COMMENTARY: Urban outcasts: the new Ninevites

c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED _"But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left. ... Should I not be concerned about that great city?"(Jonah 4:11).

In the spring of 1985, during a rather boring business session of a church conference, I decided to get a bite to eat at the fast-food restaurant near the church. While there, I struck up a conversation with a somewhat disheveled young man who approached me for money for food.

As we ate, I guided the conversation toward spiritual matters. My friend confessed he was a drug addict who wanted to get clean, and he was willing to go with me to the worship service set to follow the business session.

Unfortunately, however, he never made it inside the sanctuary. As we entered the church lobby the people who were milling about suddenly stopped what they were doing and began to stare at us, their mouths agape.

After an uncomfortable minute, my friend simply turned and walked out. When I ran after him, he was moving fast _ away from the church. He turned around just long enough to thank me, but said he didn't think he would stay for service after all.

For many urban outcasts such as my friend the incident represents their worst fear. If you ask street people, convicts and ex-offenders why they don't go to church, they will often speak of a fear of rejection _ either by God or God's people.

Many half-jokingly say they are afraid of being struck by lightning or having the church collapse on top of them. Others refer mockingly to pious hypocrites and"Uncle Tom"preachers who take advantage of the unfortunate while simultaneously casting aspersions at them.

While such excuses are often overblown and mask a guilty conscience, they nonetheless have some basis in fact, as the biblical book of Jonah attests.

Jonah, of course, was the reluctant prophet whose terse message _"Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown"_ was delivered only after three days of contemplation in the belly of a fish. God found it necessary to use this means of persuasion because Nineveh was the capital city of the dreaded Assyrians, who regularly wreaked havoc on the lives of Jonah and his fellow Israelites.

Fearing a merciful God would spare the lives of penitent Assyrians, Jonah initially refused to preach the message that would lead to repentance. Though his abdominal experience caused him to reconsider his position and deliver God's message, he nonetheless refused to forgive the Assyrians when they heeded his message.

Within this context, God's response to Jonah is instructive: Your refusal to forgive, God says, is selfish. These people _ who in their moral ignorance cannot tell their right hand from their left _ are, of themselves, more important than your prejudices and grievances.

Thus is the wickedness of the Jonahs exposed. For the Jonahs of the world believe we are intrinsically more valuable than the Assyrians. We believe the crimes of the Ninevites _ prostitution, robbery, murder _ make them, if not unredeemable, then, at most, not worth redeeming.

Hence, my drug-addicted friend could not feel welcome in God's house because the reaction of God's people indicated he was not worth redeeming.

I have no idea what has happened to my friend. I hope he's doing okay and has met people willing to help him. I wish I had another opportunity to talk with him. I feel guilty for not having followed him. For not letting him know that all Christians don't behave that way, that we don't all have the attitude of Jonah.