Our Sunday readings had a small fragment of the story of Jonah, and I do love the story of Jonah. Let’s not insult anyone’s intelligence here; this is not a fairy story of some biblical character that gets gobbled up by a whale and somehow survives. It’s much more than this. It’s a rich allegory of the effect of justice on the people who consider themselves the good guys. Today we heard of how Jonah did the right thing and told the people of Nineveh that they were acting the maggot and it had to stop, and how the people of the city listened and cleaned up their act. This wasn’t the full story though. All of the readings in the calendar are chosen to reflect the theme of the Gospel, and so this part of Jonah reflected the call and response of the first disciples. Fine, but still – it wasn’t the full story. Jonah was called to do the right thing, but he didn’t want to do it. Doing the right thing is often the most difficult thing that we can do. It means saying and doing things (or not saying and not doing things) that seriously upset people who can (and will) do us a lot of harm. Jonah did what perhaps I would have done. He legged it; he jumped on a ship and headed in the other direction.
Anyway, to cut a big fish story short, he ends up right where he started – and still with the dilemma of the right thing to do hanging over him. Realising that it is either doing what he didn’t want to do or the deep blue sea he decides to go and tell some powerful and dangerous people that they are doing the wrong thing and that if they didn’t quit it something rotten was coming to them. Let’s imagine knocking on Nidge’s door and telling him that his murderous, drug-dealing ways were bang out of order. That story doesn’t sound like it ends well. To Jonah’s horror the people of Nineveh listened to him and God decides not to smite the lot of them. Jonah, as the good guy, had decided what justice was and now God has mercy. Bummer! Self-righteousness is a plague to holy people. We see wickedness, immorality and crime and imagine that our holy books give us the right to be judge, jury and executioner. Our demand is for justice – even social justice – and by this we mean payback for the bad guys. Do we really want bad things to happen to bad people, or are we prepared to let goodness transform even the worst?