1 Jonah was very indignant at this; he fell into a rage. 2 He prayed to Yahweh and said: ‘Ah! Yahweh, is this not
just as I said would happen when when I was still in my own country? That was why I went and fled to Tarshish: I knew that you were a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, relenting from evil. 3 So now Yahweh, please take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’
4 Yahweh answered: ‘Have you good reason to be angry?’ 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down to the east of
the city. There he made for himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, to see what would happen in the city.
6 Then Yahweh God arranged that a colocynth plant should grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head and soothe his discomfort; and Jonah was delighted with the colocynth plant. 7 But at dawn the next day, God arranged that a worm should attack the colocynth, and it withered. 8 Next, when the sun rose, God arranged a burning wind from the east, and the sun beat down so hard on Jonah’s head that he was overcome and begged for death, saying, ‘It is better for me to die than to live’. 9 God said to Jonah: ‘Have you good reason to be angry about the colocynth plant?’ And he answered: ‘I have every right to be angry, even to death’.
10 And Yahweh answered: ‘You grieve for this colocynth, which cost you no labour, which you did not make grow, which sprouted in a night, and in a night has perished. And am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in
which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?’
A man is being given a tour of a mental institution, and he asks the lead psychiatrist: “How do you select who should be admitted to your facility?” The psychiatrist replies: “We fill a bathtub with water and give the person in question three things: A spoon, a tea-cup and a bucket. Then we ask that person to empty the bathtub.”
The man smiles: “Ah, I get it! A sane person would choose the bucket.” The Psychiatrist replies: “No, a sane person would pull the drain plug. Would you like a room with a window or one close to the dining hall?”
Sometimes, in our rush to judge the mental or spiritual condition of others, we fail to recognize our own.
And that’s exactly where we find Jonah in the last chapter of his story, in our final sermon on the Book of Jonah. He has traveled many miles across ocean and land to reach the great city of Nineveh. But in his heart, he is just as far away from the people of Nineveh as he was back home in Israel.
In fact, here in the last chapter, Jonah finally confesses why he ran away from God in the first place–he had a hunch that God might forgive the Ninevites, and he really, really didn’t want that to happen. But it does. And when it becomes clear that the Ninevites are not going to die, Jonah prays to God for the second best option: If you won’t kill them, then kill me instead.
Think about it–Jonah’s hatred is so great that he refuses to occupy the same space, the same world, the same lifetime as his enemies. It’s either my enemies, God, or me–you choose! That kind of zero-sum ultimatum may sound extreme, but I think we hear it often enough today: Christianity vs. Islam; Liberal ideology vs. Conservative ideology; Israel vs. Palestine; Faith vs. Science. Too many people are too quick to claim that one must live and the other must die; one must be completely right and the other must be completely wrong; the two cannot peacefully co-exist. That’s pretty much what Jonah is saying. When you question that kind of dogma, people get angry.
And God says to Jonah: ‘Have you good reason to be angry?’ But instead of answering, Jonah leaves Nineveh and sits on a hill outside the city, watching and waiting, hoping perhaps, that maybe their repentance wasn’t sincere, or wasn’t complete enough, and maybe God will demolish them anyhow. Which kind of proves he’s still angry.
And God sends a lightning bolt from Heaven and fries Jonah to a crisp for his insolence, killing him thoroughly and granting his wish. The end. Just kidding, that doesn’t happen. Just as God shows mercy and patience for the people of Nineveh, so he now shows patience and mercy for Jonah.
Instead, God puts Jonah through an “object lesson” to help him step outside himself and see his enemies through the eyes of God’s mercy and grace. That object lesson centers around a plant.
What kind of plant? The NRSV calls it a bush; the KJV calls it a gourd. The Vulgate calls it an ivy plant. Our translation today calls it a colocynth plant, and the Jerusalem Bible calls it a castor-oil plant. The original Hebrew reads קִיקָי֞וֹן (kikayon), but that word appears only once in the entire Bible (right here in this chapter) and nowhere else in ancient Hebrew literature. So no one really knows what it means, or what kind of plant it is.
Just like the “big fish” earlier in our story, much speculation, research, and writing has been devoted to figuring out this mystery: What kind of plant could grow taller than a person in a single day? In desert conditions? Or at least that’s native to the Middle East? By now you probably know MY approach. Speculation about the historical, factual nature of the plant, while fun, probably misses the point the story is trying to make. And so I prefer just to call it by its original, mysterious name…It’s a Kikayon plant.
And Jonah falls in love with this plant. In verse 6 we read that it provides shade for his head and soothes his discomfort. In a foreign land, far away from his friends and family, I imagine it provides him with some sort of company, too. People can become quite attached to plants.
