By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Based on Jonah, chapter 4
If unaddressed, pettiness eats away at us and only grows our anger. It breaks down our relationships with others. But, when we talk to God about our pettiness, God speaks into our lives in ways that help us put things into perspective. God questions Jonah. We do not hear Jonah’s response; perhaps because we are Jonah. How will we respond? Will we come to a place where we rejoice in a God of steadfast love for all or will we continue to respond with petty envy, judgment and resentment toward those who offend or threaten us?
This scripture comes from near the end of the short Old Testament book of Jonah. I imagine we all have some familiarity with Jonah and the whale; but I want to give a brief summary of what precedes this morning’s scripture…
Jonah is an Israelite who is called to be a prophet, one who speaks on God’s behalf. But he is not called to speak to the Israelites; but rather to residents of the Assyrian capital city, Nineveh: to proclaim through the streets of their city the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins. For reasons I’ll expound on in a bit, Jonah doesn’t want this assignment and so Jonah naively attempts to escape God’s call by boarding a ship bound for Tarshish, the opposite geographical direction. God, however, is undeterred by Jonah’s resistance. He sends a storm so severe it compels Jonah to confess his fault to the captain and crew. When they reluctantly throw Jonah overboard, he is swallowed up by a whale. He lives for three days inside the belly of the whale where he prays to God and repents. The whale vomits Jonah out on shore and God re-issues the call for Jonah to go to Nineveh. This time he does. As per his assignment, Jonah issues a call for the sinful people of Nineveh to repent to avoid God’s punishment and destruction. They do repent and God forgives them. But these people are enemies of Israel and so Jonah is furious at the part he’s been forced to play in their deliverance. I pick up at the start of chapter 4:
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became hot with anger. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Does it please you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. (Jonah 4:1-5[i])
Bible scholars debate whether the story of the prophet Jonah should be understood as an actual, historical event or as a parable, i.e. a story told to illustrate a moral or spiritual truth. Now I contend that debate distracts us from the real power behind this fish tale for this story challenges us to accept – hook, line, and sinker – a proposal far more offensive than the suspension of the laws of nature. It challenges us to accept that God – our God – can and does extend remarkable, indiscriminate grace and mercy toward those who have offended and wounded us the most.
Today marks the final Sunday in this sermon series on prayer. Father William Barry, author of the book Praying the Truth contends that honest prayer deepens our friendship with God. In the gospel of John, on the final night of his life, Jesus refers to his disciples as “friends,” a term held within the semantic framework of loyalty, intimacy and trust. On the first week of this series I admitted to all of you that I find prayer to be the most mysterious and challenging of all spiritual practices. But Barry contends that, comparing prayer to conversation with friends can help us gain a better understanding of prayer as the building block of our relationship with God.
Sometimes people attempt to turn prayer into coercion or manipulation; as if there were some magical words we could say to get God to give us what we want. But, we know that – in any mature friendship – such an approach is destructive. Friends can tell if our words are designed to control or manipulate them and such coercive speech destroys friendships. Likewise, friends grow weary over time if our talk with them is superficial or disingenuous. Conversely, when our conversations are open and honest, true friends do not object to hearing something they already know or even enduring our raw emotions. True friends share our concerns with us and rejoice in our victories with us. In a healthy friendship, the relationship grows when we speak honestly and listen carefully.
So too in our friendship with God; we need to speak honestly and listen carefully. We need to strive to speak truth to God… without concern that we are telling God something he already knows; without anxiety that we need to pray in a certain way with a certain attitude. Rather, we need to be authentic in expressing our true feelings to God… even the ugliest ones.
This morning we consider talking to God about our pettiness. Now, pettiness is not a big word in the bible and so we need to unpack a bit of what it might have been comparable to in biblical times. In other words, we need to establish some connecting point from bible culture to ours.
In his book, Barry discusses pettiness in relation to envy. Now while that might be true for us today, we generally associate pettiness with something trivial and – in the ancient world – there was nothing trivial about envy. Envy was the most egregious sin; it was a desiring for oneself that which rightfully belonged to someone else; to take from them the things that were rightfully theirs; the things they needed to live.
Today, we don’t think in the same way about envy. However, our modern concept of pettiness and the ancient understanding of envy do share a common connection: both relate to our judgments regarding fairness or justice and a potential nagging anxiety that we could be left holding the short-end of the cosmic stick, so to speak. Of all the honest feelings and emotions this sermon series has explored – things like sadness, fear, success, etc. – likely none has such dramatic implications for our relationships with others as does this morning’s topic: telling God about our pettiness.
As I already inferred, it is essential for us to know the history behind Jonah’s disdain for the Ninevites. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria. Assyria was the nation that destroyed the ten northern tribes of Israel. In fact, they destroyed them so well, those tribes were lost for all time; wiped right off the face of the map. Just imagine that. We see those interviews sometimes with people whose homes have been destroyed by fires or tornadoes and what do they mourn: the things that are now forever lost to them. They don’t whine about the new leather sofa they’d just bought or their recently remodeled kitchen. They talk about photo albums and keepsakes that have been in their family for generations.
