It always helps, when you’re splayed out on the couch on a Friday evening after a long and disappointing week, and thinking of finally dragging your sorry self off to bed, and you look at your phone one more time and see that Ruth Bader Ginsberg has died and that the entire internet is working itself up into some kind of hysterical fit, to remember that Sunday is just around the corner. All you have to do is stay offline for twenty-four hours, and then you’ll wander into church and hear the Bible read out loud. Life being what it is, of course, you meant to read it yourself, or listen to it, but as I said, it was a long week. At least you can straggle into a pew. The clever thing about hearing the lections, thrown out there across the nave, you sitting upright, your face implacable so that no one can know all the roiling feelings and bitterness you’ve collected since the last time you were there, that the words will resound in your ears at least as clangingly as the news. You can line the two up side by side and gather your wits.
And, in these tumultuous times, your wits are exactly what you need to gather up, because the time is short, though this single year continues to feel like an eternity.
This morning we have two shocks—we have the death of a famous person, whose work and intellectual acumen have shaped American thoughts and prayers in ways that most of us don’t entirely realize, and we have another Jesus/Jonah collision, where Jonah, by his life and interior disposition, provides a miniature of an unsettling truth that is “at the heart” of Jesus.
Let’s remember what happened to Jonah, in quick brush strokes. He was a prophet in Israel during a relatively peaceful moment. For Israel, God gave him many comforting words. Though Israel was certainly very wicked, yet God was her God, and was always prepared to forgive her iniquities whenever she felt sorry about them. And should Jonah’s name have remained there in a couple of verses in the middle of the Old Testament, that would have been very nice for all of them. But God thought better to strike Jonah to his core, to persecute him (not nearly as badly as Job, of course, though Jonah reacted with hysteria and shock rather than grief and heart-rending poetry). The word of the Lord comes to Jonah, and tells him to go cry out to some very wicked people about the justice and mercy of God. And Jonah is so horrified that he runs away.
Whenever I come across the experience of revulsion—either in myself or in someone else, but especially online—I always like to stop and consider what Jonah must have felt inside himself, when he discovered that God wanted to have mercy on the people of Nineveh. Imagine the people you think are the most wicked, the worst possible people who have done the most horrifying things, things that are unforgivable, and how sick you feel when you think of them. That’s the sort of feeling Jonah would have had.
I mean, there are so many opportunities to feel revulsion yourself, or watch other people feeling it, what with all the news of the world distilled onto the smallest of screens. It’s a perfectly natural and often justifiable feeling. But revulsion also carries inside it a certain kind of defiance, or even anger. Because you have to differentiate yourself from the thing that you revile. You have to know within yourself that you are not that thing, or person. And, thank goodness, because consider how great will be the judgment of God for such wickedness. And you needn’t kid yourself, the bad thing that you hate isn’t something subtle, something hidden. It’s there for everyone to see. Fox News and CNN both reported on it. And fifteen kinds of Christians got on twitter to explain what should be said about it in the pulpit this morning. There’s no brushing it off or recasting it as if it wasn’t wrong. It was wicked, and Jonah was sent on purpose to tell the people who did it that if they didn’t repent of it, they were going to die forever.
Similarly, wandering around the highways and byways of social media, I sometimes wonder what would happen if some Jonah-esque figure appeared on our shores, walking up and down to proclaim that if we didn’t stop whatever we were doing and repent, in three days we would all, and much cattle, be destroyed. I like to think this when I am watching myself complain about how bad it is, or nurturing my own sense of moral revulsion. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the more wicked a culture becomes, the more anxious and supercilious they are about their rights, often under the guise of “justice” or “fairness.” I’m not here to knock justice, nor even the rights the founders of America believed to be given to the human person by God himself, rights we call “unalienable.” They are necessary for an orderly and peaceful society. I don’t really think we should throw them away, especially when we don’t understand them very well, or what was intended by them. But you can’t take a sort of fatuous feeling that you have lots of “rights” and read those back over the Biblical text. If you’re out in the street—or in the courtroom—crying for justice for yourself or for a group, you’re going to feel confused and angry whenever you eventually encounter the Bible.
So anyway, Jonah runs away and God catches him and sends him back, so that Jonah grudgingly does what God requires, and God has the mercy he intended to have. And Jonah sits under his vine in wroth, angry enough to die. And several hundred years later Jesus tells a complicated story about a lot of people who worked for the master of a vineyard, how they came in to work at different hours of the day, but at the end of the day, they all got paid the same, no matter who they were or the quality of their labor. The poor suckers who came in the early morning, and watched others stumble in one by one, began to think that they would get more, measuring their own hours in the sun and what they were certainly owed against the pathetic laziness of all the others. So that, when they were all paid exactly the same, if the early-hired weren’t angry enough to die, they were at least very angry and complained loudly. And the master of the vineyard said to them: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last.”
Thing is, the word “generosity” wasn’t the one jangling around in the back of any of their minds. Is God being generous? No, not really, he is being unfair. Isn’t that why you’re so angry? If he were fair, the people who had worked longer would have gotten wages commensurate with their labor. Generosity would have been none of them having to work at all, plus a pony and a popsicle.
But Jesus uses the word “generosity,” and the Lord, having it out with Jonah, uses the word “pity.” And most of us, I think, turn justice and mercy around so that both of them are inadequate, thinking we should have one, when really we ought to be asking for the other.
It is in service to a paltry and meager “justice” that someone like Ruth Bader Ginsberg can devote herself—suffering over decades in her body in ways that would leave most of us crushed to earth—to the kind of “equal” rights for women that includes the swallowing up of a generation of children. For someone so brilliant to yet be so confused, to espouse and devote her legal mind to something so wicked, ought to give every single one of us less brilliant rubes pause. She was the brightest and the best. She went to the very top. Meanwhile, all of us swimming around in the muck of American culture, pick any intellectual inconsistency, some holding of two opposite things together so that I can consume some more cheap pieces of plastic, so that I can go “first” under the guise of going “last.”
There is no righteous, no not one. Our corporate throat is an open grave. We are always exchanging the truth of God for a lie. We aren’t staggering into the vineyard in the first hour, nor the last. We are the people of Nineveh, crying out for God to give us what we are owed. I pray desperately that he won’t do it. I pray that he will have pity. I pray that we will look to the second Jonah, the Word who didn’t fall into the ground to die for no reason but accomplished that which he purposed. He, who went last, who went up to the cross, died so that we, going down to death inexorably one by one, might be snatched out of Sheol.