If I might use the superlative “great” in reference to the AMC series Breaking Bad, I don’t think it would be out of place. Breaking Bad was a great series with great characters, a great storyline, great actors, great dialogue, great drama and a great and tragic ending. That’s a lot of “greats,” isn’t it? One great scene that sticks in my mind is the last episode of the series. Walt and Jesse, his former partner in crime, stand face to face, and Walt is just ready for his life to end, and he taunts Jesse to do the deed. It’s a great ending to a great story.
The ending to the series Breaking Bad is so incredibly similar to the scene in which the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, finds himself at the end of the book (Read Jonah 4 here). I think I can use the same superlative “great” to describe Jonah’s story. As a matter of fact, the author of the book of Jonah uses the word “great” no less than fifteen times in the fifty-eight verses of the book. There is a “great” city. There is a “great” wind and a “great” storm. There are sailors with “great” fear. There are “great” people. God is “greatly” displeased, and there is “great” calamity. There is also “great” joy, and we must never forget there was a “great” fish that was part of Jonah’s story. We find Jonah sitting outside the city of Nineveh wishing for his life to end. Jonah is angry, and he challenges God to just kill him, already! If anyone ever needed an “attitude adjustment,” it was Jonah. So, how did Jonah get there?
Jonah was one of the “minor” prophets of the Old Testament. He’s best known for being swallowed up by a great fish, but there’s more to the story than that. Jonah’s journey begins when God calls him to “go down to Nineveh and preach.” But, Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh, and he certainly didn’t want to preach to them.
What does Jonah do? He hops a ship and goes 2,500 miles in the opposite direction. He wants to get as much water between he and the city of Nineveh as he can. God calls, and Jonah doesn’t answer, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” He put it in high gear and hightailed it to a place called Tarshish.
It is Jonah’s hightailing response you are most familiar with. You may remember that when he hopped that ship that God went with him, and the story goes there was a great wind and a great storm so that everyone on the ship thought they would perish. Jonah slept through the storm until finally the captain woke him up and challenged him to pray to his god for deliverance as all the other sailors were doing. Jonah eventually admits that he’s the cause of the storm and implores the sailors to throw him overboard to save themselves. Very noble wouldn’t you say? See, it’s not that Jonah is unconcerned for people in general. It’s just the Ninevites that he has a problem with. He was thrown overboard by the sailors and was swallowed by a “great” fish. Three days and three nights of severe indigestion caused the fish to vomit Jonah out onto dry land, and wouldn’t you know, it was on the same seashore from which he left. Right back where he started from, and still confronted by God’s call to “go to Nineveh and preach.” So, what’s a guy to do standing on the seashore smelling of fish? “Alright,” Jonah says, “I’ll do it, but I won’t like it.”
Jonah goes to Nineveh, which is so large that it takes three days to cross it (that’s about sixty miles for those of us with pick-up trucks). Jonah arrives on the edge of the city and begins to deliver the shortest sermon in history—one sentence—five words in the Hebrew and eight in the English translation: “Forty days from now, Nineveh will be destroyed.” There are no flowery speeches, no illustrations, no three points and a poem. Short, sweet and to the point.
Someone said, “There’s no such thing as a bad short sermon.” That’s not true! I’ve heard some bad, short sermons. Jonah’s, however, was a great short sermon. It was great, not because it was short, but because it was effective. Jonah didn’t get a third of the way across the city before the people of Nineveh started repenting. They started putting on sackcloth and ashes, and what’s more, even the animals felt the power of Jonah’s message. Even the King, who heard the message second-hand, was touched and commanded the whole kingdom repent and turn to God. WOW! Billy Graham had nothing on Jonah! The problem was that such rousing success only served to make Jonah angry.
Jonah was reluctant to go to Nineveh because the Ninevites were the mortal enemies of Israel at this time in their history. The Assyrians were known for their extreme cruelty to the captors, and Israel had experienced that cruelty often during the years of the minor prophets (circa the 5 – 8th centuries B.C.). Assyrian records brag of live dismemberment wherein the victims were often left with only one hand so the Assyrian attacker could shake it before the person died. Another practice was making parades of heads, requiring friends of the deceased to carry them elevated on poles. Jonah really had no desire to go to Nineveh for obvious reasons. He might well have expected to be arrested, tortured, or become training fodder for the Assyrian army until they got tired of him, and led him through the city streets to hang as an act of national pride and unity.
Not only were the Assyrians enemies, but they were Gentile enemies. Do you know how much the Hebrews hated Gentiles? The daily prayer of the Hebrew man was to thank God they were not born slave, female or Gentile. The Gentiles were not God’s chosen people. They were not special like the Israelites. Surely, Jonah didn’t expect that God really wanted him to go to Nineveh?
Actually, Jonah knew that’s exactly what God wanted him to do. Jonah refused to go to Nineveh, literally went 2,500 miles in the wrong direction, was swallowed and vomited out by a great fish before he finally consented to go because, in his own words, “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God.” Imagine! Jonah’s bad attitude is because of God’s grace and mercy, and it’s so bad that it throws him into such a deep depression that he despairs his own life.
“I knew you’d relent, Lord.” “I knew you’d save them, Lord, and I just didn’t really want you to do that!” “They deserve to die for their wickedness and evil ways!” Imagine Jonah saying that, and never stopping for one moment to consider the same gracious and compassionate God had saved him from the belly of a fish not many days before.
In his anger, Jonah leaves the city and sets up camp on the off chance that the Ninevites show their true colors and revert to their evil ways, or God might wise up and destroy them anyway. Underneath his little brush arbor, God decides to give Jonah an attitude adjustment. A vine grows and provides shade for Jonah. “Ah, cool,” he thought, but the next day, a worm comes and destroys the vine while a scorching wind begins to blow. “Awe, man! Just let me die!” exclaims Jonah.
But, God said, “You’re angry because a vine died, and yet you didn’t make it grow or tend it?” The Lord continued, “Look Jonah, there’s a city down there with 120,000 people that I care about, not to mention the animals. You should care about them.” God lets him know that he misses the point totally.
Jonah’s attitude is laughable if it didn’t sound so familiar. A gracious and compassionate God—what a depressing thought! Until, of course, we are confronted with our own enemies and we come face to face with the realization that the same God who is gracious and compassionate to us seeks to be gracious and compassionate to them, too. As those called to follow Christ, we must put feet to our faith, and that is where the rub comes, especially when we realize the desire of God’s heart is to use us as vessels of His grace and compassion even to our enemies.
How do we do that? Listen to what Jesus told his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount:
43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. Matthew 5: 43 – 45 (NLT)
Loving our enemies may never be easy, and our attempts to avoid doing so (though probably not met with encounters with great, stinky fish) will always be met by God’s persistent call to obedience. Giving up deeply held resentments will be the hardest part, but our failure to do so will likely result in heaping anguish and pain on ourselves—not the least of which might be depression not unlike that which Jonah faced. That’s the attitude we need to break. We need God’s attitude to be our attitude. We need to see God’s perspective. Otherwise, we’ll just keep running 2,500 miles in the wrong direction.
A gracious and compassionate God! What a depressing thought!
Until next time, keep looking up…