That was me. My role in the youth group. You’ve got the popular one, the pretty one, the smart one, the funny one, and so on. Every group has them. And you know which one you are in the group.
I accepted my role of judgiest judger with a grave and humble dignity and my thoughts and sometimes my words were infused with the language of the judge. He or she knew better. That’s what happens when you ignore good advice. They were warned. And yes, they got what they deserved. Oh, my sixteen self was so high and mighty. But, Vinny was about to change all that.
Vinny was a Wall Street wiz turned homeless bouncer and one of the sweetest men I have ever met. We were in an alcove of a closed building, underneath the scaffolding that lined this particular New York City street. It was after midnight and the wind was cold as it whipped around corners. With Vinny was a group of five or six other guys with similar stories.
I was sixteen and on a mission trip with my youth group in the heart of the Big Apple. On this particular night, we were passing out sandwiches and toiletries as we learned that the city really never sleeps. Really, we were learning how to treat others without judging them.
On the ride into the city, our leader told us about the people. That they were just like us and the only thing that separated us from them was a choice or two. I wasn’t so sure about that. I carried around with me what I saw in movies or read in books. Homeless people were drug addicts and alcoholics and those with mental disorders that didn’t quite fit in with society. (Oh, I did meet them while I was there. At one mission, a guy came up in roller blades with American flags sticking out of both sides of his bike helmet and demanded his ravioli. The director offered the same soup everybody else was having. Roller Blade American Flag guy said he’d tell his five lawyers and rolled away. The director, non-plussed, said it happens and he’d be back next week for whatever they were serving.)
That’s what I thought the homeless were like. They stole, they beat, they took advantage of the system. But, here’s Vinny. As he shared his story in a thick Bronx accent, I hung out in the back of the group. Inwardly rolling my eyes. He was good-hearted, joking and laughing with us. He told us he made some bad choices when the money started rolling in. Drugs, alcohol, and jail meant he would never see his daughter again. He couldn’t get a regular job because of the jail time and he couldn’t get a place to live because he couldn’t pay rent. So, he bounced occasionally for some local bars and spent A LOT of time at the Y. I don’t know how much of Vinny’s story was true and I held Vinny to the standard that he should have known better.
As we were leaving, a couple of the guys in my youth group started teasing me, names and ribbing that was a little too true to be funny. This had been going on since the beginning of the trip and out here on the street, I was embarrassed and done with their antics. I yelled for them to stop and then Vinny stepped in. He put himself between me and the guys, and with a smile said, “Hey, don’t chou gotta get in that van?”
Did I mention Vinny spent a lot of time at the Y? I guess that part was true because he had huge muscles. The boys back pedaled as fast as they could. Vinny then turned to me. He put a body-builder gloved hand on my shoulder. “Listen, they just wanna see you react, so don’t.” He hugged me, and then told me to stay strong.
My world was rocked. First, I was hugged by the Bronx version of Stalone who just scared the guys witless and he didn’t try anything. He was kind to me and I wasn’t even the popular one or the pretty one. I was the uptight one and I was judging him. And he was defending me.
I think I approached the whole situation like my man Jonah.
This guy had a serious disdain for anything Nineveh. It wasn’t his aesthetic, they worshiped a fish god, they lived by the sea. Jonah’s reasons for hating Ninevites was long and it was a hatred shared by his countrymen. There’s no neutral ground.
God gave Jonah a very specific message for the Ninevites and it’s content did not sit well with him. It was a message of repentance and acceptance, and I think it was more for Jonah than the audience. So, what does Jonah do? He got on a boat only to jump ship under his own willpower in the middle of a storm, because guess what? He was going in the wrong direction, and rather than continue to risk the life of the crew, Jonah stepped off the boat. He is then shipped via whale to Nineveh.
He delivered his message and then folded his arms and scowled the entire way out of the city. Well, that’s how I picture him reacting anyway. I also see him scowling in his little lean-to, watching to see what would happen to the city. Daring God to be compassionate.
Which He was, and graciously so. However, Jonah was angry. Angry that God should let the city repent, angry that his little leafy vine that gave him comfort died. Angry that the sun beat down on him and angry that wind was blowing. He was angry enough to die. I imagine Jonah striking a melodramatic silent screen pose here, one hand to forehead, the other on his heart. God then asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be so angry?” Another translation asks, “What cause do you have to be so angry?”
See, everything Jonah is mad about is completely out of his control. An entire city of 120,000 people and their livestock. The sun. The wind. A plant.
But the Lord said: You are concerned about a vine that you did not plant or take care of, a vine that grew up in one night and died the next. In that city of Nineveh there are more than 120,000 people who cannot tell right from wrong, and many cattle are also there. Don't you think I should be concerned about that big city?" (Jonah 4:10-11)
I judged Vinny’s life and his choices because I thought he could have done better. Vinny was getting what he deserved, and I believe Jonah thought Nineveh didn’t deserve repentance and compassion. In reality: I don’t know squat about Vinny except he chose to genuinely help a scared, uptight girl find that she doesn’t know everything. And, God can have compassion on anyone. Without our approval.
Maybe the book of Jonah is only four chapters long because he finally got the message. I think Jonah finally realized carrying around his preconceptions was causing a few problems. So, if you’re like me or Jonah, it can be hard to let go of judging others. In those times, remember the grace and the love the Father has shared with you. Maybe its in the kindness of strangers or in the embrace of a child. Let the One who is, and was, and will be handle the situation. He’s big enough to love them and you.