by Rabbi David Saperstein
Director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.;
Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The Book of Jonah, dramatic, concise and powerful is one of the smallest books of the Bible consisting of only four short chapters. It is unfortunate that it has sometimes been ridiculed by unimaginative people who insist on taking a parable only literally, who fail to see that it is a medium for a message. In terms of this message, it must be considered one of the grandest books of the Bible.
Let me just remind you of the story, which is undoubtedly familiar to most of you. The prophet Jonah is commanded to go by God to Nineveh, capital of Assyria, the historic enemy of Israel, to warn that because of the sins of its people, the city is doomed to destruction. Jonah is unhappy with the assignment, moved by the chauvinistic fear that he might be too successful, that the Ninevites might repent and thus escape destruction. And so he takes passage on a ship traveling westward, bound for Tarshish on the coast of Spain, at the opposite end of the then known world.
But it is not so easy to evade the divine charge. A supernatural storm arises; the ship is sinking; the heathen mariners cast lots to see who is to blame for the danger that has come upon them. The finger of accusation points at the mysterious stranger, Jonah. He requests that they cast him into the sea and, sadly, they do so. The storm abates and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish. There he turns in prayer to God and is cast out onto the dry land, and again the divine command is heard, "Go to Nineveh."
This time he does as God directs. He goes to Nineveh and utters the dire prediction of impending destruction. To his chagrin, the people of Nineveh respond as he had feared. From the king to the humblest servant, they turn in repentance, and God forgives them and pardons their former inequity.
The great message of this book is what we might call perspective and this is the first of its messages. You remember how the story continues at the end? When God forgives the Ninevites, Jonah begins to feel very sorry for himself, as he thinks that God made a fool and a liar out of him. When a gourd under which he had found shade from the hot sun is withered by a worm, Jonah becomes so angry that he wishes that he were dead. It is obvious that Jonah has lost all sense of perspective about himself and his problems. Small reversals, trivial defeats loom so large in his mind that he can see nothing else, and so God has to teach Jonah the importance of perspective.
How true this is with our own lives. How often the things which anger and frustrate us almost to the point of incapacitating us, turn out to be but foolish and unimportant when we look at them with a little detachment and see them in their proper perspective. In a marriage, the bitterest and most destructive fights, the cruelest and most insensitive words, sometimes result from arguments over issues that later seem embarrassingly trivial. Friendships of many years are sometimes destroyed over petty misunderstandings when each person involved becomes so engrossed with his or her hurt feelings that all sense of judgment and proportion is lost. People who have given years of dedicated service to an organization or church or synagogue or a cause sometimes quit embittered when a relatively minor incident fails to go their way.
It is so easy to feel sorry for ourselves, to convince ourselves that our problems are unprecedented and unsurpassed in their difficulty. We allow these problems to monopolize our thoughts and drain away our emotional energy until something happens which puts it all into perspective: the sudden tragic death of a dear one or a friend, an automobile accident which leaves someone permanently disabled, an incurable disease discovered in an acquaintance. Then suddenly our problem which had seemed so important begins to evaporate. We feel foolish and ashamed.
There is an old story told by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience of a man who found himself sliding down a precipice on a dark night. Finally, he caught hold of a branch which stopped his fall, and for hours he remained clinging to the branch hanging over space in misery. He felt the strength gradually draining out of his arms, and finally he realized that his muscles would no longer respond to his will. With a despairing farewell to life, he let go and dropped. But he fell just 6 inches to safety on the ledge that was just below him all that time. So much of his agony could have been spared if he could have seen his situation in the proper perspective, and stopped struggling against a problem which was largely the creation of his own mind. From Jonah we learn that we must never allow ourselves to be overwhelmed and paralyzed by self-pity when we encounter minor reverses. Our own hurt and wounds are rarely as serious as we allow them to seem.
