Anne Lamott on Jonah and God’s Mercy

In analyzing the Biblical story of Jonah, Anne Lamott skips to the chase, reminding us that children love the story of Jonah and a whale swallowing a man even though the “big fish” (for textual purists) plays a surprisingly minor role.

The meat of the story unfolds after Jonah, en route to Tarshish, is swallowed and “burped onto dry land and, despite his best efforts, ends up in Nineveh, where God had told him to go all along.”

Lamott, in her latest book (Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. Riverhead Books: New York, 2017), is describing how Jonah comes face-to-face with a lesson about God’s mercy, and it has very little to do with this minor prophet surviving a storm after being swallowed by a sea beast.

Simply put, Jonah hates the Ninevites, which in part is why he tried to escape his mission by going in the opposite direction. He anticipates they are a despiteful and despicable lot who won’t pay any heed to a prophet’s message from God. As Lamott notes, these are the Evil Empire of Jonah’s day. Jonah thinks God should simply destroy them and be done with it. So, after his regurgitation to Nineveh, the prophet grudgingly spends one day bringing the Word of the Lord to these ingrates, and, would you believe, they listen and repent! (To borrow Lamott’s vision: Imagine Captain Kirk preaching repentance to the Klingons).

Their conversion doesn’t impress Jonah, however, and he sullenly goes off moaning, and groaning, and lost in his meanness because God has not destroyed the Ninevites.

Here, the story seems to get anticlimactic and boring as Jonah, still feeling sorry for himself, asks God to take his life. He sits under a bush to sulk about the unlikely genuineness of the Ninevites repentance. And God causes the bush to grow and shade Jonah in his discomfort, and–another barely noticed mercy–to make Jonah “very happy about the bush” (Jonah 4:6b).

Then a worm attacks the bush, leaving Jonah hot and unhappy again, and God asks the crucial question: “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”

With a touch of contemporary crudeness, Lamott rephrases God’s question and argument: “Jonah, WTF? Mercy for a tree but not a people?”

Even before revising God’s query, Lamott beautifully expresses the lesson of Jonah’s experience: “Even when the worst people on earth undergo a change of heart, God in God’s infinite love and goodness changes his mind.”

Jesus expresses God’s mercy similarly: “Love your enemies.”

Read Lamott’s book. She tells how she came to write about mercy: “I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human; the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

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