May 28 lesson: God’s Pervasive Love
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God’s Pervasive Love
Spring Quarter: God Loves Us
Unit 3: God’s Pervasive and Sustaining Love
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 28, 2017
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Jonah 4
In reading Jonah, Chapter 4, we get the impression that Jonah was a jerk. He was ornery and unwilling to serve God in the lives of the Ninevites. While everybody else on board the ship was struggling to survive, Jonah complacently slept. And now he is unhappy and angry about the good thing that has taken place between God and Nineveh.
Earlier, the wickedness of Nineveh was so great that God had pronounced judgment against that city. However, when the Ninevites heard that sober message, they repented. And their change of heart led to God’s change of mind. But Jonah was more interested in their destruction than their salvation.
Yet, Jonah still understood God’s nature. In verse 2b, Jonah stated, “…for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” While most sensible people would be praising and thanking God at this point, for Jonah, it is nothing but criticism. He is unhappy with God’s forgiving nature.
Interestingly, God’s nature comes as no real surprise to Jonah. That, he claims, is why he “fled to Tarshish at the beginning.” Jonah’s lament here only serves to indict himself, not God. We have the picture of a child threatening to hold his breath until he gets his way with his parents. It is a self-important, self-pitying tantrum.
As scholars remind us, the Lord knows that Jonah’s anger is misplaced. The fact that God responds with a question rather than a condemnation, however, is further evidence of divine mercy. The question invites Jonah to reconsider and gives him the opportunity to come back to his senses on his own. There is a tremendous difference between God declaring, “you’re wrong” and God asking, “Is it right?”
This is a good place to pause and think about where we sit. Do we sit on Jonah’s side of the table or on God’s side of the table? In this episode before us, most of us are inclined to side with God and sit on his side of the table. We see that Jonah is in the wrong. Yet we might contemplate the times when we are on Jonah’s side of the table. When might God ask us, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
The prophet, so reluctant to go to Nineveh, now seems unwilling to leave. At first, Jonah most likely had a distaste for the city and its people. Consequently, he didn’t want to go there. And now, in this moment, it is his disdain for Nineveh that causes him to camp out nearby so he could have a front row seat to watch Nineveh’s destruction.
Meanwhile, as scholars note, the fact that Jonah erected for himself a booth is an important detail. On the one hand, it paints a more complete and damning picture of this prophet’s heart that he seeks to make himself as comfortable as possible to watch a city being destroyed. In addition, it introduces us to Jonah’s need for shade in that climate.
Next, it is God who makes provisions for Jonah’s shade and comfort, though God has a bigger purpose in mind than mere comfort. After providing the bush, God also provides for that bush to be destroyed. Here God turns up the heat on Jonah so much that again, in his unhappiness, he declares that it would be better to die than to live.
Important! If we see this passage against the larger backdrop of Jonah’s whole story, we’ll see the patient and providential work of God in one person’s life. Earlier, as we are reminded, God had provided a storm and a fish. Now God provides a bush, a worm and a hot wind. Most of these are not desirable, but Jonah brings them on himself. They are all designed to teach and grow this man of God.
At this point, God returns to the earlier question, which Jonah had evidently ignored. With this additional divine prodding of Jonah’s anger, the prophet is ready to answer God’s question. Indeed, he is right to be angry, and he reiterates that he is angry enough to die.
But, like a good teacher, the Lord has asked questions of Jonah so that he might come up with a better answer. First, God asked Jonah about his anger, in general. Then God asked Jonah about his anger over the plant. It is here that God turns that disproportionate concern for a mere plant into an object lesson for Jonah.
According to scholars, the transition from “angry about” to “concerned about” is a stroke of genius on the part of God. The fact is that Jonah’s anger was mostly born out of self-interest and self-concern. For God to interpret Jonah’s anger as concern, however, elevates the discussion and flatters Jonah. It also sets the stage for the larger point that God wants to make, for whether the attitude is “anger” or “concern”, the issue is that Jonah feels strongly about the plant, while God feels strongly about the city.
So what is the object lesson? The object lesson displays that this debate is a matter of perspective. God reminds Jonah how ultimately inconsequential the plant is, as well as how little he had invested in it. By contrast, the scholars make clear, Nineveh has tremendous value. It has value as a place, as a population of people, and even as the home of many animals. The logic here is simple and undeniable. If Jonah feels strongly about a mere plant, shouldn’t God feel strongly about a great city?
In spite of what I said earlier about Jonah being a jerk, and in some ways he was, there is also some empirical evidence that suggests that he was quite remarkable. He enjoyed clear communication with God. Both Matthew and Luke report on the success of Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh. Jonah accurately perceived the Lord’s activity in nature and events. And he had a profound understanding of God’s character and will.
With all that in his favor, why was he a jerk at times? What was the matter with him? As scholars inform us, clearly he is a disappointing character and substandard prophet. So what was wrong with Jonah?
