“Breaking the Rules”

Jonah 3:10-4:11

February 9, 2003



            On top of the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C., the highest court in United States, stands a statue of Lady Justice.  Lady Justice wears a blindfold, and in one hand she holds aloft the scales of justice.  She symbolizes both in America and in many other countries around the world, the fair and equal administration of the law, without corruption, greed, prejudice, or favor. 

About justice, William Penn wrote these words, “Justice is justly represented blind because she sees no difference in the parties concerned.  She has but one scale and weight, for rich and poor, great and small.  Her sentence is not guided by the person, but the cause….” 

This is what we have come to understand justice to mean, the fair and equal treatment of all people, rightly administered by an unbiased, neutral judge, who judges everyone by same rules according to the law, handing out punishment for being bad and doing what the rules forbid, or rewards for being good and doing what the rules require.  When rules are broken, it is justice that we demand, and for Jonah, God’s rules had been broken. 

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the sworn enemy of Israel.  Throughout history, Israel and Assyria had been engaged in numerous battles against each other, and Assyria continually destroyed, plundered, and cruelly oppressed the people of Israel.  Israel despised and detested the Assyrians.  For Jonah, it was an open and shut case.  The Ninevites were a wicked people, they had broken God’s rules, and they deserved God’s unbiased, neutral justice.  

But then a truly amazing and remarkable thing happens, when God saw what the Ninevites did, how they had turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about what he was going to do, and he didn’t do it!

No wonder Jonah got angry.  God sends Jonah to the heart of his sworn enemy, to speak out against the wicked city, and then God changes his mind?  How could God let the evil Ninevites go unpunished?  How could God now offer life to a bad people, who by their very hand had continued to oppress the people of Israel, God’s chosen people?  What sense does that make?  How is that fair?  How is that justice?

          God isn’t the only one who has rules, Jonah had rules too.  He had rules about how God was supposed to act.  He knew God was supposed to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  Jonah even knew that God was supposed to be ready to relent from punishing.  After all, his own encounter with God taught him that God was indeed gracious and merciful, when God saved Jonah’s life by sending the great fish.  So you would think Jonah would have rejoiced at God’s merciful action toward the Ninevites, but no.  Instead, Jonah became angry. 

But, didn’t God do what God was supposed to do?  Didn’t God follow Jonah’s rules?  Wasn’t the grace, mercy and steadfast love God gave to the Ninevites, the very same grace, mercy, and steadfast love that God had given to Jonah? 

          You see, there was one more rule that Jonah had for God.  God could only be gracious, merciful, and loving towards Israel, not to any other group of people.  It was apparently all right for God to be gracious to him, but to extend that same grace to the bad Ninevites is quite another matter.  Jonah’s anger with God does not lie in the fact that God was merciful, but rather in the fact that God was indiscriminate in the exercise of his mercy. 

For Jonah, God is too lenient a judge.  For Jonah, God stands too ready to forgive the guilty and let the punishment go unrendered.  For Jonah, God must use greater care in sticking to the rules and in restricting God’s area of operation.  Jonah believes that there comes a point when God must not let evil go unpunished.  If you are bad then you deserve punishment, isn’t that what justice is all about?  For Jonah, there was no one more deserving of God’s judgement and destruction than the Ninevites.  “Come on, God, how dare you let the evil Ninevites live when they turned from you and ran away.”  “Come on, God, destroy them, I demand justice!”

          In the end, Jonah becomes very person that he had praised God for not becoming toward him.  He has completely failed to understand that the events in his own history have revealed that he, himself, is alive only because of the same grace that has been given to the Ninevites, even though like the Ninevites, he too deserved only punishment.  Jonah, not God, is the one who has become quick to anger and judgement, who has shown no mercy, no grace, and no love. 

          And so, Jonah wants no part of what God is doing.  If God cannot play by Jonah’s rules, then Jonah doesn’t want to play.  He would rather die than to live with the fact that wicked people are delivered while Israel still suffers, and he would rather die than live knowing that now Nineveh is the recipient of God’s promises. 

And with that, Jonah he sticks out his lower lip, gives a great big “humph”, balls his hands into fists, storms out of the city and climbs a hill overlooking the city.  There he builds himself a little hut, pulls up a little stool, and sitting down on the stool with a thud, Jonah waits for the city to be destroyed.  And, if he had had a bedroom door he would have slammed that too!! 

But God does not let Jonah get away with his anger.  However, instead of giving Jonah another taste of grace as God had done with the big fish, God decides to give Jonah a taste of justice.  So God sends a plant to grow up next to Jonah to protect Jonah from the heat of the sun.  And, as expected, Jonah responds with great joy, after all God is playing by Jonah’s rules and delivering him, and not the Ninevites. 

          But as the sun rises the next morning, a worm comes and eats the plant away.  God then calls upon the sultry, east wind and as the sun rises in the sky the temperatures reach 110 degrees.  The sun beats down on Jonah’s head as the wind and heat suck the very life from his body.  And this time, Jonah doesn’t even call upon God to help him die; he just begs that his own life die. 

God’s judgment has now come in the form of destruction, not upon Nineveh, but upon something that had become very important to Jonah, something, which had brought him great joy.  Jonah is given a little taste of what it is like to experience God’s intemperate justice.  Maybe now Jonah will come to understand just how terrible God’s judgement and destruction would be, and he will want no part of it, not even for the Ninevites.

But Jonah doesn’t get the message.  In fact, Jonah’s anger again burns against God who not only breaks Jonah’s rules, but who now can no longer even be depended upon to give preferential treatment to one of God’s own elect.  And this time, when God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant” Jonah cannot hold his tongue, “Yes”, Jonah replies, “Yes, I have a right to be angry…angry enough to die.”  With this reply, the error of Jonah’s understanding of God’s justice and love is fully revealed. 

You see, Jonah had no claim on the plant whatsoever.  He neither created it nor nurtured it, so he had no right to make any claims regarding it.  And if Jonah was in no position to make any final demand or judgement about the plant, then neither was he in any position to make any ultimate demand or judgements about Nineveh.  God and God alone has the final say.  God and God alone has the right to do what pleases God regarding Nineveh, or any other city or nation, or people for that matter. 

What Jonah fails to understand, my friends, is that God is not an unbiased, neutral God.  The God of Scripture, the God of both the Old and New Testament is not a blind God who judges without prejudice or favor, but a God who judges out of a self-giving, forgiving love.  Our God is a God who deeply cares and is for all of God’s creation, who sees the differences between people, whose scales of justice tips in biased favor for the poor, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed, not only economically and socially, but also morally and spiritually.  Our God is a God who sees and knows every repentant heart and every repentant mind, and judges us by God’s own rules not ours, by a loving justice that is for us and not against us, and by a just love that calls us and helps us to live genuine human lives.

And so the book of Jonah comes to an end, but the story of Jonah doesn’t.  God leaves a question for Jonah to answer.  “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals”? 

How did Jonah answer God’s question, we cannot finally say.  Did he remain angry and unrepentant?  Did he come to recognize the wideness of God’s mercy, grace, and steadfast love?  Did he continue to impose his own rules upon God?  Or did he finally realize just how truly grateful he should be that a loving and just God doesn’t follow our rules, and doesn’t judge us by what we deserve, but by what we need.  Maybe in the end, this isn’t so much a question for Jonah to answer, as much as it is a question for us to answer, and every one of us Jonahs will have to answer God’s question for our self.


In the powerful name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.