There are two kinds of prophetic commissions in the bible—good ones and bad ones. By that, I mean that sometimes God tells a prophet, “Go and proclaim my word so that the people may hear and be saved.” (That’s the good commission.) In the other, which is probably more common, God says, “Go and proclaim my word so that the people’s hearts may be hardened and they not be saved.” (Although I might call that “bad,” it’s still according to God’s good purposes).
Jonah’s commission was a good commission. He had been asked by God to preach a message of repentance so that the people of Nineveh—Israel’s archenemy of the day—might turn from their wickedness and be saved. When he got the message, Jonah would have been familiar with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and countless other prophets who had been asked by God to proclaim the need for repentance so that, when they failed to repent, God’s wrath might be justified. So when he heard God disclose a plan of salvation for Israel’s nemesis to the north, Jonah didn’t like it.
“Why can’t I be like the other prophets?” he asked. “Why can’t you use me to destroy those nasty Assyrians rather than save them?” In today’s reading, after a ship, storm, fish’s belly, vomit, and successful prophecy, we find Jonah wishing he were dead (Jonah 3:1-4:11). The success of his mission was too much for him to bear. God’s amazing reply, delivered through the life and death of a shady plant, rebuked Jonah and rebukes me: “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow…Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”
The terrible truth is this: part of me loves God’s limitless forgiveness but part of me would rather dole it out according to my understanding of right and wrong. Like Jonah, I’d rather not help the other team win. I’d rather not be used to save my enemies—which is why I have a hard time following Jesus’ commandment and praying enthusiastically for them. I want to decide who gets to repent and who must be punished. But the prophetic commission, whether good or bad, does not diminish the quality of the call to repentance. If people ignore my cries, let it be because God has hardened their hearts and not because I have decided they shouldn’t hear God’s word.
My job—our job—is to preach the power of forgiveness with unwavering fervor and without regard for the audience. If the magnitude of the cross were only reserved for those whom others may have deemed worthy, I’d likely be left out.