The word of the Lord came a second time to Jonah, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh…Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth…
When news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he made a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water…they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind…but this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, pleas take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city…and made a booth for himself there…waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than ti live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 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?” (Jonah 3-4, excerpts, NRSV)
The fish had barely spit him up when he started complaining about his lot in life. And what is he angry about? God’s mercy toward a city full of people. He’d rather die in the desert outside the city than rejoice for the thousands of people and animals who thought better of their ways and promised to change. He’s more concerned with the shrub. Jonah: a rescued prophet with little compassion and an amazing lack of perspective.
I think God was trying hard not to laugh at Jonah and his tantrum. Like a mother, God gives a bigger view of reality than Jonah wishes to have, perhaps hoping that Jonah will find mercy in his heart without the help of another three day fish retreat.
Of course, it’s easy for me to see the humor in this, sitting on my sofa, typing on my laptop. I have nothing at stake. But I suspect this story is sacred because it’s a lot harder to laugh and let go of pettiness when it’s my little self throwing the fit…