OK, OK. I'll admit it. It's my favorite in part because it is so very short. Really--even if you read it in King James English, it can't take you more than fifteen minutes. No fooling; go ahead. If you've never read it, or if you haven't read it recently, go read it now.
I'll wait. No problem. (It's the page and a half after Obadiah and before Micah, at least in my NIV.)
Right! See what I mean? If I gave you a quiz on it right now, after only fifteen minutes of work, most of you would pass it. (I say most of you because, hey, I'm an English teacher, and I'm well aware that many of you didn't do the assigned reading. Yes, that means you!)
So, knowing that some of you have an instinctive aversion to doing reading assignments, here's the recap. (Those of you who did do the reading may now take out your notebooks and doodle, if you wish.)
As I say, I like this story, and not just because it's short. I like it because it reminds me of teenagers, who I work with, and because it reminds me of me. More on that in a minute.
The gist of the story is this: Jonah is one of God's prophets. And he gets a, to his mind, horrible assignment, to go warn the people of Nineveh to repent. Nineveh! Ptui! Big, evil city in the heart of a big, evil empire that's been trying to oppress the hell out of Israel time out of mind. Let those suckers fry! Who needs em!
So Jonah, out to prove that a leading from God is not always a sign of being a big or noble guy, decides to run away from God, and he takes ship. Who knows where he thinks he's going to go that God won't find him. Reason is maybe not his strong suit.
Well, and of course a huge storm comes up. He's sleeping--trying to tune out the whole world, maybe, as a technique for running away from God--and the sailors have to wake him up. The ship is sinking, and everyone who isn't bailing water is praying to whatever gods they can to keep them alive. But when Jonah tells them his god isn't just any god, but the god who made the seas they're sailing, they get a bad feeling about this. Jonah has a bad feeling about it, too. Sure enough, with a little fortune telling and a little soul-searching from Jonah, the truth comes out: his God is mad at him, and he's the problem.
He winds up jettisoned, and the storm subsides.
Then there's that thing with the whale. (Yeah, I know. The fish, the really big fish. Whatever. Here's the Spielberg and special effects bit, is the point.)
After three smelly days and some prayers, the fish belches Jonah up onto the sands, back on his way to Nineveh. Jonah takes the hint, and goes to Nineveh to warn them to repent or be destroyed.
And then those evildoers do the most unforgivable thing of all. They repent. Looks like God won't be destroying them after all.
Is Jonah happy? No, indeed. The whole mission wasn't his idea. Those damn Ninevites have just proved his point: God's love is cheap! God is hardly treating him, his very own prophet, any better than he does a whole city of worthless pagans.
So Jonah camps out on the outskirts of Nineveh and has a big old sulk. He's miserable. Here he's been a standup guy his whole life, and he's a Jew and everything, and this whole city of evil heathen idolaters get told to shape up, and they do, and they get off scot-free.
Meanwhile, there he is, one of the Chosen People, and he just spent three days stuck in a stinking whale (fish, whatever) for these guys, and they just repent a little and fast for a few days and that's it?
They didn't even get circumcised, for crying out loud! How exactly is that fair?
So he announces to God that he wishes he were dead: "Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live." (The drama, the drama!) And he lies down in the glaring hot sun and tries to guilt God into destroying the city after all.
God, however, is a wiser parent than most of us. He doesn't waste a lot of time with trying to talk Jonah out of his sulk. Instead, as Jonah lies there moping in the hot sun, he sends a little vine to grow over him and shade him from the worst of the sun. And Jonah, he likes that little vine, the way a teenager who has declared that life isn't worth living likes the tunes on his iPod or his black-painted ceiling. He's really fond of that little vine, even while his mind is totally taken up with feeling sorry for himself.
And the next day, God takes away the vine--sends a worm to eat it. (I imagine God would have little difficulty taking away computer or cell phone privileges as a parent, either.)
