By Benedict Augustine
“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?’”
Normally, people become angry with God for some kind of loss, some inexplicable evil, or some kind of injustice. Atheists, fallen-away Catholics, and many other nonreligious people usually cite God’s failure to help all the people, particularly innocent people. This is their best counterargument against the good God described in the Bible.
As with so many other matters, St. Thomas Aquinas anticipates this argument so many centuries before them. He responds with a very logical—though not exactly satisfying—answer: God wills evil for a good purpose, though human beings might be able to see this. Modern apologists will add that free will also factors into the presence of evil: if one cannot choose evil, one is not truly free, and if one is not free, one cannot truly love God.
Neither of these explanations will satisfy a person who has made up his mind on how the world should function, nor does it satisfy Jonah. However, despite employing the same reasoning as this group of non-theists, he differs from their conclusion, airing his grievances against God for being too nice! If he were God, he would destroy the Nineveh without a second thought; their people, the Babylonians, invaded and enslaved Jonah (and God’s) people, the Israelites. In this reluctant prophet’s mind, the least that God could do would be to annihilate such an idolatrous race of people.
Jonah feels so strongly about this that he even shirks his responsibility as a prophet to allow Nineveh to be destroyed. In his little mind, he might have even believed that God commissioned him with the message in order to have it not carried out, knowing Jonah’s resentment. Like American executives in government refusing to enforce a law—unless it related to same-sex marriage or some other hot-button issue—Jonah would simply refuse to announce God’s message.
After some extraordinary events take place, involving storms and praying inside a fish, Jonah finally relents and tells Nineveh to repent. To his dismay, they listen and actually do penance bywearing sackcloth, fasting, and praying for God’s mercy. Jonah’s subsequent bitterness conjuresimages of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son or the worthless servant in parable of the talents who buried his talent in the ground because his master was a hard man. Outside of parables, Jonah’s bitterness also foreshadows the attitude of the Pharisees.
To his credit, Jonah is at least honest, which says more than others who complain about God’s ineptitude. He does not attempt to rationalize his hatred, nor does he couch it in politically correct language that shows a nominal concern for thedisenfranchised. He hates the people of Nineveh, and he would rather die than see them happy. The only thing that pleases him is the gourd plant whichoffers shades as he stews in his misery over the city’s conversion. When God kills the plant, he asks again to die, and the story ends there.
The obsessive bitterness of Jonah probably makes little sense for Christians basking—or often, desperately clinging—to God’s mercy and His penchant for inclusion. Telling others that “God is love” is a great selling point for most people who could use some relief from their problems.
But kind and gentle Christians tend to forget that a good portion of people in the world do not want relief to their problems, but instead a quick and easy solution. Although they will never say it outright, except maybe in terrorist propaganda, many people want God to hate. In their black hearts, they want God to kill all the infidels, or all the poor people in the world, or all the rich people, or all the disabled, or all the elderly, or all the infants, or even all of humanity.
If people were as honest as Jonah, it would become clear that more people resent God for His love, for His goodness, than for His negligence or allowance of evil. Sadly, their hatred of God naturallyaccompanies a hatred of man. It is no coincidence that the two most violent and destructive ideologies in history, militant Islam and totalitarianism, have either mischaracterized God as killer or explicitly reviled Him as they mercilessly mowed down millions of innocent victims.
As difficult as it might be, no one should ignore Jonah. God certainly does not ignore him, despite his bile, pettiness, and darkness. By the end of the book, the narrative ironically seems to indicate that it is Jonah who needs saving more the people of Nineveh. He needs to transcend his brutal fantasies and lack of charity. The gourd that gives him shade likely symbolizes the dark delusions that gives him comfort and keeps him safe from the harsh light of truth.
God takes away his gourd to offer him something greater. Jonah cannot run, which is his first (and particularly strong) instinct. He must repent and accept God’s love, a love that extends beyond the Jewish people, beyond even the good people, but stretches forth to all creation—and He may desire that Jonah to preach to them too.
Christians today face the same dilemma as Jonah. At some point, they will need to reject the tacit prejudices they cherish against the poor, the rich, the weak, the strong, the different, or even the same that excuses their lack of action. God seeks repentance from all, because He is a God of love, not hate.