This weekend I'm speaking at a retreat being put on by a friend of mine. Originally he and I both thought I would simply hawk my books, and then the rest of the retreat would work itself out. But the rest of the retreat has become a significant point of reflection for me, so my books will have to hawk themselves, I'm afraid.
Here's the basic structure of the retreat: Friday night we arrive, and we're treated to a one-man dramatic recitation of the book of Jonah--the guy who gets swallowed by a giant fish; the rest of the weekend is a collage of three ideas--(1) service, (2) solitude and (3) celebration. If I were hawking my book, we might call point (3) "sell-abration" and accomplish the dual feat of (a) having three points that all begin with the same letter and (b) making me heaps of money. But that seemed crass.
Anyway, I started thinking about how these three themes come through in the book of Jonah, and it seems to me that all three come through negatively--not that the Bible is down on service, solitude and celebration (it's a little down on sell-abration), but that Jonah is forced into each, against his instincts.
I'll probably post my comments from each discussion once the weekend is over, but for now I thought I'd draw attention to one scene in Jonah 4, where Jonah displays a sense of narcissistic entitlement that would fit comfortably into twenty-first century Western culture.
"Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" God asks Jonah, regarding a vine that had provided him shade but withered overnight.
"I do," Jonah replies. "I am angry enough to die."
Jonah makes the category error of assuming that his visceral feelings are justified by circumstance. The death of the vine has made him angry because it no longer provides him comfort, and he takes his newfound discomfort as a personal affront.
God clears that nonsense right up. "You did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight." This vine has virtually nothing to do with Jonah, and more to the point, Jonah has nothing to do with the vine. Jonah is not a cultivator or creator; Jonah is a consumer, a user. And when he is frustrated in his exploitation of this serendipitous vine, he makes the mistake of thinking the vine--or worse, God--has it in for him. In what universe does it make sense that the death of a random plant should make someone "angry enough to die"?
Meanwhile, Jonah had completed his mission to Nineveh, albeit under duress. The moral collapse of this city has caused Jonah no concern; in fact, Jonah had been angry enough to die at the thought that this city he hated would be delivered from destruction. Nineveh, his neighbor, didn't know their right from their left, and Jonah would have them put to death for it. He loves a vine and hates his neighbor. Nonsense.
God feels differently, however. These Ninevites, who have offended him directly, were made to grow and tended by God, who sends his rain on the just and unjust alike. God is invested in Nineveh, and not for his own sake--because they offer him some service, like shade against the heat or a place to lay his head--but because they are his creation and his cultivation, and they need his help. The Ninevites are God's neighbors, and he loves them as he loves himself.
For more on narcissistic entitlement and the alternate path God calls us to, take up and read Deliver Us from Me-Ville by yours truly. There--consider yourself hawked.