Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, January 25, 2015
I don’t remember much about Sunday School, but apparently my brother and have a legacy. When we heard about the story of Jonah, we were so mad at the whale for swallowing Jonah that we grabbed the paper whale and some scissors and began cutting the whale to bits. I think we might have disrupted the poor teacher’s lesson plans, but apparently we were a hit.
Jonah makes a great story for kids—and could provide an excellent opportunity to talk about other, non-violent approaches to moral dilemmas.
Jonah also makes a great story for adults. Jonah is one of the prophets, but he’s different from the others. Out of all of the books of the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures, this book alone paints a picture of a reluctant prophet. The other prophetic books, such as Amos and Micah, focus on Israel and its need for repentance, but this book focuses on the prophet himself. It describes a prophet fleeing from his mission and then sulking when his hearers repent. Why is he so upset when his mission is accomplished?
Ninevah, the city God asked Jonah to walk through and call people to repentance, was not an Israelite city—it was the capital of Assyria, one of Israel’s enemies. The book of Jonah was written after Jerusalem had been sacked and its inhabitants killed or scattered. Its leaders had been exiled and were beginning to return to rebuild Jerusalem and Israel. Assyria still threatened them. It was in this context that Jonah heard God telling him to travel to Ninevah, deep in the heart of Assyria, and tell them to repent. This might help us understand Jonah’s reluctance. Jonah took off in the opposite direction and tells the story of an unpleasant experience with a rather large fish. Jonah finally decided to obey God and walked through Ninevah, crying out that it would be overthrown in 40 days. But much to Jonah’s surprise, the people recognized Jonah as a prophet of God and took him seriously. They examined themselves and refrained from immoral acts. They repented. And so did God. Both the people and God changed their minds and their actions. God was pleased!
Jonah wasn’t. These people—Israel’s enemies—were not overthrown. God was actually blessing them! But Jonah didn’t quite believe it, so he went outside the city, set up a shelter and waited to see what would happen to this city of ill repute. It was hot—so very hot—and a quick-growing gourd, perhaps a castor-oil plant, grew up over him, shading him from the gruelling mid-day sun. But that night a cursed worm gnawed through the stem, and it withered as fast as it had grown. The next day, Jonah almost fainted in the heat of the sun, turning his anger from the city to the worm. And then the aha moment happened. Jonah heard this still, small voice of God impressing upon his conscience that, just as Jonah was sorry for the gourd, which he did not plant nor tend, so God was sorry for the people of Ninevah, who were unfamiliar with the Israelite God.
This book represents a turning point for the people of Israel and Judah as they began to gain an awareness of God’s universal love for all nations—even those that threaten to conquer Israel. God’s compassion and mercy is limitless.
The issue this story teases out for me is the tension between punishment and rehabilitation. Jonah wanted God to punish Ninevah for its immorality—even more, I suspect that Jonah wanted revenge on an old enemy. God, on the other hand, preferred to take the rehabilitation route. If they were able to turn their lives around, God would bless them.
This is the age-old dilemma of incarceration. Do we imprison people to rehabilitate them or to punish them and set a deterrent for others? Which do we prioritize? Prisons will look very different depending on these answers. Prison sentences will also look different. Multiple studies indicate that the recidivism rate is greatly reduced if more resources are put into rehabilitation programs instead of lengthening prison sentences.
I have been visiting someone in the Stony Mountain penitentiary, who was originally in the maximum security part. Gang culture and violence are rife, punishment needs to be reinforced. It is very difficult for an inmate to be rehabilitated. More likely, they become hardened. The longer the prison sentence, the more they will be hardened and the greater the danger they will be to society upon their release.
However, Stony Mountain also has a rehabilitation section. But the person I visit was just moved into Rockwood, the minimum security section, which is built entirely around the concept of rehabilitation. Inmates who show the most promise of rehabilitation are transferred there where they live together in small houses. They learn to budget, prepare meals together and take classes. From there, they are sent to half-way homes, supported by our own United Church ministries. You can imagine the difference in the success rate of those who came from Rockwood and those who came directly from the pen.
We have heard much on the news lately about the Dalhousie dentistry students making inappropriate comments on social media. Some want to see them punished by suspension, expulsion, or some other disciplinary measures. Others want to try to resolve this situation through mediation. Conflict mediation is only successfully, however, when both the accused and the victims are willing to meet together. When I volunteered as a conflict mediator through Mediation Services, we would only accept court cases in which all parties were willing to take part in mediation. Forced mediation seldom works, in which case punishments may be more appropriate, but if the accused is willing to listen and make amends to the victim, she or he is much less likely to reoffend.
And this takes us back to Jonah. The people of Ninevah listened to Jonah and they began to treat each other with respect. There was no need of harsh penalties. When conflict breaks out in our own lives we may want to remember Jonah’s story. Are we more interested in someone getting what they deserved, in treating them as they treated me? Do we catch ourselves thinking, “It serves them right”? Or do we try to ask ourselves, “What can help all of us listen better to each other?” When I feel angered or upset about something, I try to ask myself, “What is the rest of the story?” because I can only know in part. I try to remember to turn judgement into curiosity. It’s very difficult to do. In fact, I consider it a spiritual discipline. It takes a mature faith not to be vengeful.
On this, Robert Burns Day, let us listen to Rabbie Burns as he chides us about our taste for vengeance in a tongue and cheek poem entitled Holy Willie’s Prayer:
…Lord hear my earnest cry and prayer
Against that Presbytry of Ayr!
Thy strong right hand, Lord, mak it bare
Upon their heads!
Lord visit them, and dinna spare,
For their misdeeds!
O Lord my God, that glib-tongu’d Aiken!
My very heart and flesh are quaking
To think how I sat, sweating and shaking,
An’ pish’d wi’ dread,
While Auld wi’ hingin lip gaed sneaking
And hid his head!
Lord, in thy day o’ vengeance try him!
Lord visit him that did employ him!
And pass not in thy mercy by them,
Nor hear their prayer;
But for thy people’s sake destroy them,
An’ dinna spare!
But Lord, remember me and mine
Wi’ mercies temporal and divine!
That I for grace and gear may shine,
Excell’d by nane!
And a’ the glory shall be thine!