‘That’s not fair!’ How often have you heard that said? From the very earliest age, children are very quick to say what they think is not fair especially if their siblings are involved. When our two girls were growing up, I remember sharing a conversation with a fellow vicar about some argument which our children had. He replied wisely that he always taught his three girls that things were never fair and they would just have to get used to that fact. Looking back, that was a wise policy. It’s better that children learn that everything in life will not always appear fair and they must learn to live with it. Parents can all too easily run themselves ragged trying to make everything fair for their children, a goal they will never achieve.
Adults are no better. We feel aggrieved if we sit next to someone on the plane or the train who has managed to get the same ticket that we have by clicking on the internet site a few hours earlier than we did. We are cross if we hear that a tradesman has done a job for a neighbour at a preferential rate when he won’t knock anything off for us.
But of course, it goes deeper than that. The whole of life never seems fair. We all know of good people who are honest and trust worthy, who put themselves out to do a good turn for others who seem to be rewarded for their efforts by accident, illness or other misfortune. Then we might think of someone who is a liar, a cheat and a rascal who will seemingly slip through life with hardly a care in the world. There is also in most of us a keen sense of justice. When some tragedy or another happens, we are keen that heads should roll. The start of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire is a good example. It is entirely understandable that those affected by the fire, those who have lost the people they cared about most, will want to know why this terrible thing happened. If someone is at fault, they will want to see that they are brought to account. This desire for justice is very palpable and arguably not being handled very well by the government, the local authorities and the way in which the present inquiry is being carried out.
When horrible crimes happen, we want the culprits brought swiftly to justice and be given sentences which a harsh enough to reflect their misdeeds and pay their debts to society. In conversations about the new prison here in Wrexham with its emphasis on rehabilitation and provision of good facilities, the response is not always enthusiastic. They don’t deserve it. ‘Lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ is the way some think.
May be that’s what Jonah thought when God sent him to the great city, Nineveh. Nineveh has been in the news recently. The modern city is called Mosel in Iraq, recently liberated from the self-proclaimed Islamic State. To the east of the present city in the plains lie the ruins of ancient Nineveh. God called Jonah to ‘cry out against’ the city because ‘their great wickedness’ had come before God. (Jonah 1.2) Jonah however goes the other way on a ship bound for Tarshish, a place of wealth in the western Mediterranean, possibly Sardinia.
Jonah learns to his cost, like we do, that going in the opposite direction from God’s will does not work out long term. On the way, there is a big storm. Everything is thrown overboard, including Jonah and he ends up in the belly of a big fish. It is in the stomach of the fish that Jonah resumes his conversation with God. God listens to Jonah but sends him back to Nineveh with the same message. We are not given much idea of the contents of the message, but Jonah tells the city that within forty days it will be overthrown. (Jonah 3.4) As a result, the whole city repents from its wickedness. The king decrees a fast commanding it to turn from its wickedness. ‘Who knows? God may relent and change his mind’ says the king (Jonah 3.9)
That is exactly what God does. He decides against the calamity that he might have brought upon them. I guess we might think that Jonah would have been happy with that. As a prophet of God, he has played a significant part in causing a whole city to turn back to God, saving it from terrible consequences. But no! We read: ‘this was very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry.’ (Jonah 4) Jonah knew full well that God was a gracious God, merciful and slow to anger. He knew that should the people of Nineveh repent, God might change his mind and not bring the suffering on them that Jonah thought they deserved. As a Jew, Jonah saw it as only right that God should punish heathen nations and cities for their sins and wickedness. He asks God that he might be given leave to die. When this request is not answered, like many a man in a sulk, he went off to make a shed, sat in its shade to see how events would unfold in Nineveh.
God is not done with Jonah. He provides a bush for shade which Jonah likes. Then a worm eats the root of the bush and it dies and Jonah is cross and angry. God provides a sultry east wind which makes Jonah even more angry.
The question God has for Jonah and for us is this: ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ (Jonah 4.4) God points out to Jonah that he had no say in whether the shady bush grew or not. It was a blessing from God while it lasted. As Job observed: ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.’ (Job 1.21) In the same way, what God chose to do for the city of Nineveh was his business. If God felt it right that he changes his mind in response to their repentance and show mercy on a non-Jewish city, what was that to Jonah. Jonah must learn the lesson that he cannot do God’s work for him; that he should not be angry when he feels that God is letting heathens off the hook.
The same message occurs in the story Jesus tells of the man who hired workers for his vineyard. It was the discretion of the vineyard owner to pay those who worked less than a day a full day’s wages, thus recognising that their needs were the same as those who worked the full day. Human wisdom would say: ‘It’s not fair!’ But in Jesus’ parable, the vineyard owner says: ‘Am I not allowed to do what I chose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? (Matthew 20.15) We need to learn not to be cross because God is forgiving or may act in judgement.
It is so easy for us in today’s world to blend and adapt our thoughts about God making him in our own minds the kind of being with whom we would feel comfortable, happy to share a meal with, reads the same paper that we do. That is not the God of the bible writers. He is a living being with his own mind to act. Sometimes we want God to be always merciful and forgiving, especially with our own family and friends and ‘nice’ people. With others who we don’t get on with or cause trouble for us and society, we expect God to deal harshly with. The story of Jonah tells us to step back, not be angry or cry: ‘it’s not fair’, but to trust our living powerful loving but just God to use his power as he knows best. We trust the pilot to fly the plane because we don’t know how to. How much more do we trust God to fly the world.
If we can do that, we spare ourselves much anger & heart ache. Taking today’s gospel reading into account, it makes it easier to forgive because we know that ultimately, justice does not lie with us, we can leave that to God.
A little used translation of the bible from the early twentieth century, The Weymouth New Testament renders Romans 12.19 as follows to conclude our thoughts today: ‘Do not be revengeful, my dear friends, but give way before anger; for it is written, “‘Revenge belongs to Me: I will pay back,’ says the Lord.”
Trinity 15 24.09.2017