When my son, Grady, was in the 3rd grade at Dr. Green elementary school, all of the students were given a baby cabbage plant to take home, plant, and raise. Grady was enthusiastic about the project, despite some pretty big disadvantages. The first disadvantage was El Paso, which is not exactly known for its hospitable climate, soil, or other plant-rearing qualities. I know that many people here find ways to overcome this hurdle, but they are not Lockes. Disadvantage number two: We kill plants in my family. Despite our best efforts and intentions, our thumbs are not green, they are not even brown, they are shriveled black and crispy, like our plants.
There was one plant Amy and I got not too long after we got married that actually lived and stayed green for several months. We were shocked and surprised…until a friend pointed out the fact that it was plastic. I’m pretty sure that we could have killed even that one, given enough time.
But Grady persisted with his little cabbage, and it grew. Then caterpillars came and ate it, and he was devastated, but somehow, it made a comeback. He kept watering it, kept taking care of it, and it grew larger and greener than anyone would have thought possible.
It was disadvantage number three that killed it in the end. Ironically, disadvantage number three was Grady’s little brother…Jonah. Yes, In this story, Jonah killed the plant. Completely, thoroughly, and with the wild abandon that only a kid brother can pull off. And Grady was absolutely crushed. He was inconsolable. He shed enough tears for that cabbage to rival all the water it took to make it grow. But the cabbage was gone. And five years later, he still mourns whenever the subject comes up. Like when Abby brought home her 3rd grade cabbage this year…
So I think I get how Jonah, in our scripture passage today, gets so attached to the Kikayon plant. He’s already an emotional mess–he’s exhausted from his travels, lonely and far away from home, angry at God and Nineveh, confused about his mission and purpose as a prophet. The Kikayon is the only thing he’s got going for him. It’s all he has, and the only positive in a world of negatives. And then it dies.
And then things get worse. Then comes the burning heat, the parched, intense, dry wind, and Jonah suffers–physically now, as well as emotionally. For the third time in the story, Jonah wishes for death. And for the second time in the story, God says to Jonah, “Do you have a good reason to be angry?”
And Jonah turned bright red, then purple, then blue, and then his head exploded. Do I have a reason to be angry?!? Jonah’s actual response was probably censored from the final cut of the Bible for extreme profanity.
But then, while Jonah is losing it, God says something profound, something that turns the world upside down on its head. God says, “You know how you felt about that tree? That’s how I felt about Nineveh. In fact, you didn’t put nearly as much effort and love into that tree as I put into Nineveh. You know how you felt when that tree died? That’s what I would have felt, and more, if Nineveh had been destroyed like you wanted. Were they perfect? Were they good? No. But neither are you. And still, I loved you enough to save you from the sailors, from the ocean, from the Ninevites, and from yourself. I don’t love you (or your people) because you’re so great, so good, so righteous. I love you because I made you. Like I made the Kikayon. Like I made every man, woman, child, and animal in Nineveh. I made them all and I love them all–even the ones who don’t know their right hand from their left!
And that’s where the story ends. We don’t get Jonah’s response; we don’t know if he ever gets over his depression, his hatred and rage for the Ninevites; we don’t know if he gets God’s point or not.
This may sound familiar to some of you–a few months ago we were studying the parables of Jesus, and a lot of them had this kind of “cliffhanger ending.” It’s actually characteristic of Middle Eastern parables, and one of the reasons why I believe that the book of Jonah is a parable, not literal history.
When we encounter this kind of abrupt ending, where the main character is left with an unresolved choice, it’s usually an indication that the real choice is ours to make. It’s as if we hear God speaking to Jonah, but rather than Jonah answering, God suddenly and unexpectedly turns to us, to the audience, and says, “Now what will you do? What will you choose?” Will you love the ones you hate the most? Not in a self-righteous kind of way, like “I love them, even though they’re wrong and I’m right,” or “I love them, but only if they repent,” or “I love them but I don’t approve of their actions.” No, no, no.
I love them…because God made them. And that’s all we really need to say.
I think most of us live our lives in the shade of the Kikayon–sheltered, privileged, protected, far more than we deserve, far more than we even realize. And it’s tempting, in that blessed shade that God has provided, to watch, wait, and secretly hope that all the people we disagree with will get what’s coming to them. Those conservatives. Those liberals. Those Muslims. Those Evangelicals. The media. The establishment. Foreigners. Locals.
We love them…because God made them. And that’s all we really need to say.
But sometimes a worm comes along and takes away our Kikayon, our shade; something that was precious to us; something we thought was ours, even though we didn’t really create it. We suffer, we feel the pain of loss, and in those moments we are tempted to be angry, to blame God, or to give up on life and the work God has called us to. Like Jonah, in these moments we have a choice to make and something important to remember:
God loves us…because God made us. And that’s all we really need to know.