By Kerry R. Mansir
If you grew up hearing the story of Jonah in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School, you may have been surprised by our reading from the Book of Jonah this morning. The angry and resentful Jonah that makes an appearance there doesn’t usually make his way into the children’s version of the story.
So here’s the real story of Jonah. Jonah had a special relationship with God. God talked to him and expected Jonah to be his prophet. So one day, God tells Jonah that he is sending him to Nineveh where they have been living wicked lives. God wants Jonah to warn them that if they don’t repent, he’s going to destroy them. This is easy. This is what prophets do. But does Jonah obey the Lord? He does not. Nineveh is to the east so Jonah flees to the west and he jumps on a ship bound for Tarshish.
Well, God isn’t so easily resisted. God sends a storm. The ship is being tossed about and all aboard are going to perish. Jonah knows he’s the cause of all this so he tells the sailors to throw him overboard in order to save themselves. They argue at first, but eventually the sailors listen to Jonah. They toss him into the sea and just as predicted, the waters grow calm and the ship is safe. Jonah, however, gets swallowed by a great big fish.
Jonah lives in the belly of that fish for three days. He prays to God in there, and on the third day, he is vomited out onto the seashore. Lovely image, right? So Jonah goes home. But God’s not giving up. God calls to him again. Same mission as before. Go to Nineveh. They have really screwed up, God says. They need to repent and change their ways or they’re going to be destroyed.
This time, Jonah goes. He walks from Israel to Nineveh…this enormous city, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. And when he gets to the middle of the city, he preaches—short and sweet. “Forty days more, [Jonah proclaims] and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s it. And guess what? That’s all it took. The people of Nineveh believed the word of God. The word even reached the King and all of the people began to fast and they put on sackcloth. Sackcloth was this scratchy, uncomfortable fabric, and in the ancient middle east, when you feel really bad about something, this is what you wear to show that. The king even ordered the animals of the kingdom to put on sackcloth. Apparently, those animals had been up to some wicked ways, as well, and needed to show signs of repentance.
And that’s where we enter the story today. When God saw that the people of Nineveh had turned from their evil ways, he changed his mind about destroying them. He doesn’t do it.
Jonah did what God asked and it worked. He saved the people of Nineveh. You’d think he would be thrilled. But he’s not. He’s so mad that he tells God he might as well kill him. He’s rather die than see the Ninevites live. The reason Jonah ran away in the first place was because he knows all about God’s mercy and steadfast love. And he was worried all along that this would happen. He doesn’t want Nineveh of Assyria saved, because they are the rival of Israel. The Assyrian Empire is just a generation away from invading Israel, exiling many Israelites, and besieging Jerusalem.
Jonah can’t see the people of Nineveh as anything but the other, the enemy. But here’s the thing. When there’s repentance, God can forgive our enemies just as easily as God can forgive us.
At sundown this evening, Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year celebration, will come to an end. This observance in the Jewish community is a time of reflection upon one’s actions of the past year and sincere repentance for those sins. On Yom Kippur, another Jewish high holy day that will be celebrated next Sunday, Jews spend the day in the synagogue, praying, repenting, reading scripture, and asking for the atonement of God. The last reading on Yom Kippur is this story of Jonah meant to remind the Jewish people not only of Nineveh as a model of repentance, but also the way in which God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness and love are meant–even for our enemies.
Since Friday night, I have been thinking a lot about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As so many of you have been, too. And I’ve been thinking about the legacy that she leaves for us. Of course, fighting for the rights of women and pursuing justice for all who have been marginalized is an enormous part of her legacy. But something else she leaves behind is a model for how we can have different views from others and still like them…even love them. I’m thinking particularly of her deep and abiding friendship with Justice Scalia. Ginsburg and Scalia were most often at odds on Supreme Court decisions. They had profound disagreements about how the Constitution should be interpreted. But despite their differences, they cared deeply for one another.
You may know that this unlikely friendship was the inspiration for a 2016 opera called Scalia/Ginsburg. Toward the end of the opera, Ginsburg breaks in through a glass ceiling to save Scalia. And she’s asked, “He’s your enemy, why would you want to help him?” Ginsburg responds, “He’s not my enemy but my dear friend.” Then a duet follows in which they sing: “We are different, we are one.” Different, yes, in their interpretation of written text, but one in their reverence for the Constitution and the institution they served. (Interview with Ruth Bader Ginsberg by Nina Totenberg https://www.mcny.org/rbg)
We are different. But we are one. One in our humanity. One in God’s love for us as God’s creation.
Jonah had a hard time with that. God asks Jonah more than once why he thinks has a right to be angry. At the very end of Jonah’s story, God is really asking, “Shouldn’t I love Nineveh?” God saved 120,000 people that day, and Jonah refused to celebrate because he was so angry that God had chosen to save the enemy of Israel. Maybe Jonah needed to hear the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she said, “Don’t be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just zap energy and waste time.”
Maybe we need to hear and heed those words as well. We know that there’s going to be a battle in the Senate over when and how to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. We know that people in our country are going to take sides. But we can make a choice not to be distracted by anger, envy and resentment. Because it would be wrong for us to let her death inflame an already angry nation. It would be disrespectful to her legacy of friendship with Scalia, a man she had deep disagreements with, if we let ourselves make enemies of those with whom we disagree.
If you are mourning the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg…even if, like almost all of us, you never met her, but you have been inspired by her fight for those who need to be lifted up, who need to be seen, who need to be heard. If you are mourning her and worried about what will come next… If the world looks dark to you…take heart in her optimism, her ability to love and care for those who were different, her insistence that we are one. Remember that she also said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Don’t be like Jonah. Don’t seek the demise of your enemy. Recognize the common humanity in all of us. Fight for what you care about but bring others along out of your love for them. Out of God’s love for them. Amen.