Secondly, the Book of Jonah teaches us about universal concern. Jonah's failing was not only that he permitted himself to be entrapped in self-pity, it was that he could not identify with the plight of other human beings, and became angry with God for sparing their lives. Once again, God had to teach him of concern for others. The closing verse has that marvelous, ironic ending: "You have had pity on the gourd, for which you have not labored, neither made it grow; which came up in a night and perished in a night; should not I have on Ninevah, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left, also much cattle?"
Like Jonah, we seem to have lost some of the basic human qualities of concern, compassion and love for men and women we do not personally know. I was struck by an article that I once read in which the author described a vivid memory of his mother 35 years earlier. Returning home from work, he found her weeping bitterly in her chair. She explained that she had just heard a radio news report about a tornado in Texas that had struck a school building, killing several children and injuring many others. "The poor children," she kept weeping, "the poor children." This woman was an immigrant from Russia who had no common background with these Texas children. She had never been to the state and yet she felt so deeply in her heart the concern and shared in the anguish and grief of their distant tragedy as if it were her own.
On the one hand when tragedies happen in our country sometimes we feel that sense of empathy, but in America, the wealthiest nation in the world, how often do we really stir to do something about the plight of those who are needy? The one out of 5 children in this wealthy nation who grow up in poverty. The one out of 3 Hispanic children, the nearly one out of two African-American children, the ten million children together amongst fifty million adults who have no medical insurance, the highest rate of any of the developed countries in the world. Do they become mere blurred statistics to us? Are we really impelled to action or do we just turn the pages when we read of these plights on to the pages about sports and fashion shows? Have we become so bombarded by violence and brutality in the press and movies and television that human suffering and death don't really affect us?
Let us not deceive ourselves by saying that as Jews our concern must be focused on Jews, as Christians on Christians, as Americans only about America, for part of the greatness of the Book of Jonah is precisely its message of universalism. For Jonah was sent to prophecy not to Israelites but to the inhabitants of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, the enemies of Israel. Indeed it is fitting for us in America to remember that Ninevah is today in the country we call Iraq, but Jonah learns that God cares about all God's children, that God holds them to moral standards of behavior and rejoices at their repentance so that their lives can be saved. How true this is of us today as it was in the time of Jonah.
And finally, the Book of Jonah proclaims in unmistakable terms that there is no escape from responsibility. You recall that Jonah, hearing God's directive to announce the imminent destruction, fled to the harbor city of Jaffa and there boarded a ship going in the opposite direction. We can understand Jonah's concern and reaction. The mission would be thankless and difficult; the chances were that he would at best be ignored or at worst ridiculed. "Why me?" he must have thought. "What do I need this for?" And so he tried to flee from the presence of God, to escape from the responsibility of serving God in the way that was uniquely his.
No one knows when, like Jonah, he may be singled out to do God's work. So often the convergence of historical and circumstantial forces seem to focus on one individual who feels impelled to take a position that he or she knows will make them unpopular, to stand up and to say no to something that we know is wrong. That is the challenge that we face in our time against the injustice and inequities that afflict our nation and afflict the world against the tens of millions of children growing up in bitter frustration and despair in our own city and the countless millions across the globe. We must stand up and to say "no" to that injustice, to speak out, to make a difference.
It used to be that in music stores you could buy records of great symphonies with one part omitted--the clarinet, or the second violin, or the French horn--so that an instrumentalist could practice playing his or her part together with a great orchestra. Is not life itself like a symphony given to us with one part omitted, our own? Like Jonah, we may flee from responsibility by refusing to play our part, by sitting silent with our instrument while those around us make music together. Like Jonah, we may lose proper perspective about ourselves in relations to the others by playing so loud that we drown out everyone else. Like Jonah, we may fail to show concern for the plight of others by insisting on playing whatever melody comes into our head despite what others are doing. Like Jonah, we may try and flee from our responsibilities, but like Jonah--moody, impetuous, irresponsible and self-centered--we can learn through our own mistakes, learn the true meaning of responsibility, perspective and concern. Then each of us will play to the fullest of our own unique part in the complex but exalting and magnificent symphony of life. Amen.
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by Charles H. Spurgeon
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Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for Nineveh Lent
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