understand everyone’s point of view at once and I am never inclined to move too quickly to judgement. This can be a problem sometimes, of course, when a choice must be quickly made but, when it comes to fostering peace and understanding between groups, this can be a remarkably valuable skill to have.
I think Jonah had it too because once he got to Nineveh and no matter how he had been taught all his life to hate Ninevites, he found that, in spite of himself, he could sympathize with them and their experience. That is the only way that I can explain what happened next. We are told that “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk” into a city that took three days to walk across. “And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’”
Now that, I’ve got to say, might be a powerful message, but it is not really a very encouraging one is it? How do you sell a message like that? Well Jonah obviously did sell it. After only one day of preaching that simple, discouraging message, people just started responding. “The people of Nineveh believed God,” it says. “They proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” I think that the credit for such a strong response goes, not to the message itself, but to the man who was preaching it. Jonah, in spite of himself, connected with the Ninevites. Maybe he didn’t want to care about them, but he couldn’t help himself and he did. And the people of Nineveh picked up on that and, because of that, they responded positively and were willing to make some changes.
So God can use the gifts and talents of a Jonah in some surprising ways. If you can see some of yourself in Jonah or if you know someone who has those particular gifts, recognize that God has offered through you or through that person a real blessing to the world. There is so much misunderstanding in this world, so many opposing camps, that there is a desperate need for people who can bridge the divides and create some peace. God has given us people like Jonah because he wants them to use their special gifts to bring some measure of peace to the world.
But even after this, even after he is able to bridge an impossible gap between God and the Ninevites, Jonah still finds himself conflicted. He had persuaded them, in spite of himself, to repent. And Jonah knew God too well. As he himself in his bitterness declares to God, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” So Jonah gets angry at God and ultimately at his own success. We Jonah types can get like that so easily – internally conflicted and not even sure what we want from a difficult situation.
And so Jonah responds to that internal conflict in a way, once again, that is typical of his type. He withdraws and sulks. “Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.”
Jonah is trying to convince God (and ultimately himself) that he just doesn’t care anymore. He wants to withdraw and just watch without getting involved any more. This is the classic defence mechanism of a Jonah. But actually it is all an act. (I can speak of this from personal experience.) The reality is not the Jonah doesn’t care; it is that he actually cares too much. He is totally invested in everything that might happen and it is his fear that it won’t go well that makes him want to pretend that he is indifferent.
But God knows better. God knows how much Jonah actually cares and he goes about proving it to Jonah by making a small bush grow up and give the prophet some shade to relieve him from the sun. And then God takes the bush away which leaves Jonah in a position where had has to admit to himself and to God that he actually cares about whether a bush lives or dies and that, by extension, he cares about many other things including the lives of thousands of his enemies: the Ninevites.
God doesn’t put that sympathy into Jonah. It was always there. It has always been part of his personality type, and it was the thing that made him able to connect with Ninevites in the first place. But Jonah, like all people of his personality type was afraid of that sympathy and the feelings that went with it. That is why he shirked his job, that was why he ran away. A Jonah will only reach full maturity once he or she comes to terms with those deep inner feelings instead of hiding them behind cynicism, sloth and withdrawal.
But God didn’t give up on Jonah and he doesn’t give up on you either – not ever. Today we come to the end of the longest series of sermons I think I have ever preached. It needed to be this long as I dealt with all of the various personality types. The idea is that one of these types that I have covered should fit each one of you more than all the rest. The idea is that discovering who we are and how we operate can help us to reach our full potential.
But the only thing that makes that hope possible is our recognition that God understands us all better than we will ever understand ourselves, that God is committed to love us despite our flaws, to use our strengths and redeem us through the power of faith. This is the hope we live in, a hope made possible because of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the good news that we proclaim and that is the foundation of all our hope.