On the Holding of Grudges

“The Book of Jonah”

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Jonah under the gourd (Source)

Jonah is not a particularly admirable man. He flees from God; he is recklessly sarcastic; he is fairly half-hearted in his work; he is extremely judgement. Towards the end of the short Book of Jonah, however, one of his major character faults make itself quite evidently displayed: his bitter attitude to holding on to grudges.

Jonah is angry with God, resentful that, having made Jonah go through all the troubles of getting to Nineveh and calling down fire and brimstone, instead at the first moment of repentance the Lord would call off his punishment. By the accounts of Jewish history these people are not friends of God, and even the Lord in the wit of this account subtly makes fun of the Ninevites, suggesting they might be less than animals though still worthy of love. Jonah is excited that this proud people are going to get their come-up-ins, and that he is going to tell it to them straight: and then God changes the plan on him, and offers them mercy!

There is a simple and obvious reaction to this moral tale, a reflection on mercy and God’s love and the need for forgiveness. There is perhaps also a more subtle and contextually relevant interpretation, about God’s love for our perceived enemies and the need to announce a message of conversation, not destruction, upon the “others” of our day. But then there is a deeper, more complicated, and less clear lesson that comes forth from the Book of Jonah: about our role to play in the unfolding of God’s plan, and our reaction when we only see part of the whole picture.

For how often do we find ourselves in a similar place as Jonah: committed after long wrestling with God to serve some greater purpose – enter into some community, travel to some distant land, take up some new mission or work – and then, seemingly in the most unexpected moment, the plans change. Perhaps the opportunity is closed off to us; perhaps the sense of consolation and fervor dwindles; however it happens, often times having nothing to do with us at all, God’s purpose seems to change on us, and we feel betrayed and led along. We hold a grudge against the Lord, not for withholding some good from us, but for reorienting some road we thought He had set us down.

Yet, God’s purpose does not change, and God’s plan has been set forth from the beginning of the world. It is our understanding, or misunderstanding, or lack thereof, that drives our sense of resentment and bitterness. We are not privy to the full comprehension of the mind of God, and our curvy path from mission to cause to opportunity, while fruitless from our humble position, reflects the grace and love of God in the world. Had Jonah not come to Nineveh, the people would not have repented, and not have been saved from destruction. God’s plan was not modified; Jonah’s heart was the thing that need a change and renewal.


2016’s Reflection: “On Translations
2015’s Reflection: “On This fish, of which the Author is Fond

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