Jonah is furious! How mean and outrageous of God to take away his only comfort, his beautiful, precious, wonderful vine, with the custom apps and the tunes he'd downloaded from a friend who'd moved away and--well, OK. That part isn't in there. But you get the idea.
But the Lord said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?
As I say, this story reminds me of teenagers. And it reminds me of me.
As a parent of a former teenager, and as a teacher of teenagers, I am reminded of them both in Jonah's sulkiness and in the light treatment of Nineveh; teenagers not only can be annoying at home, they can be provocative in large numbers... and yet grow out of their worst traits, leaving us with little choice but to put their misdeeds behind them. Which is only mostly OK, because, honestly, there's a little bit of Jonah in you and me, too, and when we've been in the belly of the whale (yeah, yeah, fish) we want a little vindication, you know what I mean?
And vindication isn't what we're here for.
Let me explain.
This winter, I have been stuck inside a big, stinking fish. The winter that began with the sudden death of a friend became an exercise, on a more immediate level, in dealing with chronic annoying, wearying, cranky-making pain.
I have a bulging disc in my lumbar spine, and it is causing me no end of aches, pains, and annoyance. Anyone who has ever had disc pain can tell you how nasty it is--and anyone who has ever had permanent pain with a permanent disability can tell you how much more serious that is than a back condition which, however irksome, is in my case at least, gradually improving.
Nonetheless, we all have our special skills and talents, and I have discovered a nearly endless capacity for feeling sorry for myself. I accept donations, too--please feel utterly free to feel sorry for me along with me. I promise not to take offense.
Teenagers, however, have no truck with pity, or at least, not for old people stuff like bad backs. They do try, some of them... but, for most, the reality that our bodies wear out and can feel really crappy is just too distant an abstraction for them to remember it for very long. So, being a teacher with a bad back, hobbling through the hallways on a cane where I used to stride purposefully, cuts me exactly no slack at all when my students are having a bad day, don't feel like doing their homework, or are feeling crabby and self-pitying themselves.
Some of them, in fact, behave just like thankless Ninevites. And I, in response? I react just like sulky Jonah.
Take Robert. Robert is my Nineveh.
Now, all the kids, not just Robert, like to hang out in front of their lockers during our break. And they all, possessed of the boneless flexibility of youth, like to sit slouched against the wall, with their feet and legs thrust straight out in front of them--that is, when they are not clustered in knots of a dozen or more students, each wearing those king-sized backpacks that stick out about a foot behind every one of their hulking seventeen-year-old bodies.
All of this creates a kind of obstacle course that I must hobble through every day between my morning classes. It was sometimes annoying when I was able-bodied; on days now when I have a lot of irritation in my back, it is actually painful. True, each micro-correction of my course, navigating the halls, is a small pain. But dozens of such corrections are wearing.
Most of the kids, of course, pull aside when they see me coming--tuck their feet back, step out of the way slightly (very slightly--they forget about the mammoth backpacks also blocking the path), and go back to their real jobs, of socializing with one another.
Robert, as you may have guessed, is different.
The other day, walking down the hall, there was the usual obstacle course--five or six sets of legs, taking up most of the available floor space. As I neared the cluster of kids, person after person drew back their feet to make room for the old lady to pass.
So I stopped, doing that teacher glare thing, to communicate, "Don't you have something you're supposed to do for me about now, Young Man?"
He sneered up, with a lip curl that would have done Elvis proud.
"Robert?" I inquired, in Teacher Voice.
"Yeah? Whut?" he responded, in full Indifferent Teenager mode. (Oh, how I hate Indifferent Teenager mode.)
Beaming Stern Teacher Glare (tm) at him for all I was worth, I waited a heartbeat before speaking very deliberately. "Robert," I said, "Move your feet."
Turning those maddeningly dull eyes on me (as only a teenager can) he drawled, "You can get past me."
And it was true. I could--with another of those painful micro-corrections of course. However, some principles I believe are truly universal, or ought to be. "Get out of the way of old ladies with canes if they ask you" is one of those principles, and so I simply repeated--with the unspoken power of the Detention, the In-School Suspension, the Phone Call Home to Your Parents behind me--"Robert: move your feet."
