THE STORY OF JONAH
A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on October 5, 2003
Tomorrow at sundown the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur will begin. It brings to an end the period known as the Days of Awe, which began with Rosh-Hashana, the new year, last Sunday. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, or at-one-ment, when Jews the world over will remember their misdeeds, make atonement in thought and deed, and forgive those things they truly, in heart and soul, forgive. They will spend the day in the synagogue, working on individual and group forgiveness for themselves and others.
There is a long standing tradition, during the service of the holy day of Yom Kippur, of reading aloud the Book of Jonah in its entirety. Why Jonah, you may wonder? All that most people remember about Jonah's story is the whale. Well, it was a big fish, actually, but people remember it as a whale, which gives the tale a kind of children's story cast in their minds. But there is much more going on with Jonah than a big fish story. In fact it`s a very subtle, even slyly humorous little book--and it has some powerful lessons to teach about the true meaning of repentance.
So: God comes to Jonah and commands him to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. Now Nineveh was not an Israelite city. In fact, the Ninevites were Israel's political enemies--and they were idol-worshipers to boot. Sworn enemies and members of a different sort of religion. So in asking Jonah to go help out the Ninevites, to give them a chance to straighten up and be forgiven, God was asking something that a goodly number of Hebrews of Jonah's time would have a major problem with. The general feeling was that these Ninevites were so evil they did not deserve even God's attention, much less his forgiveness.
Which is probably why Jonah high-tails it in the other direction as fast as he can manage, and catches the first boat out of town. Like others, he hated the Ninevites, and wanted nothing to do with helping them. Only you can't escape God by boat, of course. A big storm comes up and threatens to sink the ship. The crew, who are a United Nations of nationalities and religions, respond by doing the logical thing in their minds--they all start calling out to their respective gods for help. Except for Jonah--he hides in his room. Eventually the crew figures out it's Jonah whose god is mad at him and thus causing the storm and they ask him: what gives? Jonah explains, and to his credit he volunteers to jump overboard to save the others, since nothing else has worked. He jumps into the sea and God sends a big fish to swallow him up, and then Jonah wants a second chance, and begs God to let him go, and promises to do as he was asked. Eventually Jonah's back on land again, having been spit out by the fish, not too much the worse for wear.
Then God comes to Jonah again and tells him to go to Nineveh to preach repentance, and by now Jonah has gotten the message, so he says,"Oh, alright," and heads off for Nineveh. He marches into the midst of the city, hits his best prophetic stance, and proclaims, "Repent, or Nineveh will be overthrown!" And what happens but--the Ninevites repent. Boy, do they ever repent. The king takes off his robe and puts on sackcloth. Every citizen dons sackcloth. They even hang sackcloth on their cattle. They really do it up. And God sees it, and accepts Nineveh's repentance.
Now the children's version of the story I read would have us believe that Jonah agreed the Ninevites should be forgiven, and was willing to be forgiving himself. But the Bible actually has a kind of sequel to this story, which has a different meaning. In the sequel, Jonah is not happy about this. No, he can't stand it. He scolds God, "Now didn't I say this was going to happen? I went through all this aggravation, and for what? You're such an old softy, you go and forgive this bunch of evil idol-worshipers, and I look like a fool, and I just want to lie down and die right now." And Jonah stomps out and finds himself a nice lonely cliff on which to sulk. He builds himself a little shack, and there he sits, being miserable and watching to be ready to gloat if Nineveh messes up in any way.
Now it's hot out on this desert cliff, and soon Jonah is really feeling miserable. So God decides to see if he can give Jonah a little object lesson. First , God secretly makes a little tree grow up and provide some shade for Jonah, and Jonah is not such a complete shlep but that he feels some gratitude for the little tree. But then God sends a worm to eat the tree, and it shrivels up and dies, and now Jonah feels even more miserable because the tree died and he's just broiling in the heat.
Finally God speaks to Jonah and says, "I notice you're ticked off because of the tree." And Jonah cries, "You better believe I'm ticked off because of the tree!" And God, with admirable patience says, "You feel for the poor little tree, for which you did nothing, which came and went in the night. And then you wondered why I should feel for a whole huge city like Nineveh? a hundred and twenty thousand persons who don't know their right hand from their left? not to mention all their cattle?"
Boom. End of story.
