“By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread” (Genesis 3:19)
A group of twelve year old are studying the Book of Jonah, each one of them taking on the part of one of the characters in the book, from Jonah, the sailors and the king of Nineveh, to God and the big fish which had swallowed Jonah.
The closing verses leave the class perplexed – what kind of story ends with the protagonist angry and disillusioned, the Almighty posing a question that remains unanswered: “And should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” The frustration of the young people is palpable.
So I set them a task. Here are four brief chapters that tell the story of the prophet Jonah. Now imagine the missing chapter. How does the book really conclude? How is this exchange between Jonah and God resolved? The class moves reluctantly into groups; they take time to assign characters to themselves and to talk about the way the story might have continued.
But slowly short scenes of the chapter begin to emerge. God and Jonah are, at least, still talking to each other. In one group, God has given Jonah some seeds to plant. He sprinkles them over the ground; now he is digging the earth, laboring furiously to make them grow, praying for rain, and God, standing on a plastic chair looks on, arms folded, waiting to see whether Her prophet has really understood the lessons of Nineveh.
It is an evocative scene. The group looks at me for approbation. Did they realize, as their scene unfolded, the biblical echoes of Genesis reverberating throughout this short drama? The man and woman sent out of the Garden of Eden to labor by the sweat of their brow in order to provide food for themselves? Noah after the flood planting a vineyard?
It is obvious that Jonah must learn his lesson and purpose, not only through God’s words, but through his work. Like Adam and Noah, Jonah too must experience the labor of planting seeds, nurturing growth in order fully to comprehend the nature of God’s compassion for his people.
The little group of young people had managed to translate those closing words of the Book of Jonah into a lesson, not only for Jonah, but for all humanity. It is in our labor to provide for ourselves and others that we find purpose and meaning and through which we can fulfill our potential. Jonah will only understand God’s compassion and solicitude for the suffering of creation, when, rather than leaving it to others, he has labored to create something himself.