God commanded the prophet of Israel to preach repentance to a faraway city whose evil was so great it rose heavenward like a stench. Nineveh wasn't just any evil city. It was the capital city of the ruthless empire that would obliterate the kingdom of Israel within decades of Jonah's saving mission. Jonah wanted no part in God's plan; he fought it with all his power. He raged against such a costly mercy. Jonah was not small-minded, but neither could he see the good news that his mission would spell life for 120,000 people and unnumbered cattle. He carried the hope of God to a people that had seemed beyond hope. Jonah was upset--the text literally says, "It was evil to him a great evil" (4:1). Jonah became angry, and he prayed to God, asking God to let him die. God responded instead with a question: "Is it good for you to be angry?" (4:4) Jonah's refusal to answer invites us deeper into the struggle between justice and mercy, salvation and death, prophet and God.
Next we see Jonah exit the city, station himself on the east side, and set up a booth, watching and waiting for something more to happen. Jonah’s mission is over, but the heart of the book is here, in the lessons God hopes to teach the angry prophet. God's lessons begin with a plant. The living parable of the plant will teach Jonah not only about God's concern for Nineveh, but also about Jonah. Now God appoints a little worm to smite the plant, and it withers--that does not bode well for Jonah. The scorching sun and wind beat on Jonah's head, and he faints. Without the plant's protection he cannot stand. He begs for death. God asks him now, "Is it good for you to be angry about the plant?" (4:9) This time Jonah answers, "Yes, it is good for me to be angry, unto death" (4:9).
God is not put off by this answer: it is honest. Jonah has lost an unexpected good--the great joy he found in the plant. Now God compares the plant to Nineveh, "that great city," posing a final question to Jonah: Jonah cared for the plant God made, and grieved when he lost it. He didn't labor over it, didn't raise it. It came one night and was gone the next. What about Nineveh? How should God feel about Nineveh, a city with 120,000 people who don't know their right from their left.They are all God's creatures and if they are truly like Jonah's plant, then their repentance has brought God great joy.
Should God also care about Nineveh? For Jonah, the question sounds like this: should God care about the cruel killers who will soon kill Jonah's own people and destroy his homeland? Do they deserve mercy? Do they deserve to be saved? Does it even matter to God what they deserve? Where is the justice in God's grace?The story ends with this question, with Jonah still sitting outside the city, waiting to see what will happen. We are left wrestling with the goodness of God, a goodness that is not a respecter of persons or animals. We wrestle with the goodness of God that demands that we be God's grace to our enemies, and to the innocent in their midst. This goodness hounds us, follows us into the belly of the boat and the beast, into every place where we try to escape our calling, and calls us out to speak the saving truth of repentance and mercy for all of God's creatures.