He did, of course.
After the longest delay he could plausibly take without disciplinary consequences. (The Roberts of the world practice that timing, I believe. They are masters of timing, and we can only hope that one day, they learn to use that power for good.)
I passed down the hall. And fumed about it all day. And still possess, if I am honest with you about it, a little hard, cold, angry seed of mean toward Robert over that face down in the hallway.
Teacher friends suggested I write him up--bring down on him the wrath of the Detention, etc. Somehow, that just didn't feel right to me. Partly, it was that my point was made in the hallway: yes, on behalf of old ladies with canes everywhere, I am going to insist on civility toward me. I don't imagine a detention would make much difference in Robert's heart.
But, in truth, that is not what I want for Robert. Oh, no... I want more, much more than a straightforward lesson in manners and consideration.
Here's what I figured out I want for Robert. (Brace yourself. This gets ugly.)
I want him in a wheel chair. I want him in pain, and stuck in a wheel chair. For years. (It's not enough for me that he need a cane; you can see how far from justice my instincts are by my need to escalate this.) I want him to be aging, surrounded by sullen teenagers, and feel pain in his body and bitterness in his heart when they do not move out of his way willingly.
I want him to suffer. Oh, yeah.
Fortunately, God is probably kind enough not to give me what I want, in those moments of petty vindictiveness. Odds are, whatever the evil chemical cocktail is that causes so many teenagers to become malicious horrors around adults--especially adults in positions of authority--does seem to pass away. With or without repentance, Robert is unlikely to remain the little shit he acted with me in the hallway. He already is less provocative and arrogant with his peers, and, well, if the madness of his rudeness does not fall away from him with time, that's something he's going to have to work out with God all on his own.
I'm just his teacher. I get to show him right and wrong. But I don't get to make him change his heart. I don't even get to know his heart to know what went wrong for him, that he acted the way he did.
Jonah? Was not God. Just a prophet. Prophets get to teach. But they don't get to decide what happens next, and they don't get to decide who matters, or what people deserve.
Because don't we all have a little bit of Jonah in us? Wanting, not so much to bring the good news of how to live rightly and be in peace with God, as to get to watch while someone is "taught a lesson" in the most vindictive sense of that phrase. We all think we're special, that we deserve God's love and mercy more than the next guy does. Certainly more than Robert does, right?
We forget all about the gifts and grace that have brought us to the point where we can do whatever good we do in the world. We overestimate our virtues, and turn a blind eye to our faults.
Jonah didn't make the vine that shaded him. I didn't create the husband who cares for me, the teachers, yes, and many students, too, who go out of their way to care for me and make my recuperation easier, nor the strong, essentially healthy body that, it is my comfort to remember, is healing, after all... nor the parents who loved me and taught me what my heart knows by example as well as in words.
I didn't make any of these things, and yet, like Jonah, I am so capable of taking them for granted, as my due, my right, and then striking out at the Roberts around me, as though that were my business. Whatever of goodness I may have in me, I am no more than a co-creator of any of it. And haven't I been Robert, in my time? Aren't there moments that make me blush to remember them in my own life, too?
There are a lot of students in my school, a lot of teenagers in the world, and a lot of crazy humans on the planet, every one of us capable, at times, of being unable to "tell our right hand from our left" when it comes to matters of right and wrong.
In my saner moments, I see that mercy for Nineveh--for both Robert and for me--is devoutly to be wished.
In my less sane moments? It's a good thing that, as in the days of Jonah, God is capable of not taking my sulking too seriously.
Cat Chapin-Bishop is a member of Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting in Leverett, MA, where, despite being a Bad Quaker, she strives to become a better one. She lives with her husband Peter and two very untidy dogs in an old farmhouse at the edge of a wood; she has been a Quaker since 2001, and a Pagan since 1986... or all her life, depending on how you keep score.