So what does it teach us? That the other side of repentance, that thing which lifts it up, ennobles it, makes it impossible to confuse with guilt or self-abasement, is compassionate forgiveness. Here Jonah thought repentance was all about judgment and punishment--about giving it to the Ninevites for being bad. But the Jewish God, exemplifying the better part of the Jewish view, shows that repentance goes hand-in-hand with compassion, mercy, openness, generosity of spirit--in all lands, and in all times, and for all people. Including people Jonah dislikes and mistrusts, like the Ninevites. God's goal, according to the author of Jonah's story, is not to dole out punishment for mistakes, but rather to give positive reinforcement for turning those mistakes around. God, or if you like, the Spirit of Jewish religion, wants everyone to achieve at-one-ment with each other. That is the lesson in the story of Jonah--that repentance is not about punishment but healing; not about wallowing around in the bad and "getting even" but gathering in the good.
So what can this story tell us in this terrible time of agony? I think it might hold several messages. First, of course, is the message that we should not be negatively judgmental about other peoples' religions, even those very different from our own--especially if we do not fully understand them. And most especially, we should not lump together all followers of a given religion and assume that the deeds of a few represent the deeds, or even the thoughts, of the other members of that religion. Jonah wanted all the Ninevites to die, because they worshiped different gods. There are some Americans who are acting like Jonah, and seem to believe that all Muslims are evil, and need to be punished. We have already seen cases of innocent Muslims attacked, vilified, discriminated against, and even killed. These attacks on innocent Muslims are reprehensible.
Secondly, there is a message about rushing to judgment. Jonah did not know or understand the Ninevites, nor did he have any inclination to try to do so. He had heard nasty things about them, and on the basis of hearsay, he was willing, even eager, to punish them severely. It was so easy to believe they were truly evil--after all, they worshiped idols and... and we really don't know much else. There is a reference to their "wickedness," but it is undefined. It seems that their primary crime was their religious practices, and because those were different from the Hebrews, that was enough to condemn them. Jonah made no attempt to try to talk with them, get to know them, ask them about their religion, or why they behaved the way they did. He was ready to punish them without hearing their side of the story. Some Americans are, again, acting like Jonah -- calling for revenge but not asking why the terrorists hate America so much that they were willing to do what they did. In the absence of this knowledge, we cannot own our own mistakes, and try to improve our own behavior.
There is also a message here in how easy it is to want to punish others, and demand retribution. Jonah did not want to accept his assigned task, because deep in his heart, he didn't want those awful Ninevites to have a second chance. He was convinced in his mind that they were evil, and therefore should be made to pay for their wickedness. When something happens which we see as evil, we are quick to demand retribution. We think that seeing our enemies suffer will make us feel better--or at least victorious and superior. That is what Jonah wanted to feel, and why he was so ticked off when God forgave the Ninevites instead of making them suffer. Many of us respond the same way -- we want to see those terrorists suffer, even more than we did. And we are willing to wage war against all the people of Iraq and cause great suffering in that country, because of the evil deeds of its leader. Certainly, some form of retribution is called for; some response is justified, but we need to ask ourselves whether our lust for their blood will remedy the evils. Will it bring back the dead, heal the wounds of the survivors, make us safer in the long run? Will it even make us feel better to know we got revenge?
Then there is the message about degrees; about not painting everything in black and white. Once Jonah had decided the Ninevites were wicked, he could see no good in them at all, nor any positive aspects to their religion, or their way of life. He could not look beyond his perception of them as totally bad, to try to see why they felt and acted the way they did; he just condemned them, and sought revenge--not even to teach them a better way, but because it would make him feel better. If we are purely out for retaliation, how do we learn why our enemies feel so strongly about us; why do they feel justified in their deeds; what role does our behavior play in the overall situation? These lessons will never be learned and addressed if all we do is strike back, even harder, from a posture of righteousness, superiority and power. Nothing is purely black and white: they are not purely evil, and we are not purely good. That which one group sees as evil, another sees as justice.
Mainly, there is the lesson about forgiveness, and this is perhaps the hardest of all, partly because it encompasses all the other lessons. The Jewish God is quite clear; he wants everyone, no matter what they have done, to be given the opportunity to repent, and then he wants everyone--in all lands, in all times, and all people--to be forgiven for their misdeeds. And I suspect this is the message we will have the hardest time with in the present situation, because it raises some basic questions: When is forgiveness appropriate? Is there some evil so great that it is not worthy of forgiveness of any kind, in any degree? Should evildoers be given the opportunity to repent?
This, I think, is where the question of sincerity comes in. The Jewish idea of atonement is for each individual person, and the Jewish community together, to remember their misdeeds, and forgive those things which, in their hearts and souls, they are truly willing to forgive -- sincerely. The question then becomes, what are we truly, sincerely, able to forgive in others and in ourselves?
Another aspect of sincerity, however, relates to how deeply and truly one believes in something. Have you heard someone say, "It doesn't matter what a person believes, as long as they believe it sincerely?" I think when people say this, they sincerely think what they are doing is being accepting of differences, open-minded and ecumenical. Unlike Jonah, they are willing to look at other religions and belief systems and accept that they serve the people who follow them. They do not condemn the religions of others just because they are different. Their test of value is sincerity.
