Jonah is a slow learner. In the beginning of the story he tests the reach of gods will, finds himself in the belly of a whale, repents with great earnestness, and is set back to his task to warn the wicked people of Nineveh of their impending doom, only then to question again god’s purposes, sitting as an angry child huffing and puffing under a shelter outside of the city.
As the near end of the story goes: And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:2-4)
Were it me, having been in the belly of a whale for three days, having asked for forgiveness, and getting it, I would have waited a little bit longer to misbehave again. Jonah so easily accepts the presence of the will of god in the world, sees the all loving nature of god, but readily questions the motives, partially because for all of his faith he misses the big point:
Loving the whole of creation, great and small, is god’s greatest wish for humanity, from the little plant that gives Jonah shade, to the city of Niveveh with its people and animals, and even Jonah himself. Humanity being created as one image of god, the image with free will and choice, is tasked with discovering this love.
Perhaps this is why Jonah was selected as a prophet? His naivety and deep faith combine to be a great teacher and exemplar of this lesson. Jonah is in the whale for 3 days, Nineveh must fast for 3 days in its repentance, and then the lesson, as god gives and then takes away from Jonah a shade plant which he had grown fond while in the hot sun outside the city…
When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:8-11)
God here teases Jonah to teach a lesson. If Jonah could so love the plant that gave him joy, a plant that came with no effort of Jonah’s, then how could he not understand god’s relenting and desire to teach a lesson to Nineveh with all of its people, a part of god’s creation? And yet, as with the whole city, god also takes the time to teach Jonah, a single foolish person his “right from his left.”
Our lesson is as Jonah’s: We as individuals in the creation should seek to mirror this love of all, the great and small. As one of my favorite authors writes in his own Jonah allegory:
“Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”
-Samuel T. Coleridge, The Rhyme of the Ancient Marineremail print