"If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink...
and the LORD will reward you."
Twenty-nine US states have filial responsibility laws, which make it a legal duty to financially support one’s indigent parents, potentially including extensive healthcare and nursing home costs. You don’t have to like coughing up the money, but if the hospital or the nursing home—or dear ole mom herself—takes you to court, you may go to jail if you don’t.
Jesus was on the issue, too, in one of His many times of harshly criticizing the people who thought they were the best at following God: “You say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the Word of God” (Matt 15:5–6). God set forth a duty in the fifth commandment, and those crafty Pharisees made a way around it.
Jonah had a certain, shall we say, sibling responsibility—a “legal duty” by God’s command to care spiritually for his human brothers and sisters in Nineveh. Jonah didn’t like it. As Paul Goebel explained in Sunday’s sermon, the Jews saw the Ninevites as mortal enemies. Jonah would rather have died than live to see Nineveh’s salvation. So knowing that God would “[relent] from disaster” if Nineveh repented, he ran away (Jonah 4:2).
From our vantage point, where we’ve heard Jesus say, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27), it’s easy to see that, beyond having a duty to the Ninevites, Jonah could have loved them and willingly and sacrificially done good for them. This is true and good, yet there’s something curious in the story where God pushes it one further—beyond duty and beyond sacrificial love.
God tries to help Jonah catch a new vision about the Ninevites by drawing a parallel between the Ninevites, the plant that protected Jonah, and God’s and Jonah’s heart for each (Jonah 4:5–11). But it’s odd because the parallel isn’t really parallel.
Let me set this up: God loves the Ninevites and wants them to be well and to do well. He takes action by sending Jonah, and His active care is of great benefit to the Ninevites. By contrast, Jonah’s relation to the plant is passive. His own attempt at a shelter is rather feeble and flimsy—commentaries say Jonah’s “booth” was made of sticks, like one of Eeyore’s houses in the old Winnie the Pooh TV specials. God shields him with a substantial plant, and it is of great benefit to Jonah.
Here’s the difficulty: God makes a parallel between Jonah’s heart, which cares for something that benefits and comforts Jonah himself (the plant), and His own heart, which cares for, benefits, and comforts someone else (the Ninevites—and the cattle). It’s not the same.
As a writer and part-time artist, I’ve come to appreciate God’s amazing skill at constructing biblical metaphors, so when a parallel doesn’t seem to work, I figure I'm the one who doesn't get it, not God who picked a weak metaphor. So what’s up?
If you go with the parallel, God is saying that He cares for Ninevites the way that Jonah cared for the plant. In other words, Ninevites are a comfort and joy to God, the way the plant was a comfort to Jonah. Run it the other way and God is inviting Jonah to find comfort and joy in the Ninevites, the way that God Himself does. Beyond duty, beyond sacrificial love, caring for Ninevites—his mortal enemies—can be much more than something Jonah has to do, it can be something he gets to do. We might say that the Ninevites could be one of Jonah’s favorite things.
It’s the kind of transformation that God speaks of in Jeremiah 31:33, where He writes His laws on our hearts. As we pursue Jesus’ vision of God’s Kingdom, our deepest desires—our favorite things—become formed by His ways and His passions. As this happens, we move beyond doing things merely because they are His ways; we do them because His ways have become our ways. It’s no longer a sacrifice to care for Ninevites but rather a joy, because their welfare is a true comfort to us personally.
Now that’s very good news: As apprentices to Jesus in the ways of love, we’re growing toward a vision where even our own personal Ninevites are a comfort to us. If we can find comfort even there, this is quite a wonderful life indeed.