If people know anything about Jonah, it’s that he was swallowed by a whale. Although the Bible actually says a big fish. The book of Jonah is only four chapters long, but there’s a lot more to it than the whale. It’s great: lots of action, and completely hilarious. Our reading this week gave just the ending, but it’s worth reading the whole story, and I hope you will.
Jonah is a prophet, and as prophets do, Jonah gets an assignment from God: go and warn the city of Nineveh that they are in trouble. Well, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a very powerful nation, known for its war crimes and brutality, a major enemy. Like any patriot, Jonah hates those lousy Ninevites, and besides, they’ll probably string him up the second he walks through the gates. So Jonah has a brainstorm: he’ll run away from God’s assignment. Sure, that sounds like a good idea. So he hops on a ship to Tarshish, which is basically as far as you can go in the opposite direction. It was as if Jonah showed up at the dock and said “Gimme a ticket for wherever is furthest from Nineveh.”
But at sea, there is a storm. Jonah confesses that he is running from God and the sailors freak out: “what did you do that for? Are you nuts?” And he says: “look, I’m ruined. Just throw me overboard.” And when they do lo! the sea calms down – as, we might expect, rebellious Jonah sinks to his well-deserved doom.
But the Bible doesn’t say what we expect. It says instead, God didn’t let him drown. God sent a huge fish, and it swallowed him whole. I certainly expect Jonah wasn’t in very good shape when he got vomited up three days later, but still this fish saved him from death, and Jonah prays a psalm of gratitude for God’s mercy.
And then, we might expect, God says to him, “You’re finished! I’m never trusting you again!” But the Bible doesn’t say what we expect. It says that God gives Jonah a second chance to be obedient and blessed. He speaks to Jonah again: go and warn the city of Nineveh that they are in trouble.
So off Jonah goes, but you can tell he still doesn’t like it. The city is of a size that it would have taken about three days to walk across it; well, all Jonah does is come partway in and say one sentence. “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown.” Boy, that’s really going to be helpful to the Ninevites, isn’t it? Don’t put yourself out, Jonah. But God is on the case, so nevertheless the Ninevites get it. In response to this lackluster message, they demonstrate one of the greatest examples of group regret that we find in the Bible. The mayor proclaims a fast. They remove their fancy clothes, they sob in grief, and most important, they change their behavior.
And this was the moment where our reading started today: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” God sends Jonah to warn the Ninevites that the road they are on leads to disaster, but all along God was really just hoping for them to repent.
And what does Jonah think of this? He is furious. First off, these guys deserved to be punished; they are an evil regime. Second, Jonah looks like an idiot – he said they’d be destroyed and now they won’t.
The Ninevites got it, but Jonah sure didn’t. I mean, listen to the words he speaks in rage: “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!” And Jonah does not see this as a good character point. So, we might expect, because Jonah’s so judgmental, God smites him! But the Bible doesn’t say what we expect. No, God just asks gently, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah ignores this overture of love, and sets up camp a little ways away to watch what happens. And the narrative pictures God arranging a comical little object lesson. He has a shade tree grow overnight at Jonah’s camp, to keep his poor judgmental prophet cool. Jonah likes the tree. Thanks, God! The next day God has a parasite attack the tree, and it withers, and poor Jonah gets a sunburn.
And what does he do? Becomes furious again. God asks once more , “Is it right for you to be angry?” And what does Jonah say? “You bet it is! You killed my tree!” Jonah is outraged that his personal plant is hurt, but he feels nothing for a whole city of perishing human beings made in God’s image.
So does God finally show him who’s boss? No, all he does is ask a question: “You care, Jonah, about this little tree? Shouldn’t I care about Nineveh, these people who are lost, these people I made, even if you don’t like them? Are you angry because I love other people besides you? Should I not be concerned about this great city?” And that question is the last line of the book.
“Should I not be concerned about this great city?” The book ends with a question. It’s written that way to force us to ask ourselves for an answer. To ask why we keep being tempted to focus only on what benefits people we like or who look like us. “Should I not be concerned about this great city?” Who or what is your Nineveh? Who can you not stand the idea of God loving every bit as much as he loves us? Who would you likely avoid the invitation to talk to and listen to? Who is your Nineveh, and will you allow God to be concerned about them?
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”
Since when has love been a debt?
Our epistle passage begins with Paul’s advice to not owe anyone anything—which seems fair. It’s not a good habit to rack up IOUs, whether that’s money or favors or time. Nobody wants to always be looking over their shoulder come pay-day, knowing that the creditors are on their way. But then the apostle goes on. “Owe no one anything,” he says, “except in this one area: love.”
“You have a continuing debt,” Paul tells us. Don’t forget to pay up.
For many of us, that’s news. Digging around in our purse or rifling through our briefcase, we pull out the relational checkbook. Who is it that we’ve borrowed from and not paid back? Our neighbors? Besides a cup of sugar and an occasional tomato, not really. God? What happened to needing nothing but faith? And how does this kind of transaction work? If we miss a payment, do we forfeit . . . something? Will we watch as creditors carry off what once was ours, leaving us with an empty house, an empty garage, and an empty feeling in our stomachs?
Paul has spent much of his letter to the Roman church assuring them—and us—that faith in God and faith in God alone is what saves. Nowhere has he hinted that there’s some kind of cosmic loan shark watching the mail for our monthly payment. What does it mean, then, that we are in debt, that we owe love to people we’ve never borrowed from? And that, according to Paul, we should keep ourselves in such a state?
The answer lies in what has been done for us. “Jesus paid it all. All to him we owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow.” This fact doesn’t mean that God has given us a free gift and neglected to tell us that we actually have to work for it. What it does mean is that we have been freed by Christ to live like him, freed once and for all to love our neighbors—even the grouchy ones—as Christ loves us: with no holding back.
Paul tells us to outdo one another in doing good because Christ died for us. Always be in debt, he says, always owe more love to your neighbor—for this is the way of Christ, the overflowing cup of his love that testifies to God’s mercy in the world. And it really does. Every time we bring water to an enemy, every time we return blessing for cursing, every time we count ourselves less than those around us, God is glorified and the Gospel is proclaimed.
We have been redeemed and the debt we owe is really no debt at all but is rather the constant search to worship God by loving our neighbors. Christ has revealed to us what we have been saved from; he has also shown us what we have been saved for: communion with God that will transform everything, right on down to our most mundane relationships. He has done this not so we might earn his regard but so the world might continue to witness his Spirit as we love another.
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” May we remember this week Paul’s command to us and the power in which we can fulfill it, the power that can “change the leper’s spots and melt the heart of stone.” AMEN.