Those ten northern tribes of Israel are wiped out and lost forever and it’s all thanks to the Assyrians. And now, how is God – the God of the Israelites – going to respond? Well, he’s going to give those brutal Ninevites a chance to repent. What? How crazy is that? Jonah wants no part of it. Interestingly enough, Jonah does not reject this assignment because he doesn’t have a good understanding of who God is or what he’s being asked to do. Jonah is running away from this assignment precisely because he does know God; he knows God well enough to know how God is going to act if these Ninevites repent and Jonah cannot bear to consider that option. Now think about it; this prophet we criticize: he knows God well enough to know how God will behave. And he has a very good reason for ditching this assignment… way better than most of us do when we sense God might be calling us to do something we don’t want to do. And, when Jonah realizes innocent bystanders have gotten caught in his avoidance behavior, he comes clean so their lives will be spared.
Thrown overboard, Jonah is lapped up by a fish and spit out on the shore. And Jonah repents, relents and accepts his assignment. He walks the streets of Nineveh calling out God’s threat of destruction for sin and – sure enough – the response is exactly what Jonah doesn’t want. The people repent and God forgives them.
And Jonah is hot with anger.
But this time, unlike at the beginning of the story, Jonah doesn’t run and Jonah isn’t mum. He tells God exactly what he thinks of God’s notorious mercy and grace and if this is how it’s going to be, then Jonah would just as soon die than live… Live with what he perceives to be a gross miscarriage of justice.
Now, one might wonder why Jonah continued to torture himself by sitting there on the edge of town under a hot sun watching this frustrating saga play out. Why not just go home and try to get on with life? But Jonah seems to be finding some warped pleasure in nursing his anger. Our English bible says that Jonah prayed to God but the Hebrew word used here is often translated “judge” or “intervene.” Jonah’s “prayer” is a scathing judgment of how God has handled this situation. Jonah would sooner be dead than have been a party to this nonsense. Jonah is hot with rage.
But at least Jonah is honest and his honesty opens a dialogue with God. God asks Jonah about his rage: “Does it please you to be angry?” In other words, “Is this what you want for yourself, Jonah; to be eaten up inside with anger and rage, resentment and envy?”
And that is what happens when we fall victim to pettiness. We mumble about the new guy at work and how everyone is making a fuss over him. No one’s making a fuss over the good work we do. We grit our teeth when the neighbor who declared bankruptcy last year comes home with a new boat. When our own child is struggling in school, we gripe at our spouse about how our “show-off brother” incessantly brags about his kid on Facebook.
There has been a cosmic injustice. Things aren’t as they ought to be. But, have you talked to God about it? Or, are you afraid to let your passions loose in front of your friend? Jonah sure wasn’t. And God does not chastise him. But God does challenge his mindset: “Does it please you to be angry?”
Then God intervenes, once again, in the life of Jonah by providing a lush bush that grows up quickly and provides cool, refreshing shade. But the next morning, God sends a worm to devour that same bush and Jonah’s body and spirit are ignited once again. Again, he is hot with his rage. And now God’s question is a little different.
Hear this portion of the story:
But God said to Jonah, “Does it please you to be angry about the bush?” And Jonah said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” - Jonah 4:9-11
“Does it please you to be angry about the bush?” It sounds a little silly, doesn’t it? So God drills a little deeper. Jonah is grieved about the destruction of a bush. Wouldn’t he expect God to be grieved at the thought of destroying a bustling metropolis filled with people and animals?
You know, the greatest beauty in the story of Jonah is that we never hear Jonah’s answer… because, I would contend, we are Jonah and the question is ours to answer. Will we succumb to pettiness – spiteful, self-absorbed, self-pitying, envious when God’s grace spills over onto the “undeserving?” Or can we allow God to provide us with a different perspective? A perspective that plants the seeds of his grace, mercy and love within us. Do we want to nurse our angers and irritations? Or will we enter into dialogue with God and allow him to challenge the source and the goal of our anger?
I’ve been reading a book entitled, Transforming Our Painful Emotions.[ii] In it, the book’s authors point out that “negative” emotions offer us the gift of self-examination which can lead to transformation and growth. Anger is one of the Church’s historic “seven deadly sins.” Yet it is not the witness of scripture, but rather the influence of the ancient Stoics, that spawned a Christianity that avoids dealing with our negative emotions. Jonah wasn’t afraid to be angry and emotional; neither was Jesus. So why are we sometimes reluctant to be honest with God about our feelings of pettiness, anger, envy and resentment?
Jonah was angry; but anger can sow the seeds of transformation in our lives and those around us. If we can learn to recognize attitudes of pettiness and anger and acknowledge their presence, we can begin to learn from them. Attention to our feelings leads to discernment. Our feelings carry information we need to retrieve. When we are able to acknowledge and honestly process our feelings with a friend we can trust – say God, for example – we can experience personal transformation and change.[iii] Honest communication with God can crack our hearts open to receive the seeds of forgiveness and grace that transform our attitudes toward ourselves and others and bring positive change to our world.
Does it please you when you feel angry, petty or envious toward others? Is it a feeling you want to nurse? Or can you talk to God about it and listen and watch and dialogue honestly with the God who is your friend?
[i] Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version with some word substitutions made by myself to more closely reflect the original Hebrew.
[ii] Transforming Our Painful Emotions: Spiritual Resources in Anger, Shame, Grief, Fear, and Loneliness by Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and James D. Whitehead; Orbis Books; 2010; see, in particular, pp. 6-7.
[iii] Ibid; see part 2, chapters 3-5, on “Anger: An Emergency Emotion.”
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