Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work, and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know the difference between their right and left hand?” (Jonah 4:10-11)
The story finishes with a provocative and confronting question. Like so many biblical stories — even many of Jesus’ stories — it leaves us hanging. Suddenly we realize that this is less about an ancient prophet named Jonah, and more about us. As we wonder how Jonah might have answered the question, we discover that the story is asking us to answer the question for ourselves.
We live in a strange time. We’ll save the whale while we exploit women and children. We’ll argue about global warming and environmental concerns while we remain silent about injustice and global slavery. We’ll spend lavishly on our pets but not sponsor a destitute child trapped in poverty.
The spirit of Jonah pervades our day.
When did we become so dispassionate about suffering, so distracted by secondary concerns, and so distorted in our values? Of course I’m not describing everyone. Generosity oozes from the pores of so many people, but we live in culture that still places higher value on political reform than protection of the unborn.
The story of Jonah includes him running from God (chapter 1), running to God (chapter 2), and running with God (chapter 3). It finishes with the consequences of running ahead of God (chapter 4). When we begin to tell God what matters most in life, self-interest and distorted perspectives always take over. We devalue life and join the Darwinian quest; survival of the fittest.
The Gospel delivers us from this myopia. It confronts our hardened hearts. If Christ died not just for the 120,000 of ancient Nineveh but for the millions of our own day too “who do not know the difference between their right and left hand”, ought we not extend the same grace and compassion? More than ignorance, the Ninevites were enemies of the nation of Israel. Yet God did a work of revival among them. What He did once, He can do again.
Do we love people, even those who identify as our adversaries, more than we love our plants and pets? Christ did … and does. Jonah had to answer the question, and so must we.