“For the Life of the World” on Jonah 4 by Joe Ellis — November, 26, 2023
Chapter 4 in the Book of Jonah opens with Jonah leaving Nineveh, burning with rage. On his way, Jonah lets out his seething anger toward God and what He sees as God’s massive mistake to have mercy on Nineveh. Jonah says, “This is why I ran away from you in the first place! I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in steadfast love and relenting from evil…” And Jonah feels so betrayed by God’s decision to have mercy on Nineveh that he gives God an ultimatum. ‘If you’re not going to destroy Nineveh, destroy me.’ This confrontation has been building throughout the book. Jonah has so resented being sent to this nation which has done his own nation of Israel so much harm. Remember, Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, and Assyria was that wretched nation that decimated Jonah’s home, Israel — Jonah is thinking the God of Israel surely cannot be the God of Nineveh also. In that moment, God approaches Jonah and asks: “Are you good and angry?”
I wonder how self aware Jonah was in that moment. I wonder how much irony Jonah had in mind when he confessed how angry he was that “God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, relenting from sending evil.” After all, that quotation Jonah just quoted is from the book of Exodus 34 — which comes on the heals of God showing Israel incredible mercy. Exodus 34 comes right on the heals of the infamous Golden Calf Episode in Exodus 32.
We all know this story, the people of Israel sculpt a golden idol to worship, they violate all sorts of sexual boundaries, and they violate the first commandment — “you shall have no other gods before me”. The people of Israel have so betrayed God that He says to Moses, “Leave me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” Moses does for Israel what Jonah perhaps should have done with Nineveh. Moses begs God to have mercy, he begs God not to abandon His people in the desert, but rather to continue to be with them. And God’s response is what Jonah has just summarized. In such a powerful theophany, God reveals his glory to Moses, saying: “The Lord, the Lord, (Yaweh, Yaweh) the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousand, and forgiving wickedness rebellion and sin.“ Yet He does not leave the guilty ‘unpunished’ — He punishes “the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” Jonah was hoping that the last part of this line would play out in Nineveh, yet he also knows that the only reason why Israel exists is because God is gracious and compassionate, and slow to anger. In other words, ‘Jonah, you who have received so much mercy from God, will you withhold mercy from others?’
Now, the whole reason why God called Israel to exist in the first place to be a light to the nations. As readers, we can’t help but ask Jonah, have you forgotten your reason for existence! Have you forgotten your calling? No doubt, Jonah in his glorified state in heaven, would invite us to ask ourselves the same question, “Have you forgotten your calling?” More on that later.
Jonah heads out of the city, hopeful that somehow, God will not forget the guilt of Nineveh. He sits down in a front row seat to watch for when God sends his fire and brimstone on Nineveh. And God does send something, but to Jonah. God sends a plant, a large leaf vine. God sends a vine to give Jonah shelter as he waits for the destruction that will never come. Can you taste a bit of God’s sense of humour? God shades Jonah from the scorching sun by graciously sending him a vine as Jonah waits for the destruction that will never come. Through the vine, Jonah receives God mercy, grace and compassion, sort of like the mercy, grace and compassion that Nineveh is also receiving. Jonah so loves that vine. But then God decimates Jonah’s tranquil spot. He sends a worm to eat the vine. Then God sends a scorching wind to blow the vine away. And He permit the blistering sun to continue to strike Jonah’s head until he grows faint and wants to die.
So Jonah’s anger revs up again. With the plant withered, dead and gone, God comes to Jonah and asks, “Are you good and angry over the vine?” Jonah cries out: “I am good and angry, to the point of death!” Here God lays it out for Jonah in the last 2 verses in the book: “You—you had pity over the vine, for which you did not toil and which you did not grow, which overnight it came and overnight it was gone. Shall I not have pity for Nineveh the great city, in which there are many more than 120,000 human beings who do not know between their right hand and their left hand, and many beasts?”
God confronts Jonah’s double standard. Sometime He doesn’t regard our anger with the seriousness we think it deserves. Jonah had great concern for the vine. God is being a bit playful with Jonah. So He sends this vine over Jonah, sort of placing Jonah inside a living parable. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, a persistent image for the people of Israel is that of the Vine. For example, in the book of Jeremiah 2:21, God says, “I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock.” Now, in this living parable, Jonah has come face to face with the Vine. And Jonah is totally absorbed with the demise of this vine that God had given him (much like the people of Israel would have been devastated after Assyria destroying their nation.) Jonah is devastated that his precious vine has withered away. God says, you care so much about Israel, which is only here because of my gracious mercy. (Remember Exodus 34?) Should I not also extend mercy to Nineveh?
