Sometimes, we teach children the oddest Bible stories.
It is certainly curious that we would decorate baby nurseries with images from the story of Noah’s Ark. The smiling elephants in the comically tiny boat must always be blocking out the mass of humanity and animal life drowning under a seemingly never-ending deluge.
The story of Jonah is another favorite in the Sunday School classroom. And for those of us who remember the story, one aspect of the narrative is most memorable. We remember that Jonah is eventually consumed by a whale or a fish or some sea creature. He spends three days in that great beast’s belly only to be jettisoned when he has finally learned his lesson.
But what lesson exactly did he learn? For some reason, being devoured and then regurgitated by a huge fish is more memorable than the point of this story.
Jonah 3:10-4:11 contains the rest of the story, a story we would do well to consider anew today.
You see, Jonah had heard God’s voice unmistakably. God clearly called this prophet to go to the people of Nineveh, to beg for them to turn from their ways and follow the one God of the universe on the paths of righteousness. What a lofty task! To be sent to an important city, perhaps the most important city in Jonah’s day, and declare God’s call for repentance and God’s promise of forgiveness. What a gift to offer a new path of life, a path of justice and hope!
But Jonah is not interested. At all.
In fact, he tries to run away, flee in the opposite direction, get as far away from Nineveh as possible. Jonah has no interest in entering that city of iniquity and violence and empire. He has no interest in sharing a word of grace to its vile denizens, people luxuriating in the spoils of warfare and imperial expansion. Jonah was convinced that these people were barely people at all. After all, it was Jonah and his people who had been at the losing end of Nineveh’s violent expansiveness.
Eventually (specifically, after a three-day interlude in the guts of a whale or a fish or some sea creature), Jonah relents. And yet despite the success of his preaching, Jonah is still put out. He sulks on the edge of the city, confused that God has even loved these people.
He cries out, “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” (Jonah 4:2b).
God gives him shelter but then a worm withers the plant that was once shading his head and a blistering wind beats on his head. What a powerful image: worms gnawing upon us from inside out, creating a path of bitterness in their wake. When those worms have consumed the shelter God has given us, we dwell in the heat of our hatred.
The Jonah story is supposed to entertain its readers. After all, the potential shipwreck with which the story of Jonah begins, and the image of a man swallowed by a sea creature, are the stuff of a compelling story. Plus, the scene of a sulking Jonah is supposed to be funny. Yes, the Bible can be funny. And in that delight of the ears as the storyteller creates this parabolic world, God speaks powerfully to us today.
We have to note that Jonah was speaking from the “underside” of history. Jonah and his people were victims of Assyria’s imperial force. Why would he want to speak a word of grace to his conquerors? And yet God shockingly sends Jonah to his bitterest foes.
How strange then that our practice seems to be to save our disdain not so much for the powerful who lord their strength over us but those whom we deem less than us. They have cursed us not by conquering us but by falling short of our expectations or by revealing a dark truth we would rather not confront or by forcing us to confront our own sins.
What happens when we look at our neighbor today with such disdain, with such fury and fear? Little by little, caricature by caricature, we whittle away their humanity, their worth until all that is left is an idea of our own creation, a husk of a person characterized by our narrowest thoughts and not the fullness of who they are.
It is such dehumanization that sees the poor as solely responsible for their perilous lives. It such a dehumanization that demands them to pull themselves from the valley of poverty without any assistance whatsoever. Seeing those who lack the basics of life as God sees them demands compassion from us and perhaps even the sweat of our brows.
It is such dehumanization that justifies the leaking of personal photos, that allows us to Google those images without a second thought, that permits us to blame victims for their afflictions. Seeing these victims as God sees them means we share in the blame for their assault, for we too are participants in a ravenous culture that treats women’s bodies as property to be gazed at.
It such dehumanization that allows us to cheer great athletic feats with little thought to the long-term health of these disposable gridiron warriors. It is such dehumanization that perpetuates violence against women, especially that violence that is not splashed on TMZ’s website, those anonymous but all too pervasive moments of violence that shatter women’s lives. It is such dehumanization that looks at children and mothers fleeing violence in Central America and sees only pestilence and a threat. It is such dehumanization that denies our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers legal protections most of us simply expect without a second thought. It is such dehumanization that refuses to hear the witness of our African American neighbors as they lament and demand justice in the wake of an unnecessary death.
In the end, God calls us to a grace we can barely grant to our enemies. But that is the very essence of God’s grace. It saves us and scares us in equal measure. Because if God’s love is so expansive, then whom do we have left to despise, whom do we have left to deem less than human, less than beloved by God?
Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He was ordained by Peachtree Baptist Church (CBF) in 2006. After completing a bachelor of arts degree in religion at Oklahoma Baptist University and a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, he earned a doctoral degree in New Testament from Emory University. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.