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Am I My Enemies’ Keeper?

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(Photo: Matt Alaniz/Unsplash)

Reflections on Jonah 1:1-17

Who is your enemy? Who do you just not like? What person or group do you despise? I know we’re Christians, but when you’re not at church or thinking holy thoughts or being intentional about being loving, who can you not stand? Please, be honest with yourself. No one else knows what you’re thinking.

Is it Donald Trump and other Republicans? They have done enough lately to make much of America angry, haven’t they? In the past year, they’ve repealed portions of the Affordable Care Act, passed tax reform that benefits the wealthy and punishes the average working class, and they are determined to make some type of wall along the U.S./Mexico border a reality. Or, maybe it’s the Democrats who you can’t stand. They don’t seem to understand the value of hard work or a person earning their keep. They would rather put someone on a government program and give them a handout instead of teaching them the value of earning an honest day’s wage.

Or, maybe it’s the media. As President Trump says, they are the purveyors of fake news. They exist to keep our nation divided about any and everything, and they cause more harm than good. Or, maybe it’s a co-worker who jumps at every opportunity to take credit for work they didn’t complete, or they regularly try to set you up for failure, or they celebrate anytime something goes wrong for you or when a project that you are leading doesn’t turn out right. Maybe it’s a neighbor who won’t keep their dog from squatting in your yard.

I imagine that if we all could be honest, multiple names and faces probably popped into our minds as we started to think about the question of who is our enemy. Don’t feel bad. You can take solace in knowing that you are not the first people to struggle with this question. This is something that Jonah had to deal with. At its core, the Book of Jonah is about how he responded when he found out that God cared about people that Jonah couldn’t stand. The book is about the challenge Jonah faced when God asked him to change his thinking towards people whom he had hated for many years. Although Jonah’s hate for this group of people was well-founded, God challenged him to see the group of people as God saw them.

Jonah came from a town called Gath-Hepher and not much is known about him. What we do know is that one day, Jonah’s minding his business and God gives him a task to complete—to go to Nineveh and tell the people of that city to repent of their sins: “God has seen what you have been doing and God is not pleased. Change your ways or experience God’s wrath,” to paraphrase the text. This is a simple and straightforward command from God and…Jonah refused to do it. Why? Because he hated Nineveh and everything it stood for.

(Photo: Frantzou Fleurine)

Nineveh was located to the west of where Jonah lived, was about three miles wide, and was the largest city in the area at the time. It was a tremendously pagan city and its inhabitants were known for participating in witchcraft and sorcery. More importantly, it was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were one of the primary enemies of Israel at the time, and the Assyrians were growing in power and reputation on a daily basis. They regularly threatened Israel, Jonah’s kin, with violence as they expanded their dominance over the area. All of God’s children knew that Assyria was working toward conquering them and taking their land. And God does the unimaginable. He tells Jonah to go to the enemies of his people and to preach repentance to them, so God would no longer be angry with them.

Jonah had multiple reasons to think that this was a bad idea. So, he refused God’s urging and hopped on a boat going in the opposite direction of where God was sending him. While he was on the boat, a terrible storm occurred, and the ship’s crew panicked and began to call out to every god in the book in the hopes that one of them would cause the storm to stop. Eventually, Jonah confessed that he was the source of their troubles and urged them to toss him overboard, so God would stop the storm. The storm stopped after they tossed him overboard. As Jonah descended to the bottom of the ocean, a great fish swallowed him, and he was stuck inside the fish for several days.

For a few moments, I want to look at the mistakes Jonah made and what we can learn from them. First, we see very clearly that Jonah allowed his personal prejudices against a group of people to stop him from being obedient to the call that God had on his life at that moment. Jonah allowed his personal prejudices to cause him to disobey God. Personally, I can understand why he felt this way and why he didn’t want to go to them. But, Jonah didn’t think about the fact that God created the people of Nineveh and God loved them, as God loved Israel. Jonah allowed his anger to cloud his judgment and he did the opposite of what God wanted. This ultimately led to him finding himself in a life-threatening predicament. When we don’t do the things that God calls us to do, such as love others, we put ourselves outside of the will of God.

[bs-quote quote=”God may call any of us to be the mouthpiece to share God’s love with the world, which can include those that we don’t like. Even when we think that God is sending us to unlovable or unsaveable people, our privilege is not to pass judgment, but instead to pass on the message that we have received from God.” style=”style-11″ align=”center”][/bs-quote]

Second, Jonah’s personal prejudice caused him to prioritize his feelings above the forgiveness and salvation of an entire city and to take the fate of an entire people into his own hands. He decided that he, not God, was the best person to determine what would happen to the people of Nineveh. If he had anything to say about it, they would not be saved. His personal judgment against them was death. In his mind, they deserved it and they would definitely receive it. Neither Jonah nor we can see ourselves that way. We are not God and we don’t have the right to determine the appropriate fate for someone else when God has expressed a desire for repentance and restoration.

Third, Jonah’s personal prejudices against Nineveh caused him to jeopardize the lives of innocent people, specifically the people on the boat traveling to Tarsus. Those people were living their lives as normal. They likely hadn’t done anything wrong that day outside of giving Jonah a ride. Some would argue that they weren’t necessarily innocent because they likely were not members of the tribe of Israel or Judah and didn’t know who Jonah’s God was. But that didn’t make them evil people. They were likely just like you and me. Trying to make an honest day’s wage in order to take care of their families. And their lives were threatened because Jonah was mad at someone else.

Finally, Jonah’s personal prejudices against Nineveh caused him to endanger his own life. When he decided to ignore God’s directive for him, he took his fate into his own hands. The problem with that is obvious. Jonah was no competition for God. God would be obeyed, whether Jonah wanted to or not. And, unfortunately, Jonah would experience pain and turmoil for doing what he wanted instead of what God wanted. Whenever we do that, we will inevitably put ourselves in precarious predicaments.

The foundation of the Book of Jonah is the fact that God loves all of God’s created beings and wants to be in relationship with them, even when we don’t get along with them or like them very much. God pursues God’s created beings out of love. And every now and then, God calls us to participate in the process of restored relationships between the Holy and humanity, even when we consider those people our enemies.

The story of Jonah has a few universal points of application for all of us. God loves, and God’s love is not just for us. God loves those whom we may not like. God may call any of us to be the mouthpiece to share God’s love with the world, which can include those that we don’t like. Even when we think that God is sending us to unlovable or unsaveable people, our privilege is not to pass judgment, but instead to pass on the message that we have received from God. When we refuse to do this, we set ourselves up for major failure. Instead of making ourselves the judge and jury over someone else’s life, may we be found faithful in sharing what God has given us with others, so God’s kingdom can be built.


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    Written by Terrell Carter

    Terrell Carter is assistant professor and director of contextualized learning at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, and pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church. He is the author of multiple books, including the forthcoming volume Healing Racial Divides: Finding Strength in Diversity (Chalice Press). You can follow him on Twitter @tcarterstl.