When we look outside of the Gospels, we find that there exists in some stories the same tension between those who view themselves as obedient to God and yet are hostile to the repentance of others. One of the most dramatic examples of this comes in the book of Jonah. We noted earlier that the parable of the prodigal son has what appears to be an incomplete ending and it is rather intriguing that this incomplete ending is paralleled by the ending of Jonah. This has some intriguing implications, and it is worth exploring them because this is something we tend to see a fair bit when we examine the question about the difference in how the Bible portrays the obviously sinful “younger brother” and the less obviously sinful “older brother.”
Jonah 3:1-10 tells the story of the repentance of Nineveh, and unsurprisingly, it ends up being the sort of moment where the sinful come to their senses in ways that we have seen already in the Gospels: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”
What makes this particular story a classic “younger brother” repentance story is that the repentance of the sinful prodigal is easy enough to dramatize, so much so that it is repeatedly referred to in scripture. When Jonah said that the city of Nineveh would be overthrown in 40 days, there was no exception listed, but when the city and its ruler came to themselves and repented of their evil ways, God delighted to see their fasting and their repentant heart, and God turned away from his fierce evil and did not–at that time–punish them.
Yet when, just as the parable of the prodigal son portrayed the “righteous” elder brother as being less than enthusiastic, what we find is a strangely incomplete account like that one, which ends with God the Father appealing for a changed heart to someone whose heart has been hardened against both God and others. We find this portrayed in Jonah 4:1-11: “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. So he prayed to the Lord, and said, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” Then the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city. And the Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered. And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!” But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?””
In order to understand the repentance of the hard-hearted elder brother, we are forced to read beyond the text and to ponder the fact that we have a book of Jonah that ends on such an obviously incomplete note. The fact that we have the Book of Jonah would suggest that Jonah did, at least eventually, come to repent and acknowledge his own distance from God and seek to bridge it. Yet that repentance and coming to himself was not portrayed in the text. We must infer it by the fact that we have a text that records God’s appeal to Jonah and ends without Jonah having accepted that appeal to celebrate in God’s mercy. Jonah had been willing to suffer damnation himself so as to avoid giving a warning message to Nineveh that he (correctly) figured that God would be quick to honor with a turning away of His wrath, but God refused to allow either Jonah or Nineveh to be condemned in such a fashion, compelling Jonah to give a message of mercy, and eventually thawing Jonah’s cold heart to accept himself as a fitting if unwilling model of God’s merciful nature. Perhaps we are meant to read the parable of the Prodigal son in such a similarly optimistic fashion, recognizing that the existence of the parable and the fact that the loving and merciful father appeals to the better angels of the resentful older brother allows time and reflection to induce a gradual change of feeling.
In the Book of Acts, we have two appeals that cut to the heart of the resentful Jewish audience in Jerusalem, and these two accounts demonstrate the risk that is involved in seeking to penetrate a stony heart that is resentful and hostile to God’s acts of mercy, even when the people being appealed to would themselves be the beneficiaries of such mercy if they recognized their own need for it. We find the first appeal in Acts 2:29-39: ““Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.” ’ “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.””
What we see here in the account of the Pentecost is that when the large Jewish audience heard Peter’s appeal that they were cut to the heart and were repentant, and joined in with the believers to form a growing church. This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ideal response of an audience to an appeal to repentance that anyone could hope for, and is a fitting start to the New Testament Church being founded in repentant observant Jews who formed the nucleus to which was added a diverse but repentant group of later believers.
It must be conceded, though, that the repentant response of the Pentecost crowd is not the only way that someone could be cut to the heart. When one’s message seeks to get beneath the stony exterior of an unloving heart, repentance is only one of the possible responses that an audience can resort to, and the other responses possible include a high degree of violence. It is this which we find in Acts 7:51-60, a demonstrating that being cut to the heart is not always a positive thing for a speaker with a message of repentance: ““You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
It is interesting to note that what Stephen said to his audience was not very different from what Peter said to his audience. In both cases, the message was that the Jews who were hearing the audience had in fact demanded that Jesus Christ be killed because of the hardness of their hearts, and that they were themselves guilty for demanding the death of the sinless Son of God who had been resurrected, and in being resurrected, had demonstrated Himself as the promised Messiah, who called upon all to repent, especially those who had been responsible for His suffering and death. Yet while Peter’s audience on that Pentecost was motivated to repent and be baptized and to form the nucleus of the New Testament Church in Jerusalem, Stephen’s audience stopped their ears and tried to silence the unwanted message of repentance by putting the messenger to death. When people are cut to the heart, they can result either by repenting or by intense anger, and in Acts 7 we find the angry and hostile response that escalates the violent hostility that those who think themselves righteous have to being forcibly confronted with their rebellion against God and their resulting estrangement from the source of all righteousness. It cannot always be correctly understood before appealing on the self-righteous to repent whether they will in fact respond with repentance or with violent rage, and the life of the prophet or messenger depends precisely on which response an audience has to a challenging and difficult message.