What the Left and Right can learn from Jonah
We live in a polarized society. With one president leaving office and the next entering, what is the way forward? The persevering weight of COVID has contributed to the anxiety we all feel. It feels as if we are living in a pressure cooker that needs to be relieved somehow. In such a polarized time, I think Jonah has much to teach us.
Jonah: A nationalist SJW?
I'm not trying to be too provocative but I believe those on the Left and Right have much to relate to in Jonah’s story. Jonah was the son of Amittai the prophet and was a zealous prophetic patriot during the reign of King Jeroboam II in Israel (2 Kings 14:23-28). His message was one of political expansion for Jeroboam, whose reign was marked by prosperity, flourishing, and moral decline. The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible states with no reservation that “no other prophet was so strongly Jewish [than Jonah]” (p. 1205). Jonah’s tagline may very well have been, “Make Israel Great Again.” Much of this belief in prosperity was rooted in God’s promises to flourish the people of Israel. Jonah would have been the patriot of patriots. The Right can relate to Jonah's patriotic desire to see his country prosper.
However, the major power in Jonah’s time was Assyria. Nineveh was a major city in that empire and archaeological evidence shows it to have once been a great cultural and administrative center in the Middle Assyrian period. Assyrians were known for being brutal and cruel in their oppression of captives and they conquered nations ruthlessly. Israel was in constant oppression by the Assyrians. The evils they committed to other nations, including Israel, were horrendous. A modern equivalent may very well be Al Qaeda. Jonah and the nation of Israel would have been in the “oppressed” role in that relationship. We know that this oppression was an act of judgement from God for their sin (2 Kings 17) but that did not deter individuals like Jonah from holding great contempt for the people of Assyria. Jonah fought for justice and restoration for the people of Israel in the social sphere. To be provocative again, you might have seen Jonah carrying a sign that said, “Hebrew Lives Matter.” The Left can relate to Jonah's social desire for justice and moral restoration.
Jonah’s response: Rejecting the call of God
Although no other prophet was so strongly Jewish, no other prophet’s ministry was so strongly directed to a non-Jewish nation. God’s call was for Jonah to go to his oppressors, his foreign enemies… and take the message of God to them (Jonah 1:2). His loyalty to the Hebrew nation, his desire to see Israel expand, and his disdain of the Assyrians show why his emotional rejection of God’s call was so strong. He fled by ship to Tarshish to get “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3). Jonah wanted to stay with his people, work toward his ends, and live in ways that he felt most comfortable. But God’s call was relentless, for God’s heart needed to be realized to the people of Assyria and he wanted to use this nationalist activist to accomplish his purposes.
God’s heart: Compassion for all people
We know how the story goes… God causes a storm to come upon the boat, he uses the casting of lots to identify Jonah as the cause, and then appoints a great fish to swallow up Jonah. In the belly of the fish, Jonah prays to God and cries out for compassion. “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me…” (Jonah 2:2). God shows grace and compassion to Jonah, saves him from the belly of the fish, and then sends him again to Nineveh to preach to the Assyrians. When Jonah arrives, he preaches judgement against their sin, they believe God, and repent. When God sees their repentance, he shows compassion on them and holds back his wrath.
This is the purpose of Jonah: to show the compassionate character of God. He is gracious and kind, even to those who deserve his justice.
Jonah makes it clear that he knew God was compassionate and didn’t want to come to the Assyrians because he knew that God was “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). The entire point of the book of Jonah is to show that God is a compassionate savior who offers his forgiveness to ALL people who repent and trust in him. This is the purpose of Jonah: to show the compassionate character of God. He is gracious and kind, even to those who deserve his justice. He offers forgiveness and reconciliation to those who come to him. Assyria deserved his wrath but God provided mercy. This is the heart of God and it is full of compassion for sinners like us.
Our call: Compassion for all people
Jonah, as you might expect, is angry about this. He doesn’t think that the Assyrians deserve to receive grace. He wishes they would receive justice. In his anger, God meets him and teaches him about compassion. He allows a plant to grow and provide shade for Jonah (John 4:6). But then he sends a worm to kill the plant, depriving Jonah of shade. In this moment, Jonah shows a strong pity for the plant that he would not even show to Nineveh and God calls him out. “And 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?’” (Jonah 4:10-11). And this is how the story ends… How will Jonah respond? Will he learn to be compassionate? Will he forsake his self-righteousness and care for his enemy the way that God cares for them?
