“What right do you have to be angry about the plant?”
“I have every right to be angry—angry enough to die!”
The Lord said to him,
“This plant grew up in one night and disappeared the next; you didn’t do anything for it and you didn’t make it grow—yet you feel sorry for it! How much more, then, should I have pity on Nineveh, that great city. After all, it has more than 120,000 innocent children in it, as well as many animals!”
Stories have a heart and a point, and so it is with Jonah. The heart is a quiet, mournful song, the prophet’s grateful prayer that he did not die when sinking in the sea. It is almost a shame that the narrator interrupts to tell us that at God’s command prophet is vomited onto the seashore.
The point is treated just as abruptly. Jonah is furious about the death of a plant and complains to God about its death. Oh hard-hearted Jonah, you sat under that plant waiting for a catastrophe to kill thousands. Should you not care more about people than plant life? The book ends at this impasse, and we never find out whether he answered back, walked off sulking, or had a deep and lasting change of heart. How often do we change our minds in the middle of a confrontation?
We know our own struggles and our family’s worries inside out. We share the worry of imminent redundancy, or life changed after a stroke; the high feelings around a divorce in the family, the impact of stress on a body and a family. Sometimes, as we find our way through troubles we are moved to a new understanding of ourselves and God which can grow our faith. Yet the softening of Jonah’s heart to his own troubles does not softened his heart towards those he has previously despised. He fails to make the connection between knowing “how precious life is to me” and “how precious life is”.
If our task as followers of Jesus is to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, perhaps we can take those moments in which we understand ourselves better and ask God to help us to use them to understand other people better too. To deepen our empathy, to recognise our common life, and desire good for one another.
Sometimes, Lord, I live the moments in which I know that I depend utterly on you, and more often I remember them with gratitude. Through your Holy Spirit, let these moments soften my heart to others, and move me to action. In Jesus’s name. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr ’frin Lewis-Smith is minister to the URCs in Darwen and Tockholes.