God arranges for a broad-leafed tree to spring up. It grows over Jonah to cool him off and get him out of his angry sulk. Jonah is pleased and enjoys the shade. Life is looking up. But then God sends a worm. By dawn of the next day, the worm bores into the shade tree and it withers away. The sun comes up and God sends a hot, blistering wind from the east. The sun beats down on Jonah’s head and he starts to faint. He prays to die: “I’m better off dead!” Then God says to Jonah, “What right do you have to get angry about this shade tree?” Jonah says, “Plenty of right. It has made me angry enough to die!” God said, “What’s this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?” – “The Message” Jonah 4:6-11
When reading the Book of Jonah, I think that we often misunderstand the purpose of the text. We question how a man of God could think so poorly of this city full of “childlike people.” And the message of the book becomes, “Don’t be like Jonah.”
We can be more forgiving of Jonah, though, and gain a better understanding of the text if we look at the context in which the book was written. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, who I like to think of as the polar opposite of Canada. Many scholars refer to the Assyrians as biblical Nazi’s because we have records of their kings boasting of annihilating neighboring peoples, of skinning, impaling, cutting off limbs, and burning alive. One king even writes of leaving twenty-thousand people in the desert to die of thirst. Assyria thought of itself as the mightiest empire the world would ever see, and to stay in power the Assyrians mercilessly trampled over anyone who stood against them.
When God commands Jonah to help the Ninevites, he believes so full-heartedly that the Assyrians deserve total annihilation for their crimes against humanity that he tries to run from God. The Assyrians have caused so much pain to Jonah and his people that he would rather oppose God than help them.
I think that once we understand the background of the Assyrian Empire, we find that Jonah is not the crazy one in this story; he has quite a valid reason to disagree with God here. Rather, God is the crazy one. That is what this text is teaching us about God.
Our God is crazy.
Did you also know that a 2013 study in Pennsylvania showed that inmates who spent time in halfway houses upon their release were more likely to return to crime than those who were released directly to the streets? I believe the reason for statistics like this is that we look upon our inmates and returning citizens as Jonah looked upon the Ninevites. Our prison system is utterly broken because it is 100% based upon retribution. And there is no place in a retributive system for education or reformation because there is no place healing, growth, or peace.
Our prison system is broken, and I am left asking: “Where are the crazy Christians with their crazy love?”
The Psalms tell us that the Lord “leads forth the prisoners with singing” and “cuts through bars of iron.” Jesus proclaims “freedom for captives and release from darkness for prisoners.” The New Testament admonishes us to “remember those in prison” and instructs us to “be imitators of God.” Yet, as a Church we have largely abandoned this call. To be honest, I think this is why so many of our returning citizens are unable to see themselves as anything more than just that. They are no longer children of God; instead they have become children of the streets.
When we fail to live lives of crazy love, we fail our call, our incarcerated neighbors, our God, and ourselves. We fail to connect to the restoring work of the Lord, causing ourselves and those around us to needlessly suffer.
Is it possible that God drags Jonah halfway across the world not because Jonah is needed to save the Assyrians, but because the Assyrians are needed to save Jonah? Is it possible that the divide between them is not as great as it appears, and that God’s crazy love for the unlovable extends to Jonah just as much as it does to anyone else.
Let us remember and pray for God to grant in us a crazy love, so that we “don’t be like Jonah” and instead live into the restorative calling of Christ.
Nick Lordi is the Board President of Redemption Housing. He is a graduate of Cedarville University (B.A., Pastoral Studies, 2009) and Palmer Theological Seminary (M.Div., 2013). He has been working with Philadelphia’s homeless population since 2010 and draws from his experience as a supervisor of faith-based recovery programming. Nick serves in lay leadership at West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship, where he attends with his wife and two young children.