I’ve recently been reading Shane Claiborne’s book “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us,” and it’s left me feeling very unsettled and convicted. It also reminded me of a sermon I wrote a couple of years ago from Jonah 4 on the value of human life, so I decided to adapt it into a blog post and share it with you. This isn’t my last word on this issue; it’s honestly more of a starting point. So expect to hear more, and, of course, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. I hope you find this to be valuable.
Kelly Gissendaner is dead. I'm sure many of you are aware of her story. In 1997, Kelly convinced her boyfriend to murder her husband on her behalf. She was put on trial and convicted of murder. And now, Kelly Gissendaner is dead. While on death row, Kelly become a completely new person. She found Christ, studied theology, became a spiritual leader to other imprisoned women, and even fostered a penpal relationship with famed theologian Jürgen Moltmann. Kelly's transformation showed countless people the power of Christ's love, grace, and mercy. And yet, despite pleas from Kelly's children, from Moltmann, and from thousands of people who have been affected by Kelly's story, the state of Georgia executed her on September 29, 2015. Kelly Gissendaner is dead.
Kelly's story illustrates an unfortunate truth. We as a society and as individuals pick and choose which human lives we consider valuable and which we don't. Because Kelly was a criminal and specifically a murderer, our society decided that her life no longer had any value—that she had nothing more to contribute to the world—and thus, we killed her. But this isn't the only case where we’ve done something like this. We look at different groups within our world and say, "These lives have value, and these don't." This isn't something we do consciously, and it certainly isn't something we would admit to doing, but we participate in it without even thinking about it. This isn't a new problem.
We see this problem in the story of Jonah. Everybody loves this story. It’s one we hear over and over as children. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn them of their impending destruction. Instead, Jonah gets on a boat going the opposite way. Jonah gets swallowed by the fish, has a change of heart, gets thrown up, and fulfills his call to preach to Nineveh. The Ninevites repent and are saved. Happy ending, right?
But there’s one little problem with that cut-and-dry, cute, little children’s story. You see, most tellings of the story of Jonah end with chapter three, but there’s this little section called Jonah 4 tacked to the end, and it’s nowhere close to the happy ending we’ve come to expect from the story of Jonah. Here’s Jonah 4 from the NRSV:
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He 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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about 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, and also many animals?”
In this chapter, we have to face an unsettling truth about our hero: He isn’t really a hero at all. Despite everything that he’s been through and all of the amazing things he’s seen God do in his life, Jonah still has a serious heart problem. At the beginning of chapter four, Jonah is displeased, and it doesn't take us long to find out why. He says to the Lord, “See, God! I knew this would happen! I knew you’d save those good-for-nothing Ninevites. That’s why I didn’t want to go speak to them in the first place. I knew you were just so kind and gracious and loving, and you just couldn’t resist sparing them. I knew. I knew, I knew it, I knew it!”
Have you ever heard the phrase, “No good deed goes unpunished”? I’m sure that’s kind of how Jonah felt in this moment. After a bit of persuasion, he decided to do what God had told him to do, and now he feels like he's suffering for it. But the truth is that Jonah isn’t suffering at all, unless you count self-inflicted pain as suffering. Jonah has just done something incredible. He’s taken Nineveh, the capital city of the most horrendous nation in the world at his time, and converted it entirely to the worship of Yahweh. This is absolutely amazing, a miracle of epic proportions that Jonah is allowed to be a part of!
And yet, as we see in Jonah 4, he’s displeased with this situation. Why? Because Jonah allows his own bias to blind him from seeing the truth. Jonah makes it clear that he never wanted God to save the Ninevites. His bias against the Ninevites led him to believe that they were unworthy of being alive. He wanted God’s judgment to reign down on them and for them to be killed. And so, when they respond to his message and are saved, Jonah is displeased. He’s so displeased, in fact, that he asks the Lord to end his life right then and there.
Psychology tells us that biases like Jonah’s are rarely (if ever) completely unfounded. In fact, stereotypes usually start as nuggets of truth that are then either misconstrued, misapplied, or both. Jonah’s disdain for Nineveh was based on the reality that the Assyrians were Israel’s harsh and demanding overlords. They were the imperial power of the day, and they had no problem showing it. They demanded tribute from the nations they had conquered, and when Israel eventually decided to stop paying that tribute, they burned Samaria to the ground and dispersed the people of the northern kingdom of Israel among the nations, never to be heard from again.
So yeah, Jonah had a very good reason to dislike Nineveh. The problem came when he allowed his totally legitimate feelings about the nation of Assyria to alter the way he thought about the people of Nineveh and the value of their lives.