Now that may be a good thing; certainly we could do with a lot more tolerance in many areas. But is the true test of one's beliefs the degree to which they are sincerely held? If this were so, we would have to accept and forgive the terrorists, for it is patently obvious that they hold their beliefs with great sincerity. One would have to be really, really sincere in one's beliefs to spend years planning to commit suicide for a cause. And that is why it behooves us to try to understand their cause, and why they believed in it so sincerely. We need to look not only at their actions and what they believe, but also to examine our own behavior and policies. For hate like theirs does not come without some provocation.
There is no question that we Americans have made some mistakes -- some very serious mistakes-- that relate to the present situation. Obviously, in retrospect, helping to arm and train Muslim fanatics because we wanted their help in removing the Russians from Afghanistan was a gigantic mistake. Putting American troops in Saudi Arabia, an act considered by Muslims to desecrate the sacred land which was the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, was arguably an even bigger mistake. Continuing to "punish" the Iraqi people through our embargoes, sanctions, and bombing, resulting in the deaths of many, many, more Iraqis since we supposedly won the first war in the Gulf has further angered both Arabs and Muslims, and turned us into an enemy. It is, therefore, not too surprising that some see our "mistakes" as a form of terrorism, and feel it is their duty to rectify the situation. In other words, they wanted revenge--only to them, as it is with us, revenge is seen as justice.
The trouble with revenge, of course, is that it never ends. The terrorist took out their anger on us; we, in turn, sought revenge through attacking Afghanistan and waging a preemptive war in Iraq for reasons which have turned out to be spurious, at best, and pure fabrication at worst. The primary result seems to be to have made not only the Muslims, but many other people in the world madder at the U.S., and will certainly invite even more revenge on their part. When does it ever end?
Like Jonah, we assumed our enemies were not willing to sit and talk and try to come to some understanding; but then neither, evidently, were we. Like Jonah, they painted the western world, and especially the United States, with one brush using the color black, and they decided we were evil. And, like Jonah, they wanted to see us suffer. And they did -- in the name of their God and out of the hate they had built up for us, they committed unspeakably evil terrorist acts against us. In retaliation, we must remember, in their minds, for what we did to them and their people. And, in retaliation, we committed war against them, which has resulted in far more harm to people and property than the initial terrorist acts against us did. Now we are seen as the evil ones.
But, you say, our motives were good; our intentions pure; our actions sincere. We are the good guys. And so say they about their motives, their intentions, their actions -- also with true sincerity. Now we have a hard time in such circumstances even thinking about forgiveness. We cannot, in our pain, even think of doing that sincerely. And if forgiveness is not sincere, it does no good. It is understandable that we feel that way; some acts are so evil they perhaps should not be forgiven. That is how Jonah felt when he was mad a God for forgiving the Ninevites.
But the question is this: If they can not forgive us, and we cannot forgive them, when does it stop? Will we now, in our Jonah-like need for revenge, commit similar acts of terror on innocent people in places like Iran and Syria? Are nations which harbor terrorist groups, or are not willing to fully support our revenge, as culpable as the individuals who committed the terrorist acts? How do we know to what extent those nations in which known terrorists live actually support them and their actions? Or are they the victims of the terrorists as much as we are? Should we inflict further misery on people who are already suffering immensely, partly because of our former mistakes? Is it possible to forgive, and still to rectify wrong, or does forgiveness only come with no strings attached?
Many, many questions. We will struggle over these next months and years to find the answers. But I fear our nation, like Jonah, is too ready to rush to revenge, even without fully understanding, than it is to try to answer some of these questions. Perhaps the rhetoric has escalated so far that it may be too late to even put the idea of forgiveness on the table.
I am not suggesting that I think we should do nothing --some kind of response is necessary, providing it is aimed at the right targets. But another response should be to listen to the concerns of the enemy; to try to understand why they are so angry with the United States that they would do such a thing; to see if we cannot learn from this more than how to hate. These are not mutually exclusive: we can do both.
Whatever we do, it behooves us to remember the final lesson in God's response to Jonah--the question of collateral damage. God asks Jonah if he really would want him to punish the Ninevites who don't know their right hand from their left --a hundred and twenty thousand people--not to mention all their cattle. That is a question we must also consider. Do we really want to punish the Arabs who did not commit these acts and condemn them also -- hundreds of thousands of people--not to mention all their cattle? Where does revenge end and forgiveness and healing begin? This is the basic question asked by the story of Jonah. It is a question we will need to answer if there is ever to be peace in the world.