Relating to Jonah

Earlier this summer, Tyler and I realized we wouldn’t be able to take a vacation this year, so we planned a weekend getaway to Atlanta instead for this past weekend.

On Saturday, after checking into our hotel, we went to a Braves game. It was really fun. We had great seats, and Tyler caught a practice ball thrown into the stands by a Marlins player. However, it was also hot as Hades. I sweated through every single thing I was wearing. I’m sure all of us in the outfield smelled heavenly. I was immensely thankful for my hat and sunglasses and sunscreen, but they could only do so much in the face of hours in that relentless, direct sunlight.

A baby at his first baseball game in the row behind us cried or fussed much of the game, and no one got upset with him. He was the voice of the people. Sing it, kid, I thought more than once, as well as, Take him home, people! He’s miserable and he doesn’t understand why. At least the rest of us chose to be there.

Twice during the 3-hour game we were blessed by the cover of a cloud that cast us all in shade. Spontaneous applause broke out in the stands around us in these moments, along with calls of “thank you” to the sky and more than one relieved, “Yes” and “Thank God.” By the time the second, larger cloud arrived, Tyler and I had already drank three bottles of water and ate two frozen lemonades between us. We enjoyed the game, but in the shade of that cloud we could focus on the game so much better, enjoy ourselves so much more, and be more generous with the people around us. 

It reminded me of the story of Jonah—not the large fish story, the plant one. After the fish situation, after Jonah went to Nineveh and preached God’s message as God has instructed, Jonah, who hated the people of Nineveh, withdrew from the city to see if God would save them from destruction or not. The people had repented in response to Jonah’s very short sermon on the matter, and Jonah was thoroughly unhappy about it. He hated the Ninevites. 

As Jonah sat in the sand waiting to see what would happen, it got hot. Miserably hot. And Jonah was miserable. A plant’s leaf opened up, giving Jonah shade and relief. He was so grateful for that leaf. And when it died overnight, Jonah was so angry and miserable again that he wanted to die all over again (4:8). God asked him if he was right to be angry about the leaf. After all, he hadn’t done anything to grow the leaf. And it’s a leaf, which Jonah knows doesn’t last. Jonah replied that he is right to be angry, thank-you-very-much. He’s even angry enough to want die (4:9).

I related to Jonah in that cloud’s shade in a way I never had before. I got his anger, his petulance. It was almost comical how much relief that one cloud brought, how used to it I became as I watched the action on the field, waiting for a homer that may or may not ever come our way. I felt affection for that cloud. I knew it’d go away eventually, but I hoped (unreasonably) that it would outlast my need to stay in my seat. It brought spontaneous expressions of gratitude from the miserable people around me, many of them half-drunk, plus that baby in his wide-brimmed hat whose his parents were trying to create a good memory. This might have been the first normal-feeling thing they’d done in months, and they worked hard with ice packs and hand-held fans and frozen treats and a cartoon to keep their baby content. 

A friend who recently visited Israel told me she better understood the Israelites’ desire to return to slavery in Egypt rather than stay in the desert. After she’d walked in a desert in that region for 45 minutes, she was ready to accept just about any terms to get out of that oppressive heat and sun. Imagining days and weeks of that, she assured me she’d be ready to return to Egypt, too. 

When the larger cloud passed on and revealed us to the sun for the final time, we still had a couple of innings to go. The sun seemed more oppressive than it had before the cloud shielded us for that hour or so. I was tired, feeling gross, and increasingly unable to concentrate on the game. All I had to do was sit there and make sure I didn’t get hit with by a ball. I just had to wait for it to be over and to try not to complain and so dampen the good experience for Tyler. He too was miserably hot, of course, but he loves baseball and this was a treat for both of us, but primarily for him. Still, I wondered if I’d make it. And in the back of my mind I knew that the bathroom was air conditioned.

Okay, God, I thought, eying the standings and trying estimate how much longer the game would last, I was judgey about Jonah before. But I get it now. I’m sorry. Jonah had a lot of problems, including being racist, but the combination of his stressful travel (the ship in the storm, then fish travel, then walking), being among people he considered his enemies, and sitting in the desert heat and sun probably tore down his walls really effectively. I knew the Georgia heat was tearing down mine.

God used the shading leaf, and specifically its absence, to show Jonah how out of proportion his angry and hatred toward the people of Nineveh was. Jonah grieved the loss of a leaf but not the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of people. He felt affinity for a leaf, as I had for the cloud, and it’s okay to be spontaneously grateful for part of God’s creation. But that affection should never overshadow (ahem) feelings of sympathy and caring for actual people. Every person, even those you consider to be enemies, are made in the image of God. And since Jonah couldn’t muster that baseline level of human compassion, God reminded Jonah that there were “also many animals” in Nineveh (4:11). Life should be valued, and how much more valuable should animals be to plants, and people to animals? God seemed to be saying, “If you can’t care about the people, can you at least care about their livestock? Think of the cows, Jonah!”

That night, after the game ended and we each took a long shower in the hotel room, we were back out to the Battery to find a restaurant for dinner. When I finally got my catfish fajitas after a long but worthwhile wait at El Felix, I felt miserable all over again. This fish had died so I could eat it, but I had stuffed myself too full of chips and queso. And because we were staying the night in a hotel, we didn’t have the means or opportunity to save the 2/3 of the delicious filet I couldn’t eat. Many hands had worked to get this incredible fish to me, but my urgency to satiate my hunger with chips and queso had resulted in waste. Waste for the life of that fish, and the work of so many people. Yes we paid money for our dinner, but those efforts and the life of this fish couldn’t be bought back. 

I thought again about God’s entreaty for Jonah to care for the animals and the 120,000 people in Nineveh who God wished to save. I’m sure I’m stretching things a bit, but it all worked together in my head that night and I have yet to shake it: Jonah with the people, the leaf, the cows; me with the people at the game, the cloud, the fish.