Should I Not Be Concerned?

· Bible,Ethics

Next weekend is Yom Kippur, the highest holy day in the Jewish tradition. As a celebration marked by atonement, it is fitting that the book of Jonah is read. To my knowledge, Jonah is the only book of scripture that ends with a question: Should I not be concerned?

But before we get there, let’s back up to the beginning of the story. Jonah is a prophet like no other. He’s rebellious. He is happy to give good news to his own king but doesn’t obey God’s command to give a warning to his enemies in Nineveh—a warning that God will destroy them if they don’t change their ways. Instead, he catches a lift on a ship going in the opposite direction.

Then comes the part of the story we learn about in Sunday School. God turns out to be more indefatigable than Jonah and causes a dangerous storm. The sailors, who don’t believe in Jonah’s God, are scared. And they blame Jonah for making his God angry. Jonah takes the blame and says that the only thing that will save their lives is if they throw him overboard. They resist at first, knowing it’s a bad thing to do. But eventually they agree, praying God will protect them. And God does.

But God brings Jonah face to face with a large fish which swallows the prophet. Amazingly, Jonah survives this ordeal. And in the belly of the sea creature, Jonah realizes that God has allowed him to live. So, he prays for escape and is subsequently vomited
out onto the shore.

In obedience, Jonah proceeds to Nineveh where he gives a very short sermon: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And with just these few words (Preachers, take note!), hearts are changed. The king, his people, and even his animals immediately turn toward God in repentance. They beg for God’s mercy, God’s atonement.

It’s a beautiful story about God’s mercy and the extent to which God will go to forgive and restore people.

Jonah is not just surprised. He’s incensed! His enemies, the Ninevites, have listened. And God has forgiven them! In no uncertain terms, he tells God, “This is why I didn’t want to obey in the first place! I knew you’d do this. You and your mercy. You were supposed to destroy them!” In his outrage, Jonah claims he’d rather die at God’s hand than see the pardoning of his enemies.

God’s response is a profoundly gospel response: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also many animals?”

In cases like Jonah’s, I think we all need to face the hard question: Should we not be concerned?

Identifying ourselves and others by way of how different we are is something very common in our polarized society. We have all been a Jonah at one time or another. We have all been outraged when the people we hold at arm’s length, the people we think don’t embody God’s mercy somehow receive it. And affronted when we do not. When I feel that way, I try to remember God’s question: Should I not be concerned about the people whose character, actions, and words I find harmful or hateful? Should I not be praying that God will have mercy on them? And should I not look for ways to show them mercy?