I love to receive challenges and lessons from unexpected places. Lately God has been teaching me so much through the book of Jonah. Yes, Jonah. Jonah is a book that ends in an unorthodox way. Where most books end with a satisfying conclusion, this one ends with a question mark. Where most books end with people or with God, the final word in Jonah is “cattle.” It’s all very strange. It’s all deeply challenging.
Even the context is odd. Jonah has just witnessed a miraculous city-wide revival with tens of thousands of people turning to the Lord in repentance and faith. Yet despite seeing this great work of God, Jonah’s reaction is one of anger. He is furious with God—so angry that he just wants to die. He would rather die than see these inhabitants of Nineveh call out to the Lord.
And as Jonah sits outside the city mourning the loss of a plant that had shaded him from the sun, God speaks to this rebellious prophet.
The Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
This is one of those classical biblical arguments from the lesser to the greater. God is saying, “You feel compassion for a plant. That’s good. But don’t you see how much greater people are than plants? If you pity the plant, which was here yesterday and gone today, shouldn’t you also pity people? Shouldn’t you pity them even more? And tell you what, even if you can’t bring yourself to pity these pagan people, can’t you at least muster up some sympathy for animals? Surely you don’t want me to destroy all of those animals, do you?”
God calls on Jonah to understand that he is seeing this all wrong. Jonah, the God-fearing prophet, should be rejoicing to see God save sinners. Instead he hates it. He believes that he and his fellow Jews are somehow worthy of God’s grace; he believes that all others—especially those dangerous, pagan Assyrians—are unworthy of grace.
And I think you and I are tempted to come to the end of the book and laugh at Jonah. We can roll our eyes in exasperation. “Jonah, you foolish, ignorant, xenophobic, pathetic man. Don’t you see? People are more important than plants! Only human beings are created in God’s image. Therefore nothing could have more value than people. You are a fool!” And we go our way.