The “Sigh” of Jonah
Last Thursday President Obama made a speech launching “My Brother’s Keeper,” a widespread effort by a coalition of philanthropic organizations with the purpose of “creating opportunity for boys and young men of color.” As you may recall, the media covered his speech by focusing chiefly on his personal remarks about growing up without a father, being angry, making bad choices, “getting high” … all of which he has talked about openly and that he wrote about in his 2004 book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Among many important things the president said in his 4,500-word speech that deserve our attention, he asked, “There are a lot of kids out there who need help, who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?”
Yes, there is a lot more we can do to support the young people of our country. It’s easy for me to say that and nod my head in agreement with the president because we occupy essentially the same comfortable strata of society: highly educated, currently employed professionals, household income well past the U.S. median,† and so on. I also identify with the president’s young adult past of emotional and rebellious struggle and of making bad choices. However, as a straight, white male who grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago in a loving family of two parents, and we were never in material or financial need, I do not know, as does the president and many millions of other Americans, what it is like to grow up, for example, as “a person of color,” or with divorced parents, or to be in financial need. I find it telling of my own background and racial consciousness that as I wrote those words I unconsciously contrasted my “white,” “suburbanite,” “well-to-do” upbringing with the upbringing of people “of color,” implying “urban,” “single parent,” and “needy.” Of course these are stereotypes constantly deserving the attention of our elevated consciousness and examination.
It should not surprise us the internet and the media went all abuzz with the typical bloviating about the president’s remarks, from the right and the left. What I find interesting is the unreflective acceptance of the phrase “my brother’s keeper” as an acceptable title for such an initiative. This phrase has come to refer to the idea that we are only responsible for ourselves as individuals, which runs contrary to much of what the president said about community support systems and role models. The phrase comes from Genesis, chapter four, which we examined in January:
8Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
On the face of it, Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a flagrantly flippant question in response to God’s question. For crying out loud, Cain murdered his own brother! Why, in heaven’s name, would we want to associate Cain’s flippant question with providing opportunity for young people?! As with so many sayings originally from the Bible that have been ripped from their biblical context, it is possible to redeem this phrase for the current context. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Well, “yes,” of course, “you are your brother’s keeper … and everyone else’s keeper, too.” Recall an encounter with Jesus in the Gospels, for example in Mark, chapter twelve:
28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus was simply quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus. For centuries Jews had promoted caring for others beyond their local group as central to their faith and practice. If we look at it with irony, asking the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” should at least make us pause and reflect before we answer “yes” or “no,” given the gravity of the question’s original biblical context … and the context of the president’s initiative.
As we encountered last week, the story of Jonah is often ripped unreflectively from its original context, and its narrative and symbolism is often dramatically converted to new purposes that have little to do with the typical journey of a prophet or the judgment of nations in the prophetic literature of the Bible. Let us hear again the beginning of Jonah, chapter four:
1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
According to scholar Phyllis Trible, English translations seriously soften the original Hebrew in that first sentence, which, according to her, literally reads, “And it was evil to Jonah, an evil great, and it burned to him.” That’s very different from: “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” The softened translation loses all contrast with the Ninevites and God “turning from evil” at the end of chapter three. And then Jonah gives a delayed explanation for why he ran away from God in the first place, because he knew that God would be merciful to Nineveh. Jonah’s words here create too many problems of interpretation for us to consider, but let us remember one thing: Jonah only complied with God once in the whole story, by ultimately going to Nineveh. Jonah chapter four conjures up Genesis chapter four when God preferred Abel’s offering, and “Cain was very angry.” So angry, in fact, that he burned with murderous rage against his brother. Similarly, Jonah burned with rage against Nineveh for being the foreign oppressors they were and against God for not destroying Nineveh. Verse four:
And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Sound familiar? Recall Genesis, chapter four, verse six:
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?
And now recall the words of President Obama:
I sat down in the circle, and we went around … and guys talked about their lives, talked about their stories, talked about what they were struggling with and how they were trying to do the right thing, and they didn’t always do the right thing.
And when it was my turn, I explained to them when I was their age, I was a lot like them. I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.
“I was angry … I didn’t … realize it at the time. I made bad choices.” Doesn’t that summarize well what anger does to us? When angry we lose our ability to reason. We make bad choices. We all do that. Something like President Obama’s hindsight reflection and self-awareness is completely missing in the stories of Cain and Jonah. All we know of what ultimately happened to Cain is that he “went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod [wandering], east of Eden.” Of course, leaving the “presence of the Lord” is what Jonah did, too. The story of Jonah ends abruptly with God rebuking Jonah by contrasting Jonah’s petty anger with God’s concern for the masses of people living in the largest city of the world. Coincidentally, Cain’s descendants founded the first city, according to Genesis chapter four.
So, when we read and encounter the story of Jonah in-depth, where do we find ourselves? Do we find ourselves letting out a long, exasperated sigh? If we identify with Jonah at any point in the story, and we probably do, do we find ourselves satisfied by sighing at the outcome of the story? “That’s it?!” we may think. In this short story Jonah variously experiences abandonment, emotional turmoil, despair, restoration, being called to authority, the enemy’s repentance, stubbornness, anger, bitterness, and so on. There are no satisfying resolutions to any of these human predicaments.
Let us return to the subject of last week’s message: the “sign of Jonah.” The obvious things linked as the “sign of Jonah” are Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the fish and the “Son of Man” in the “heart of the earth,” which is often linked to 1 Peter 3:19 where the author wrote that after Jesus’s crucifixion he “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” This is the verse from which the Apostle’s Creed gets its “descended into hell” language. Upon deeper reflection perhaps we can now see the “sign of Jonah” as the “sigh” of Jonah, as spiritual yearning for God in the midst of seemingly inescapable suffering, whether the suffering is our own or of others, even of others who live in foreign countries we may consider our enemies, or of even the “spirits in prison,” even the prison of “hell,” and even though the suffering may or may not be justified.
The short story of Jonah begs us to find ourselves in Jonah’s circumstances. Perhaps we find ourselves running away from God? Perhaps we’re called to do something seemingly impossible and wonder how in the world we can do it? Perhaps we’re resentful at not getting the results we expect. Perhaps we’re bitter at the way things have turned out for us. We should see ourselves in all of Jonah’s complex emotions, and we should find ourselves sighing right along side him because often that’s all we can do is sigh and groan. Wherever we find ourselves in Jonah’s story, I hope we find ourselves yearning for God, as did Jonah in the belly of the fish, as did Christ on the cross and in the heart of the earth, because, in the end, despite all of our complex emotions, regrets about the past, and desires for the future, God’s future will play out, and it will most certainly be dramatically different from how we as individuals would have things play out.
As we enter another season of Lent, a time of fasting and reflection in preparation for the crucifixion and the resurrection, perhaps you find yourself in Jonah-like circumstances and all you can do is sigh and groan. Then sigh and groan to the Lord. If you find yourself in a good place and do not find yourself in Jonah-like circumstances, then you can pray for and support those who do, as the president preached, and by doing so you can sigh and groan to the Lord along with them, because, in the words of the Ninevites, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” And in the words of Jesus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Amen.
†According to the U.S. Census Bureau the 2012 median household income was $51,371 (half the 81 million households below that number and half above).