Jonah decided that because the Assyrian government and military had caused him and his nation great harm, the entire nation was worthless and deserving of death. No need to take into account the fact that most of the people in Nineveh weren’t soldiers killing Israelites, but simply civilians going about their lives trying to take care of themselves and their families. No need to think about the fact that the Ninevite soldiers were simply following orders and that, given the opportunity, any nation, including Israel, could have been just as ruthless as Assyria. No need to recognize that even the Assyrian king, the man personally responsible for the atrocities committed against Jonah’s nation, was still a person just as much as Jonah was. Jonah dismissed them all as worthless, evil, and unfit to live. “Let them all die,” Jonah thought. “The world will be better off without them.” We even see in Jonah 4 that Jonah goes outside the city to wait and see if maybe God will change his mind and destroy Nineveh after all. But instead, God has a very important lesson in store for him.
As Jonah is waiting to see if the city will be destroyed, God works through nature rather than speaking with Jonah directly. He appoints a plant, a worm, and a scorching wind to help him get through Jonah’s thick skull. First, he has the plant grow up nice and tall so that it can offer Jonah shade from the sun. Jonah likes this. There’s nothing like sitting back in the shade, sipping on some lemonade, and waiting for God to strike down your enemies. At least if Jonah can’t get what he wants, God is providing him with the nice consolation prize of this plant.
But the plant has a very short life-span. That night, God appoints his second agent, a worm, to kill the plant. Some scholars waste a lot of time debating about what kind of plant it was and how exactly a little worm could bring down a whole plant overnight, but for the sake of the story, we’re just going to take it at face value. When Jonah wakes up, the plant is dead, and now there’s a hot wind blowing against him. What was at first a comfortable, casual stakeout has now become not only uncomfortable, but potentially harmful. Jonah begins feeling faint, and once again, he expresses his wish to die.
And now, God is ready to talk again. And not only is he ready to talk, but he’s ready to make his case. Just like Jonah made an argument to God at the beginning of Jonah 4, now God is preparing to make his own argument. He asks Jonah if he’s in the right for being upset about the plant. Jonah says yes. This plant has become a life-or-death matter for him. And then God replies, “You think you’re justified in being upset over this simple plant that you didn’t even grow. It grew up and died in just one day. How much more do I have a right to be concerned for the thousands of people in the city of Nineveh?”
God is making it very clear here: He cares for the people of Nineveh. Even though many of them were responsible for atrocities against God’s people and humanity as a whole. Even though they worshipped idols instead of the one true God. Even though they had become so wicked that they were on the brink of destruction, God still cared for them. Their lives still had value to God. He cared about them so much that he sent Jonah to them in order to change their hearts and save their lives. God is telling Jonah that he cares for all human life, even though Jonah had decided the Ninevites’ lives were invaluable. God values all human life.
God’s statement about his care for the Ninevites, and ultimately for all people, points out the hypocrisy of Jonah’s bias. In the midst of his anger and mixed-up priorities, Jonah has come to consider a plant more valuable than the lives of 120,000 people. 120,000 people created by the hands of God in his image, whose lives God considers important, and Jonah considers them to be of no value. How could Jonah have gotten to this point? It seems unfathomable.
And yet, aren’t we in the same boat as he was? We’re obviously not biased against the Assyrians because they’re long gone by now, but we do have our own sets of biases, and we do allow those biases to affect how we value the lives of other people. They lead us to conclude that some lives simply aren’t of value. We look at criminals and say, “Your actions have rendered you undeserving of life.” We read in the newspaper about homeless people dying of dehydration on the street, and we say, “If only they had made better decisions, maybe they’d be worth something.” We hear about innocent people in Syria being slaughtered by civil war and we say, “That’s not my problem.” Because just like Jonah, we pick and choose which lives we consider to have value and which we don’t, and we do so based on which groups we consider important, most of which are simply the groups that are most like us.
But like Jonah, God is calling us to something more. Because the truth is that God cares for the lives of all people, not just those that we consider important. And when we look past our biases and our topsy-turvy priorities, we see that if every human life is valuable to God, then every human life should be valuable to us as well, not just in a hypothetical way but in a concrete, real-world way. When we walk past people on the street, when we see people on our TV screens, when we read about people on news sites, we must remember that every single person matters to God, and thus, they should matter to us.
The book of Jonah ends with an unanswered question. After his object lesson, God asks Jonah, “Should I not be concerned for the people of Nineveh?” God is challenging Jonah to see the people of Nineveh as valuable to him and thus as having inherent value. God is giving Jonah an opportunity to put his bias and anger aside and accept the people of Nineveh for who they are: people who are beloved and valued by God. God is giving Jonah an opportunity to join him in caring for and valuing each and every human life, because each and every human life has value.
And God is extending that same invitation to us. “Should I not be concerned for the people of Syria?” “Should I not be concerned for the unemployed and impoverished?” “Should I not be concerned for those who have lost their way to the point that they have to be locked away from society?” The answer is yes, God is concerned for those people, and we are called to be, too.
In this day and age, we are constantly bombarded with the issue of how we’re going to value human life. Every day, we have to decide what life is worth to us and which lives are worth something. As we try to navigate these complex issues like abortion, the death penalty, war, prison reform, and even emigration, may we remember the story of Jonah. May we remember God's love for all people. May we remember that every human life has value to God, and may we seek to value each human life in the same way.