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.
Except for that question mark. We need to answer the question. You and I. Do we really believe that nothing in all the world is more valuable than people? Do we bear this out in our lives?
Jesus said: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” He is saying that one soul is more valuable than all the treasure in the world. You could own the entire universe and you would have nothing compared to the value of a single soul. You could have the wealth of Bill Gates and add to it the treasure of Solomon, and you would be poor compared to the value of a soul.
No wonder, then, that the Bible tells us, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Of course God desires that all people come to the knowledge of the truth! He knows they are lost and he is filled with compassion for them. His great desire is for souls to be saved because nothing is more precious. There is no greater loss than the loss of a soul.
Do we believe this? Do we really believe this? Through his Word, God asked me Jonah’s question: “I have great compassion for the souls of men and women. Do you?” Maybe you need to answer it as well.
Maybe we could sit down and walk through your week together. How did you use your time? What does the way you used your time tell you about how you value souls? Would your time show that souls are precious, more precious than anything else? More precious than your entertainment? More precious than working long hours to have a nice house and nice stuff and lots of comfort?
Maybe you could take a look at your bank statements. What would the way you use your money tell you about what you value? What would it tell about how you really value souls? How much leads directly to mission? How much leads to the healing of the bodies and souls of people created in the image of God?
What if we could listen to your prayers played back? What priorities do your prayers reflect? Are souls your great concern when you are on your knees before God?
Do you have a beautiful lawn and a flourishing garden, yet feel more pity for the grass and plants than you do for people on the other side of the fence?
There is only one thing on this earth that will survive the ages: the souls of men and women. There is nothing more valuable. And through his Word, and especially through the book of Jonah, God has been forcing me to ask, “Am I the one sitting outside the city?”