God wanted to teach Jonah something. If God is the holy sovereign of the universe, good in all his ways… and he shows compassion to the most evil of individuals that have rebelled against him, then why do we feel the right to hate and attack others instead of showing them compassion? Are there those that are hard for you to show compassion to? Are we willing to go, seek out, and care for those who are our opponents? Those who stand across the aisle? Those who we disagree with strongly?
The gospel: A call to compassion from compassion
God is a compassionate God. If he were not, then none of us would be alive right now. He has manifested his compassion most pointedly in the cross. Jesus came and gave his life as a ransom for those who wanted nothing to do with him. He died for those who hated him. He saw the crowds gather and “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). In John’s account of this, we see that the crowds didn’t come to Jesus for him but because they wanted their bellies filled (John 6). Knowing this, Jesus still looked on the people with compassion, even in their sinfulness. They were like sheep without a shepherd. And he laid down his life for his sheep. This the gospel. If God were not compassionate, salvation would not be possible.
The clear implication for us is that we must be compassionate as well. Paul exemplifies this in Romans 9:3 where he says he wishes he were “accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his brothers.” Paul would have forfeited his own salvation out of compassion for his kinsmen, wanting them to know Christ. Wow! How could he say such a thing? This is the point of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan who “felt compassion” and so showed what it meant to love his neighbor. This is why in Ephesians 4:32, we are called to “be kind to one another, with compassionate hearts, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ has forgiven us.” Those who receive compassion, must show compassion. Because of the gospel.
What this means for the Left and Right
No matter how active you believe you should be in the political sphere and how strongly you should fight for your political goals, one thing that we need now is compassion. We need the willingness to be kind to one another, forgive one another, care for one another, be gracious to one another. If we are to have this heart of compassion, here are five simple suggestions for how we might do that.
1) Confess to God your lack of compassion for those you disagree with.
What are the thoughts, words, and actions you have been guilty of that have exhibited a lack of understanding and compassion for those on the other side of the political aisle? Have you succumbed to a spirit of self-righteousness, self-exaltation, or vengeance toward those you find little common political ground with? Confess this to God. These things are not from him.
2) Pray for those you disagree with.
No matter how much you disagree with someone, commit to pray for them. And pray for them, by name. Pray for all political leaders (even the ones you don’t like). Pray for your friends and family that disagree with your position. Say their name. Express longing for their well-being, that they come to know more of Christ, that they grow in wisdom and favor, that Christ would be gracious and kind to them.
3) Get to know those you disagree with.
It is so easy to stay in our circles, to affirm one another, and get each other riled up. But do you actually know the ones you disagree with? Have you heard their story, their desires, their thoughtfulness, their ambitions? This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them but get to know them out of a sense of genuine desire to understand. To get to know them so that you can refute them. Get to know them so that you can love them.
4) Find ways to show compassion.
Have you resisted liking someone’s family photo on FB because you know they hold to a different political view? Have you avoided reaching out to encourage someone whose parent just died because they stand for different political values? Have you thought they deserved whatever bad fortune they have encountered? Find ways to express care and compassion to those you disagree with. Compassion isn’t approval. Compassion is showing the same love we have received.
We do not show compassion because people deserve it. We show compassion because we didn’t deserve it and God showed it to us. The only truth powerful enough to get our hearts to show compassion to our enemies is the gospel.
5) Remind yourself often of God’s compassion to you in the gospel.
Let me reiterate: we do not show compassion because people deserve it. We show compassion because we didn’t deserve it and God showed it to us. The only truth powerful enough to get our hearts to show compassion to our enemies is the gospel. Jesus gave his life for those who hated him and rebelled against him. We are in that category. If you remind yourself of this, you will find the strength to be compassionate to others, even if they are on different sides of political issues.
I believe there must be a way for us to stand for truth and be compassionate at the same time. Jesus gave us an example of this. I believe many of us are so afraid of losing the truth, we have forsaken the commandment to love others and show them compassion. This is sin and we must change. I believe compassion will go a long way at bringing reconciliation. For in showing compassion, we are being a visible picture of who Jesus is.