What do you know about God’s mercy, love?
In the Broadway musical South Pacific there is a song that goes like this:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear; you’ve got to be taught from year to year;
Why, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear; You’ve got to be carefully taught…
You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late, Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate; You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Not exactly the whimsical love song we associate with Rodgers and Hammerstein, but sometimes they had another kind of message to convey in their musicals besides boy meets girl. Both Richard and Oscar came from Jewish families. “South Pacific,” written in the late 1940s contains some social commentary perhaps because of the terrible war that just ended. But this song also suggests these great songwriters may have absorbed well a story of their ancestors, from an Old Testament story of religious mistrust that morphed into a healthy case of racial disgust the story of Jonah.
Jonah is a story preserved by Israel about Israel. It’s social and religious commentary circa 500 B.C., and it’s brutally honest. “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear … you’ve got to be taught from year to year … you’ve got to be taught before its too late … you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Over time and for understandable reasons Jonah “had been taught to hate and fear, he’d been carefully taught. Before he was six, seven or eight, he’d been taught…to hate the people his relatives hate.” Jonah is a story with a lot of lessons, and plenty of ironies. One particular lesson is about resentment, a prison of perceived vulnerability and victimhood on the one hand, and paradoxically of self-importance on the other exactly the opposite direction of the endless mercy and selfless love of God.
Jonah was avoiding the people of Ninevah but was also trying to avoid, or at least come to terms with who he was as a child of Israel, a believer in Yahweh … the God who forgives and reconciles. Jonah becomes a captive not just in the belly of a whale, but in the solitary confinement of his and his people’s own resentment. Perhaps the hardest thing for Jonah to swallow was the grace of God.
Whatever Jonah had forgotten about how his ancestor Joseph forgave and mended fences with his estranged brothers, he still managed to remember that God had the inclination to forgive, and that he’d do so toward the last people Jonah would forgive. Jonah resented the Ninevites … but Jonah also resented God. And that is a whale of a spiritual prison to lay in. The operative verse for us then, is chapter 4:2 “Is this not what I said when I was still at home. This is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
Historically, one of the great things about our nation has been its ability over time to reconcile with countries with which we’ve had hostilities. Peace is more than the absence of war, it’s the active promotion of good will. Peace is the overcoming of resentment, of learning not to hate or fear any longer. Learning to do so in the Middle East, in places loathed by some of us nearly as much as Ninevah was in Jonah’s time, will take determination and the ability to remember how we’ve done it before, and with God’s aid can do so again.
Then there is our nation’s governance what should be the active seeking of common good through common sacrifice. It’s hard to govern alongside someone whose party tries to beat your brains out, but that is the challenge we and our elected leaders all face now. Pray that our government, so divided ideologically, can unite practically. From the belly of this beast called acrimony, the recollection of God who is Jesus putting more than politics aside would be a healthy place to start. That the sign of Jonah Jesus spoke of, his own resurrection for the forgiveness of sins might be seen among us, let us pray to the Lord .. Amen.
Rev. Ken Nelson is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Minot.