The suggestion here is that Jonah had a heart problem. He had the word of God, but he didn’t have the heart of God. And one separated from the other become a terrible deviation from the true standard. Without doubt, the heart of God desired Nineveh’s redemption. Even though it was the Lord who initiated the judgment message, the purpose of the message was to bring about salvation. Thus, when the people of Nineveh repented and changed their ways, God was pleased. Note that Jonah was not.
Now, this attitude does not belong to Jonah alone. We think quickly about the prodigal’s elder brother. For sure, he did not share their father’s enthusiasm for the younger boy’s return. While the father was evidently watching for the prodigal, the elder brother was oblivious. Soon after, when the father brought about a great celebration upon his wayward son’s return, the elder brother sulked and resented him.
You guessed it! Jonah is the elder brother. While God rejoiced at the “return” of the Ninevites, Jonah sulked and was full of resentment. The prodigal didn’t deserve a party and Nineveh didn’t deserve forgiveness.
Scholars tell us that what people deserve is the issue. God, Jonah, the prodigal’s father, and the elder brother are all acutely aware of what is deserved.
We are reminded that in some hearts there is an eagerness to offer more than what is deserved. But in other hearts there is a stingy version of fairness.
We certainly see evidence of this in Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). You remember the property owner hires workers throughout the course of a day to labor in his vineyard. At the end of the day, he calls them forward to pay them their wages. The folks hired first were paid the agreed upon amount. Yet all the rest of the workers, including those who had barely broken a sweat, were also paid that same amount.
We note that the first workers were content with their pay until they saw other workers who had labored for fewer hours getting the same amount. The owner calls them in and asked, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15).
It is clear that God’s grace to Nineveh didn’t cost Jonah a thing. Yet Jonah still fumed about it just like the elder brother and the workers who labored the longest in the vineyard. What we observed before us is that God is never less than fair and so often more than fair. Such is the nature of grace, and it reflects the heart of God. Too bad Jonah didn’t have a heart like that.
Big Enough to Love
During one scene in the 1963 movie “Cleopatra,” Julius Caesar overhears a young man reciting the Roman poet Catullus. Caesar speaks appreciatively of the recitation. Cleopatra challenges Caesar, saying, “Catullus doesn’t approve of you. Why haven’t you had him killed?” And Caesar coolly replies, “Because I approve of him.”
Now, it doesn’t take much effort or character to dislike someone. Children on the playground often make this an easy reality with their teasing and mistreatment of one another. But it does take a bigger, more secure individual to like someone else, especially if that someone else is unlikable. Caesar in the movie is an example for us. He is strong enough and secure enough to approve of someone who did not approve of him.
And this is so true of God! God is big enough, strong enough, and secure enough not only to like the unlikeable, but to love the unlovable. With God’s love for the unlovable, he reaches out even to those who do not believe or approve.
In Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus encourages the same kind of bigness of love in us. He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy:’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And Jesus, not Caesar, is our model (John 13:34). We are to love as he loves us.
Scholars inform us that our unwillingness to forgive others is often just a monument to our own pain. The same is true of our choice to dislike someone.
In the story of Jonah, that smallness and weakness is seen in close connection and comparison with God’s generosity and greatness. Jonah never did like those Ninevites – and he never would. They had probably inflicted some pain on Jonah and his people. And so we picture Jonah there with his arms crossed and his back turned stubbornly away from the city. On the other hand, however, there is God turned toward that city with arms open wide.
As scholars point out, we can imagine the movie’s conversation between Jonah and the Lord. “The Ninevites don’t love you,” Jonah declares. “Why haven’t you had them killed?” And God gently replies, “Because I love them.”
Jonah in the Mirror
“How did he miss that?” the irate sports fan screams at the television set. It looks so easy from where we sit in the comfort of our living rooms. We wonder how the player could mess up so badly.
And we often wonder the same thing about certain characters in Scripture. We shake our heads disapprovingly at the faithlessness of the Israelites, the fearfulness of the disciples, and the insensitivity of the priest and the Levite. And it is also easy for us to disapprove of Jonah, who is so obviously disobedient, petty, and jerk like.
In the case of the player who failed on the field, we have the luxury of never having to perform in his place. But this is not so with Jonah! I will have to stand in his place and so will you.
To be sure, we are not sent to Nineveh, but we are God’s ambassadors. Specifically, we carry God’s word and reflect God’s love. Or, we do not.
Scholars tell us that we have three orders of business as God’s ambassadors.
First, we are to recognize God’s heart. The divine purpose is still for people to repent and turn to the Lord. And for this to happen, someone must represent God to the wayward world. Is that you? Is that me?
Second, the question is, will we do God’s bidding? Or, will we flee from our responsibility like Jonah?
Finally, we must be truthful with God about the people we dislike. And then we can truthfully admit to ourselves that God still loves them. God is as eager to extend the same grace and forgiveness to them that we have received and enjoyed.
- Ask class members to explain and discuss Jonah’s heart problem.
- What insights has the class gained from the four chapters of Jonah?