Originally published in Issue #27 on October 1, 2021
If you’ve been following the Themes of Jonah series, this isn’t new, but I thought this theme needed its own space. It deserves to be emphasized.
What is Jonah’s fundamental motivation in the book of Jonah? Why does he flee to Tarshish, why is he willing to drown, why does he get angry with God when the Ninevites repent? I think the answer is perhaps a little messy: hatred of Nineveh and its people born of his love for his people. But a love that leads to hatred is not the love that pleases God.
Merciful to the Wrong People
We learn that Jonah is mad at God because God was merciful to a repentant Nineveh (4:3), and later because God destroyed the plant shading Jonah (4:8). In other words, God was merciful to the wrong things.
In effect, Jonah is saying, “God, you are supposed to love me, not them. Be merciful to me, not them. Don’t you know they’re Israel’s enemies, and I’m your prophet?”
For Jonah, Nineveh’s continued existence posed a threat to the safety of Israel. Why would God allow a people that hasn’t served Him to continue to live (Jonah 2:8-9)?
Jonah’s Other Prophecy
We only have one other reference to Jonah outside of his own book: a fulfilled prophesy that Israel’s borders would expand. It tells us that Jonah is a true prophet, but I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Jonah’s only other prophecy is good for Israel. Not many of God’s prophets gave positive prophecies to Israel. More often, true prophets are protesting Israel’s injustices and false prophets are telling Israel’s kings that everything is okay (1 Kings 22:5-18, for example).
When we combine what we learn about Jonah from his book (his hatred for the people of Nineveh) and Jonah’s one other prophecy (a positive prophecy for his own country), and I think we can draw a probable conclusion. Jonah’s love for his people leads him to hate those who are not his people.
Love Your People, But Love Your Neighbor More
Who is my neighbor? This question comes to Jesus from an “expert in the Law” in Luke 10. Jesus responds, as he often did, with a parable.
The parable of the Samaritan goes like this:
Jesus took up the question and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him. When I come back I’ll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.’
“Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
— Luke 10:30-36 (CSB)
The priests we understand. As God’s representatives, the priests are called to help Israelites approach God in His temple. They should love their Israelite brother and help a man in need. Doing so would only be just. Instead, they pass him by.
A Samaritan man comes to his rescue, instead. The Samaritan people were formed when the northern kingdom of Israel was taken into slavery. The King of Assyria repopulated the land with people from all over his empire. These people intermarried with the few Jews who remained but retained a form of Judaism as their religion. They had their own temple mount, books of Moses, and rendition of Israel’s history. In the two hundred years before Jesus, there had been several armed conflicts between Israel and Samaria. Tensions ran high between these peoples, and they hated each other passionately.
But who was the neighbor? The foreigner, the Samaritan, the merciful one (Luke 10:37). But the point isn’t who is my neighbor to help me, but as Jesus tells the expert, the point is to “go and do likewise.” The Samaritan showed mercy to a Jew who could do nothing for him. The point is that God’s people are meant to show mercy and blessing to whoever crosses our path. Every human being is our neighbor, whether they are our mortal enemy or our closest friend.