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The Politics of Unearned Grace—Jonah 3:10—4:11 (Fritz Wendt)

10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

4 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He 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. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ 4And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ 5Then 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.

6The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’

9But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ 10Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

Zenkai, the son of a samurai, journeyed to Edo to become the retainer of a high official. He fell in love with the official’s wife and was discovered by him. In self-defense, he slew him and ran away with the wife.

Both of them later became thieves, but the woman was so greedy that Zenkai grew tired of their life together. He finally left her and journeyed far away to the province of Buzen, where he became a wandering mendicant.

To atone for his past, Zenkai resolved to accomplish a good deed. Knowing of a dangerous road over a cliff that had caused the death and injury of many people, he decided to cut a tunnel through the mountain there. Begging for food during the day, Zenkai dug his tunnel at night. When thirty years had gone by, the tunnel was 2,280 feet long, 20 feet high and 30 feet wide.

Two years before the work was completed, the son of the official he had slain, who was a skillful swordsman, found Zenkai out and came to kill him in revenge. “I will give you my life willingly,” said Zenkai. “Only let me finish this work. On the day it is completed, then you may kill me.”

So the son waited to get his revenge. Several months passed and Zenkai kept on digging. Eventually the son grew tired of doing nothing and began to help with the digging. After he had helped for more than a year, he came to admire Zenkai’s strong will and character. At last the tunnel was completed and the people could use it and travel in safety.

“Now cut off my head,” said Zenkai. “My work is done.”

“How can I cut off my own teacher’s head?” asked the younger man with tears in his eyes.

When the son of the man he killed didn’t take his revenge and let him live, Zenkai was given an unexpected gift, one he was sure he didn’t deserve. Zenkai experienced grace. The story of Jonah and the Great Fish—one of the lessons for this Sunday—is a story about grace and the different ways people respond to it.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ”Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:1). When Jonah gets called into God’s service, he isn’t just reluctant or hesitant like most of the other prophets; he thinks he can outrun God and gets himself on a ship to Tarshish. Doing the opposite of what he’s supposed to do, he wants to go as far away as possible.

God sends a bad storm that endangers the ship. Finally, the sailors resort to casting lots to determine whose fault it is. When the lot falls on Jonah, he confesses to them that he is on the run. As they throw him overboard, the prophet is swallowed by that great fish, often depicted as a whale.

As he prays his Psalm of Thanksgiving (Chapter 2), Jonah thanks God for the rescue and perhaps realizes that running from God is not an option. God then frees him from that dark prison cell inside the belly of the great fish—“The Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.” Jonah 2:10—and reissues his call. Jonah does as told and preaches to the city of Nineveh. He preaches to this city that has run away from God, and, to his great shock, they actually listen: God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it (3:10).

Jonah’s response to God’s kindness is anger: But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He 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.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there (4:1-5a).

The author of the Jonah book makes it clear that, while Nineveh repents and experiences conversion, the prophet himself does not. The angry man of God sits and sulks: He sat under [the booth] in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush (4:5b-6). It is now that Jonah receives his own lesson: But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint… (4:7-8a).

Jonah is angry again: …and [he] asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die” (4:8b-9). In a dialogue somewhat reminiscent of that between God and Elijah, God shows a wry sense of humor. In essence he says, “So, Jonah, I get the sense you didn’t enjoy my practical joke with the plant. But I was trying to show you that I gave that plant to you because I wanted to—you didn’t earn it. But you are angry about the many people in Nineveh because I let them live; I gave them their lives back because I wanted to.”

The author of the Jonah book doesn’t tell us how Jonah reacted to being confronted by God, and perhaps leaving that part of the story open-ended is an opportunity for us, for the core message of the Book of Jonah is not who Jonah is or what sort of fish swallowed him. It’s about who God is: I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing (4:2).

We are no better than God’s prophet Jonah when it comes to allowing God’s grace into our lives. Obsessed with controlling our destiny, we resent when God decides to give us things ‘because he wants to.’ Paul Tillich, the German-American philosopher and theologian, wrote this:

Grace strikes us when … year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace.

God’s Grace is something we cannot earn or control. We can only receive and accept it.

A woman was met at heaven’s gate by St. Peter, who said, “It will take 1,000 points for you to be admitted. Points will be determined by the way you lived.” The woman said, “Unless I was sick, I attended worship every Sunday and sang in the choir.” “That’s 50 points,” said St. Peter. “What else?”

“I gave a good deal of money to the church,” the woman said. “Well”, said St. Peter, “I think that’s worth 25 points. Anything else?”

Realizing she had only 75 points, the woman began to get desperate. “I taught Sunday school for 10 years.” “That’s great, but it’s worth only 25 points,” noted St. Peter.

The woman became frantic. “You know,” she said, “at this rate the only way I’ll get into heaven is by the grace of God!” Peter smiled and said, “That’s worth 900 points! Come on in!”

We pray.

God, your gracious gifts come to us because you want to give them to us. May we open ourselves more and more to that glorious mystery that is your grace, so that we will not begrudge it but welcome it. Amen.


Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.

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