The Question behind the Question

All theology, like all fiction, is at its heart autobiography.~~Fredrick Buechner

When I was a kid my parents told us a joke that was not funny. The point of the joke was to see if a person would join in the laughter if they didn’t really get the joke. Then one by one my parents would lean over and tell one of us confused kids that the joke is not supposed to be funny, but just laugh when you hear the punch line: “Radio.” The fun was watching to see who would start laughing just because everyone else laughed.

One day my six year old grandson Oren told me a joke.

Oren: Knock, knock

Me: Who’s there?

Oren: Iva.

Me: Iva who?

Oren: I’ve a sore hand from knocking!

After hearing his joke I said. That’s not very funny, Oren. He said, “Yeah huh. All jokes are funny.”

I said, “You think so?”

“Yes, Grandpa all jokes are funny. That’s why they are jokes, grandpa.”

“How about I tell you a joke my mom and dad told me when I was a kid you tell me if it is funny?” I asked.

“Okay.”

“Once there was a polar bear, a walrus, and a penguin all floating on an iceberg in the middle of the ocean and one of them yelled, “Radio.” And they all jumped off! Get it? They all jumped off!”

Oren

Long silence.

Finally Oren said, “I guess I was wrong about all jokes being funny.”

There are some jokes that are not funny. I find this story about Jonah like a joke that is not funny. I struggle with the ending.

Jonah was sent by God to warn Nineveh that because of its wickedness God was going to destroy it. And by God’s grace they listen to the eight word sermon and repented and God relented. The greatest response to a sermon in history so that the largest city in the world came to put their entire trust in the living God. You would think that the preacher, Jonah, would be elated, but he is not. He was angry and stomped out of the city and sat down on a hill to pout. Now, I’ve pouted after a sermon but not because it went so well that thousands were saved and hundreds were healed. What is going on with this strange preacher?

This was an unwanted and dangerous assignment. But Jonah reminded God that he didn’t desert his post because he thought the mission would fail or be dangerous. No, the reason Jonah fled to the other side of the world was because he was afraid the mission would succeed.

Better preachers than me have done it and a few lesser ones. You see this kind of argument in Robert Duvall’s movie, The Apostle. In one scene, Sonny, a preacher who has a hot temper and a criminal record, stomps around in an upstairs room kicking furniture and yelling. A neighbor calls to complain about the noise.

“Sounds like you have a madman over there.”

Sonny’s mom smiles and explains that’s just Sonny. “Ever since he’s been a little-bitty boy my son’s been talking to God. Sometimes he talks to the Lord and sometimes he yells at the Lord, and tonight he happens to be yelling at God.”

Jonah is quarreling with God about his mercy towards the sworn enemies of the nation of Israel. Frustrated, he stomped out of the city, sat on a hill, and waited at a safe distance for what he hoped was another opportunity for God to change his mind and nuke Nineveh. And while pouting out there east of the city, God decided to mess with Jonah a little and create a one person Play with Jonah both the central character and the audience of this little play.

Read how Eugene Peterson describes this one person play:

God arranged for a broad-leafed tree to spring up. It grew over Jonah to cool him off and get him out of his angry sulk. Jonah was pleased and enjoyed the shade. Life was looking up.

But then God sent a worm. By dawn of the next day, the worm had bored into the shade tree and it withered away. The sun came up and God sent a hot, blistering wind from the east. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head and he started to faint. He prayed to die: “I’m better off dead!”

jonah

Then God said to Jonah, “What right do you have to get angry about this shade tree?”

Jonah said, “Plenty of right. It’s made me angry enough to die!”

God said, “What’s this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure?

And so God showed Jonah the false narrative that drove his life. And if I don’t pay attention to my thinking it drives my life as well that God loves good people and God punishes the bad people.

In the Jonah story the pagan and awful Ninevites were too bad to get in God’s favor by moral performance. They were people outside of the love-range of God; the drug dealers, the war mongers, the strip club owners, the prostitutes, the Oakland Raider fans. But they weren’t the only ones in this story that are standing in need of God’s grace. Jonah, the Israelite, the member of the chosen people, the prophet, the bible scholar, and the church attender—-this preacher was in need of God’s grace as well.

The true narrative of God is that everyone is hot mess and everyone is loved by God. Everybody is broken and everybody is loved.

So why was Jonah so angry? Jonah was mad because he thought he deserved his mercy and Nineveh didn’t. But the funny thing about mercy is that you can never deserve it. The God of grace, the God who shows us his face in Jesus, never says, “Good people are in and bad people are out.” God says, “Humble people are in and proud people are out.”

There is not one way to run from God, there are two. Some of us run from God by breaking all the rules and some of us run from God by keeping all the rules.

In Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wiseblood she has a character named Hazel Motes who typifies this. Near the beginning of the novel she describes Hazel Mote’s this way, “’There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.”

Jonah didn’t want a devotional relationship with God, he wanted to use God for his own purposes. He wanted the assurance that if he obeyed the rules and did the right things then God would to do what he thought God should do. In other words, Jonah wanted God to be a Jennie in Aladdin’s bottle; which, in effect, made Jonah God. He was blind to how much mercy he has been given and that is why it was really hard for him to show mercy. And what I am learning is that when I am running low on mercy for people it is because I have forgotten how much mercy I have received from God.

So, God asks, “Should I not be concerned about your community?” The more I think that question I wonder if God is asking me just how concerned I am about my Ninevites.

As it turns out, there is a Presbyterian, a Catholic, and a Baptist are sitting, not on an iceberg, but in Church on a quiet Sunday morning and God says “Mercy!”

And they all______________________.

The joke is on us.

About Joe Chambers

I am the beloved of the Most High God. I am an avid reader and writer and have been a continuous learner since my college studies in Ancient Literature and English. I live at the base of Mount Princeton in the Colorado Rockies with my wife of over three decades. I believe I have been put here to tell people that God is not mad at them and to show them the way Home. I am the father of three sons, a daughter-in-law and four grandchildren. I love to read, tell stories, and spend time in the wilderness with my friends and sons.
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