A small boy had had a difficult day at home, and so he decided to run away. How many of us reached that same decision when we were growing up?
Well, this boy took his little duffel bag and packed it with favorite trinkets and some cookies he sneaked from the kitchen, along with his favorite comic book; and he set off. When he reached the corner, he stood on the curb and kept standing there. A neighbor came along and asked him where he was going. He told her he was running away. “Why are you standing here on the corner?” she asked. With tears welling up in his eyes the boy replied, “Because I am not allowed to cross the street by myself.”
How many persons at this very hour are running away! Some are doing so to abandon responsibility in the mistaken quest for freedom, some to avoid facing the truth about themselves, others because their dreams have withered and life is a suffocation, and countless others to avoid involvement and to distance themselves from the urgent problems and needs of our world.
Ask the prophet Jonah, for that is exactly what he did - - he ran away. The moment he heard God’s summons, “Arise! Go to Nineveh,” he hotfooted it to Joppa to take a slow boat to Tarshish.
It is still a recurring response of people today. I mean, how many times have you experienced people reneging on their promises, setting aside their vows, sneaking off from accountability and projecting blame on others, turning from their commitments and distancing themselves from getting involved. Or to put the question another way – how many times have we ourselves set aside our vows or refused to get involved?
That is why the story of Jonah is so contemporary and cogent, for what he discovered can inform us. And this is what Jonah learned: it may cost us to answer God’s call by staying to do what God asks, but it costs us more to run away. There is a price to pay for following Christ into the needs of human hearts, but there is a far greater price to pay for saying, “No thanks,” and sneaking off.
There is risk in caring, but a far greater risk in not caring. “Anyone who does not love remains in death,” says the Scripture; and it is so. Or as Jesus declared, “No one who puts his or her hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom.”
At the end, we, like Jonah, finally realize we can’t run away, no matter how cleverly we may try, no matter how earnest our efforts, because we can never run far enough. So Dag Hammarskjold reminded us: “The most important thing in life in not to have run away.
The prophet Jonah was confronted by God with that truth, but he refused to accept it. The story begins when God calls Jonah to go and prophesy to the people of Nineveh.
Jonah will have no part of the task to which God calls him and, hugging his prejudices close, he runs in the opposite direction. What Jonah runs into, however, is a lot more trouble than he ever imagined. During a severe storm at sea, he at last volunteers to be thrown overboard. Sometimes even the most self-centered, in their desperation and despair, would rather end their lives than be changed.
God arranges for Jonah to be swallowed by a giant fish. In the belly of the fish, Jonah realizes the folly of his ways and tries to bargain with God. He prays, “Lord, I repent of my sin. If you deliver me, I will do whatever you ask.”
God’s reply is brisk and direct. He rescues Jonah and reiterates, “Arise, and go to Nineveh and declare my message.” Reluctantly, Jonah does, but his heart is not really in it. He still believes that he is right and God is wrong. Yet he does relish the opportunity to inveigh against the hated enemy: “In 40 days, Nineveh will be destroyed.”
Hearing this dire warning, the people of Nineveh, and even the King, repent of their wickedness. Convinced that they are only faking it, Jonah climbs a hill to wait for God’s violent judgment and to savor the death and destruction that will break open on the hated city and its people.
But God, seeing the change of the Assyrians’ hearts, forgives them and brings with mercy into the circle of the redeemed. This is too much for Jonah, and once more he turns from God in anger and petulance. “Poor me,” he cries as he sits under a castor bean plant that God has caused to grow to shade the prophet.
Then God causes the plant to wither and Jonah in his self-induced misery moans again, “it is better for me to die than to live.” God confronts the whining prophet and teaches him the truth that the world does not end at the boundary of his skin, that God’s love is greater than his provincial grievances and personal prejudices, that God’s love takes in all persons - - even those hated as enemies.
We today are still slow to learn what Jonah had to learn: namely, the truth about God’s amazing and inclusive grace and redemptive purpose. We will grow peevish when God doesn’t do things our way, when we, assuming that we are God’s favored people, discover that God loves those we want written off as unlovable by God, as not worthy of God’s grace and mercy, as undeserving of any blessing.
I say we still wrestle with the same temptation to run away from the truth, to think we are right and God is wrong, to believe that God somehow sanctifies our prejudices and approves of our narrow world view and our self-centered vision. We still set ourselves up as judges and shut people out and condemn them. We nurse our grievances and wallow in self-pity when things do not turn out as we want them to. But how tragic when those grievances ruin marriages, destroy families, ravage friendships, and take nations to the very brink of annihilation.
Life is too brief to let grievances, prejudice, and negative conflicts ruin the beauty of being alive in relationships of love and understanding with others. So Albert Camus reminds us: “No ultimacy or creativity arises in hatred or contempt. In some corner of the human heart, at some moment of history, the person who is fully alive moves out with love to reconcile.”
Richard Mouw, the former President of Fuller Seminary, said it in a recent column when he wrote:
Browsing in a large bookstore recently, I made my way to the religion section. The shelves carried the usual signs: “Eastern Religions, Judaism, Occult, Christianity.” But a bottom shelf that was filled with tall books carried the label, “Oversize Religion.”
I like the idea of a religion that is oversize; it reminds us of the need to resist the tendency in our culture to keep religion in its place. The God of the Bible cannot be confined to limited spaces. We need an oversize God, because we humans have an oversize problem: our sinfulness.
Yes, we need an oversize God because our sinfulness so often becomes peevish prejudice, condemnation, censure, and an exclusiveness that tries to shut other people out. Jonah needed a bigger understanding of God. So do we.