So we watch Jonah move around this parable as he wants grace for his own people but no grace for the other nation. And it's in this space of us watching Jonah that we may find ourselves also in this parable. Perhaps, the author of Jonah is smiling as he asks: “Are you that much different than Jonah? Perhaps you only care about God showing his kindness, compassion, mercy and love to build up your little vine — all the while being indifferent to your neighbour? Perhaps, you might even secretly wish the downfall of your neighbour so that you might feel better about your own life? Jonah has forgotten his calling to be a light to his neighbours — even the neighbours he hates. Have we?
So, Jonah is left there in the scorching sun, a biting wind, and a worm that devoured his beloved vine. Yes, what about this little worm that God has sent to go creeping onto the Vine. What about this worm? In this living parable, where the Vine embodied Jonah’s beloved Israel. Who might be the worm in this picture? Well, who could the worm be except Nineveh. And Nineveh is, of course, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. Assyria is the worm, the empire that destroyed entirely the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and seriously threatened the southern kingdom of Judah. Nineveh is the most hated of cities for a Hebrew, because Nineveh, like the worm, ate the Vine of Israel. And here in the book of Jonah we learn that God had the audacity to send that worm to eat that Vine. What a living parable this is!
Here we have Jonah, lamenting the destruction of his beloved Vine, his homeland Israel, furiously waiting for God to show His strength and destroy that vile worm that gorged itself on Israel. And here we are told that God sent the worm to eat away at the Vine. God appointed Nineveh to eat away at Israel, because Israel had become like Jonah, self-absorbed, so forgetful of their calling to be faithful to God and witness to the world “that God is gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in steadfast love and relenting from evil!” Instead, Israel grew so focused on its own Vine — saw the health of the Vine as being the only true measure of God’s faithfulness (sort of like a doctor viewing their own robust physical health and fitness as proof of being a good doctor, forgetting the fact that their patients are ravaged by illness). Here, I imagine the author of Jonah peeks behind the page and ventures to ask — are you more concerned about this little vine in Telkwa, your church, than you are about the health of your neighbour?
So, God says, “if you won’t care about the health of the worm, I will!” God sends a Vine to nourish this worm — “Shall I not have mercy on Nineveh, the great city which has more than 120,000 human beings, not to mention all the animals!” God reminds Jonah of the whole point He called Israel to be this Vine: He called Israel to be a Vine as a way of being a light to a wicked world: showing the wicked world the way into life — perhaps even through dying, and thereby extending God’s love and mercy even to the worms!
Too often the people of God are like Jonah, and like us, concerned with the health of their own little vine that gives us shade and rest when it's thriving. Perhaps, the proof of God’s church’s success isn’t the health of the Vine, it's the health of the worms surrounding it! Imagine. Perhaps our church’s success is not the health of our church, it's the health of our neighbours. We can sometimes imagine, perhaps, that the health of our own Vine is the true sign of God’s strength, love and wisdom at work. So we tend and keep our Vine, perhaps we have even developed some insecticide for worms that venture too close. We’ve forgotten that perhaps God has put us here to feed even the worms.
God never forgets the worms. God himself came and lived among us. God became the true Vine. He became the true Vine even for the hungry worm. The True Vine, Jesus, came and lived among us. The Vine showed us how gracious and merciful, and slow to anger and abundant in steadfast love is God. He showed us His mercy in a way we could not miss, and in a way that we would be forever called to imitate. The Vine offered its own flesh as food, food for the worms. And the worm ate. Amazingly, we ate and ate and ate, and the Vine withered and died. Yes, we ate. We are a worm alongside, Nineveh, alongside Israel, alongside the rest of humanity. That was the whole point of our retelling Exodus 34, Israel needed mercy after the Golden Calf, just like Nineveh did, just like we do. How does Paul put it in Romans 3:23? “All sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” Yet we can forget. The Vine came and lived among us, the Vine offered to us His flesh. We ate, and the Vine withered and died.
Yet a strange interchange begins to happen. The decaying Vine lay dormant in that tomb, in the belly of the worm. Yet nourishment of The Vine continues to work in the belly of that tomb, silently as death in a chrysalis. And from that place of death, God’s mercy unfolds out of that tomb, unfolds out of that chrysalis. Steadfast love unfolds as the Vine and Worm transformed together. The divine became human so that we might become like the divine. Resurrection. Creation is reborn — We are no longer worms, we have been given wings.
And so we are called out into the world, and invite one and all to come taste of the Vine — we’re inviting our neighbours to come taste the Vine, to experience God’s transforming mercy, to taste the love, strength and wisdom of God — and so be transformed.