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Escape From Love
November 9, 1960


A few years ago, a young girl, with seemingly everything to live for, killed herself. Suicide is one of the ways we moderns use to escape from unpleasant situations. It is one of our ways of running. The young girl left a note--a bit unusual and very short, only one sentence. “I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being all my life." An overwhelming sense of loneliness seems to exude between the lines. The note also gives us an insight into such disturbed lives. But it also poses some questions; is it possible for one not to love anyone and is this lack in one's life so desperate that it would drive one to suicide?

In an effort to fill in the gaps and to look at this phenomenon of escape, let us turn to the beautiful Old Testament story, Jonah. There has always been much controversy centered around this book. Usually two sides have been taken--one, those who think it possible that a fish could swallow a man and two, those who think it ridiculous. Through this debate, the real meaning of Jonah has been lost for the book of Jonah is a parable; it was written as a sermon illustration. The author lived in post-exilic Jerusalem when the Hebrews were in great fear of being absorbed by the neighboring cultures. They were very much concerned about preserving their identity, their traditions and beliefs, and so they began to make laws prohibiting inter-marriage and even social intercourse with foreigners. They forgot that God was the God of the world and began to think of Him as their possession. In such a situation the author writes the parable of Jonah. The book is filled with profound insights and startling prophecies which, in the light of history, were true. In thinking of Jonah as a sermon subject, in the space of a few minutes I jotted down seven different sermon ideas. With such a wide scope of material at hand, it is necessary for me to deal with only one theme of the author.

The theme can perhaps best be stated in the form of a question, "Why did Jonah run?" The author first establishes the fact that Jonah did run. He turned his back and fled from the call of God. He plugged his ears to the voice of God. He hardened his heart to the will of God. God told Jonah to go preach to the wicked city of Nineveh that they might repent of their sins. But Jonah ran. He literally ran. He hopped board a ship headed to Tarshish. You know the story--how the wind blew and Jonah was thrown overboard to appease God’s wrath; how a fish swallowed him. And in the belly, Jonah prayed a very popular prayer, "Lord, if you get me out of this, I’ll do anything you say.”  And God heard him and saved him. So Jonah preached but his heart wasn’t in it. And because his heart wasn't it, when they repented, he went out of the city and sulked. He ran literally and he ran figuratively. He ran emotionally. He withdrew into himself; felt sorry for himself and expressed his anger, bitterness and resentment. He sought to withdraw both from God and the Ninevites.

The author of the parable is trying to show Israel how they have been growing inward, how they have been running from God by running from their fellow nations and seeking to keep God's promises for themselves. Why did Jonah run? Jonah himself gives the reason. He prayed to God and said, "That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil." In other words, Jonah ran because God loves! This is quite an insight. Perhaps there are people in our communities who do not come to church because they are afraid of God's love. We can easily picture people who may be afraid of God's wrath, of his judgment upon them for the way they live, or afraid of hell, but here is a man who was afraid of God’s love. What did God’s love concretely mean to Jonah? Why was he not willing to live with it?

The story gives us two reasons. First, Jonah ran because he was unwilling to forgive the Ninevites. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and Assyria had long been enemies of Israel. They had forced the Israelites into the hills. They had sacked their cities. They had slain their women and children. And now, God says that Jonah must forgive them. Not on your life! Jonah would not forgive! Perhaps many people do not come to church, do not become Christians, because they are too honest! Perhaps they are too honest with themselves and with what they say in public worship. Perhaps they are afraid of the doom they are bringing on their heads when they pray the Lord's Prayer. The Lord's Prayer is an awesome act. We pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." We are asking the Lord to forgive us as we forgive Joe Smith who has done us dirt, or wronged us beyond measure. And do you expect me to forgive him? Jonah ran because the love of God would compel him to forgive his enemies.

Secondly, Jonah ran because he was too just. The love of God was not righteous or just enough for Jonah. It just wasn't fair for Nineveh, the wicked city, to be forgiven. Israel all through its history had attempted to follow God's laws. Jonah from his birth had obeyed the law, performed sacrifices, prayed to God; while Nineveh had fun reveling in their wickedness. Now they were going to be treated just the same. It wasn't fair! It isn't fair that a wicked man can be converted on his deathbed and get to go to heaven! The author of the parable was attempting to show Israel that justice in itself can be evil. Justice without being tempered by love and mercy can defeat its own purpose. How right he was in his observation. This very insight was proven by the Jews who followed. Perhaps the epitome were the Pharisees of Jesus' day. They were good examples of righteousness without love. Jesus criticized them for pulling their ox out of a ditch on the Sabbath while at the same time refusing to aid a blind man, or befriend a lame man, because this would be profaning the holy day. Justice without a sense of perspective!

