The God of Our Expectations
1 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 But the LORD replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”
5 Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.” 10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
There is something wrong with this story and it’s not what you think. Well, maybe it is; I don’t know what you are thinking. From where I sit the problem appears to be Jonah, though, again, perhaps not how we think. In an ironic twist, the only person in the story of Jonah to remain unconverted was Jonah. I believe that this story is told from a point of view that means for us to see that Jonah was the real target of God’s advances. Everywhere Jonah goes in the story, someone gets religion. It doesn’t matter if it is men on a ship headed for Tarshish or the 100,000 people living in Ninevah or the animals: God does weird, wild, amazing things in spite of Jonah. Yet Jonah, for all his theological profundity, remains steadfast in his anger.
But there’s a problem with the story. The problem should be obvious, but in case it is not, let me point it out to you. It’s in verse 2 and I think it is worth repeating: “He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
The problem is not this verse per se, but Jonah’s application of it. I think what it demonstrates is that Jonah had a profoundly orthodox view of God. He had dotted all the theological ‘i’s’ and crossed all the theological ‘t’s’. He had it all together and to prove it he quoted from the Torah. Jonah knew his Bible; Jonah knew his God. Look what Jonah says, “I knew this is what you would do…” and it was precisely because Jonah knew that he fled and ran and ran and fled. That is, Jonah’s theological orthodoxy is the very problem of this story. It got in the way of Jonah’s discipleship and it got in the way of Jonah’s vocation. It was precisely because Jonah knew something about God that Jonah refused to be obedient to God or care about the people God cared about.
You see, Jonah did not want God to be gracious, and compassionate, and slow to anger, and abounding in love, and relenting from calamity towards the Ninevites. Jonah wanted God to act in a way contrary to God’s revealed character, the character Jonah knew and believed. He wanted God to, well, not be God or do God things. That is, Jonah wanted God, I think this is clearly the implication, to wipe out the Ninevites because of their wickedness. Clearly, if any one deserved the wrath of God, it was the Ninevites. But Jonah knew what kind of a God he served and prophesied for and so Jonah did what any self-respecting, theologically orthodox Christian would do: He ran and refused to offer that God to the Ninevites. He would rather have been dead than to offer the God of grace to the people of Ninevah (that is why he asked to be thrown overboard; he hoped to die.)
Jonah must have figured if he ran and ran and ran then perhaps the Ninevites would get what was coming to them.
I might go so far as to make this claim: Jonah had reduced God to an idol. That’s right: An idol. You know why? Because Jonah knew God, he knew God’s character, he knew how God would act and he, Jonah, challenged God on this point. Jonah wanted God to act like Jonah wanted God to act which is contrary to what Jonah knew about God. Jonah had no desire for God to demonstrate grace to Ninevah. Ninevah deserved wrath and judgment. When we reduce God to our expectations and demand that he act in accordance with our expectations we have made him an idol. God did not act in accordance with Jonah’s wishes but in accordance with his own character: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” And that is how God acted: Perfectly orthodox.
What I’m suggesting is that God is not bound to our conceptions of theological orthodoxy even if he is bound to his own revealed character. Here, in Jonah’s short book, I think that is abundantly on display. And I suppose when God does do things that run contrary to our conceptions of theological orthodoxy or our expectations of God, we act just like…Jonah. Theological orthodoxy, while not wrong, can be among the most dangerous weapons wielded by the church because it breeds the sort of pride and privilege we see in Jonah the man. The worst thing we christians can do is try to hold wind in a bottle, but the wind blows where the wind blows and who among us can stop the wind? And if we cannot stop the wind, what makes us think we can stop the Spirit of God?
Let’s see if this economy of grace plays itself out in the New Testament too. We already know that Jesus preferred hanging around with the sinners of the world, but he also taught about these things. Consider this parable of the workers in the field (which is a sad misnomer) in Matthew 20:
1″For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3″About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5So they went. “He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ 7″ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ 8″When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9″The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12′These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13″But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16″So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Here we see a profound example of God acting contra the expectations of people and doing something no one could explain, even though it is perfectly in keeping with his revealed character: Paying everyone equally for unequal work. Thus this isn’t a parable about workers in a field or about eleventh hour salvations as much as it is a parable about the crazy economy of God’s grace. Someone wisely pointed out to me this morning that those who expected to get more because they ‘bore the labor in the heat of the day’ are, actually, those who are bound up in a system of works righteousness. They believe they deserve more because they worked longer and harder and at the most inconvenient times of the day. They did not recognize that they were being paid according to the owner’s gracious will. At the end of the day, all the workers go away baffled at God’s grace. Grace makes no sense. Grace is the great equalizer. (It is likely, though, that those at the end of the day went away far more thankful than did those who began working at the beginning of the day and this for reasons that should be fairly obvious. The whole ‘those who have been forgiven much…’.)
This parable should turn our conceptions of God upside down because in it we see a great, profound reversal of all our expectations about God: He is not fair. Grace is not fair. We need to get used to it. This is what Jonah could not get in his head, and since the story of Jonah is left open-ended, we have no idea how he answered God. (Just like we have no idea if the older brother went in and joined the party in Luke 15.) Grace makes no sense because it is so wasteful. Grace makes no sense because…well, because it is grace. Who can understand it?
The great thing about Jonah and this parable in Matthew 20 is that they both end with questions the readers are supposed answer. In Jonah, God asks whether or not he has a right, as God, to be concerned about those whom he has created and to demonstrate grace to them as he wills. In the parable, God asks the people if they are envious because he is generous and spreads around his grace freely to all equally. (Another parable that fits well here, and also ends with a question, is Luke 15’s parable of the two lost sons.) All of these stories are pointing in one direction with these questions: Have we so bound God to a theological system that we actually prevent God from being God? Or, negatively, we cannot bind God to, or in, a theological system. Hear it well: We cannot control, bind, predict or anticipate this God and his grace.
Just about the minute we do, he tells us this parable (or the story of Jonah or the story of the two lost sons.)
Have we so demanded God act according to our expectations that we have actually reduced him to a mere idol?
Do we have a right to be angry with God when he acts outside our expectations, outside our theological constructs (no matter how orthodox), and against our will? (And doesn’t it infuriate some of us when he does?)
Are we so bound to a theological orthodoxy about God that we actually hope God sends calamity, that we get angry when he doesn’t, against those whom we deem to be the worst of the worst? What if…what if…those that we think are the worst, the ones most deserving of God’s wrath and judgment in our expectation…what if God actually does care about them more than we do and is in the process of saving them quite apart from our efforts, pride, and prejudice?
What if…what if…at the renewal of all things….what if God raised everyone up and in his grace had mercy on…everyone…without exception paid everyone the same price? I don’t know if he will; I don’t know if he won’t. I do know that if he does, which he could since he is a God who delights to act outside and contrary to our expectations, it will be christians who will complain the loudest and the longest and who will, most likely, bear a grudge against God, sit outside the party, pouting and refusing to join in an celebrate that the lost have been found, the blind have received sight, the lame dance, and the sinners forgiven, or will grumble because others have unfairly received the same as we have. Do you think we will rejoice that the lost have been found?
The God of our expectations is not necessarily the God of the Scripture or the God who saves. The God of our theological orthodoxy, is not necessarily the God who saves and reveals and redeems. The God of grace is.