Two years ago when I returned home from my three-year missionary term in Japan, my family came to Seattle to meet me. As we were in Washington, we decided to go to Bellingham where my father shook hands with and was introduced to his elder brother for the first time in his life. When my Grandfather's first wife died and he proposed to marry again, his eldest son was very indignant because this woman had not worked with them during the years; yet she would now get the inheritance and the children would get nothing. In his anger he ran; he ran about as far away from Minnesota as he could get! He was a good Jonah. My father was the son of the new marriage. He had never seen his elder brother. His brother had never returned to Minnesota and had never written to his Father. Fifty-five years is a long time to live with one's justice. Fifty-five years is a long time to harbor one's bitterness and anger. I saw an old, pitiful, bitter Jonah. He said very little the entire afternoon we spent with him. One of the few things he said was to me, "Well, I bet you’re glad to get away from those damn Japs!” A bitter old man who had let hate master his life. As Jonah sat on the hill outside Nineveh and pouted because God did not destroy it, so this old man had let hate and bitterness ruin him. This is what results when a man turns his back on God; this is what happens when a man refuses to love, when he is too just. This is howJonah ended his days.

The author attempted to warn the Israelites of the course they are leading. The first thing that happened to Jonah was that he found himself in the belly of a whale or fish. I don't know what the author intended to symbolize by this account, but it is beautiful imagery. What does the belly of a whale suggest to you? Darkness, ugly, warmth? To me, the worst possible characteristic of such a fate would be the dreadful loneliness; to be cut off from one's loved ones, neighbors, and God; to be alone, to have no one to care whether I live or die. This is loneliness, this is hell. To think of hell as a fiery pit is also imagery. I don't know what that suggests to your mind but I prefer to think of hell as the belly of a whale, cut off from people, from God, from love—such loneliness as the girl felt who committed suicide.

The dialogue with God concerning the plant shows us the extent of Jonah's compassion. God planted a vine to grow and shade Jonah from the sun. This he liked; he was happy. Then God appointed a worm who chewed at the plant until it withered and died. Then Jonah was mad. God said, "Do you do well to be angry?” Jonah said, "Angry enough to die!”' God said, "'Why should you care about the plant? You didn't even labor for it." Thus, God shows Jonah that he doesn't even know the joy of doing something for himself. A man who has a hobby or loves his work can take pride in what he does for he has put himself into it. A man who loves to garden; who digs the hole, plants the seed, waters it, pulls the weeds and watches it grow into a healthy plant can have pride, even affection for the plant because he labored for it; but Jonah had not even experienced that satisfaction. The only reason he loved the plant was because it shaded him from the sun. This is the lowest form of human feeling. There was no giving of himself to another, no concern for another's well-being. The author tries to show Israel that this is what results from a self-centered, inverted life—to only love something or someone because it or he does something for him.

A few years ago there was a train wreck in which many were killed and many were injured. In the midst of the dead bodies and those shrieking from pain, sat a woman, wailing, “0h, my new sixteen dollar pair of shoes!” Such love!

About a hundred years ago a Japanese woman fell in love with a man who did not love her in return—often a universal experience. In her misery, she wrote the following poem: Of the numberless steps up to my heart, He climbed perhaps only two or three.This is a good picture of Jonah. Of the numberless steps up to the heart of God, to the life of salvation, of love, Jonah climbed perhaps only two or three. This is the result of running from God.

Yet the parable is not entirely a parable of doom. There is an element of hope running through it for God is there, calling, loving, pleading. When Jonah fled to Tarshish, God came to him in the storm. When Jonah was in the belly of the fish, God rescued him. When Jonah went to the big city, God went with him and blessed his efforts. When Jonah sulked on the edge of the city, God pleaded and begged him to repent. Truly the words of the psalmist take on new meaning, Psalm 139:7-10, “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If l ascend to heaven, thou art there. If I make my bed in hell, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me and thy right hand shall hold me.”

The story abruptly ends. We don't know what happened to Jonah. We don’t know if he repented or if his heart was too hardened, if he was too callous to hear God's voice and turn from his selfish ways. The author leaves the ending to the readers. Each must write his own ending for each of us is a Jonah. We have each gone our own way and turned our backs on God and our neighbors. We each must write our own ending based on our own experience, based on our dedication and resolutions for the future. How does the story of Jonah end in your Bible?

© 1960 Douglas I. Norris