Scripture can be found here.... be sure to click through to each chapter! We read the whole thing.
This week I read these words: “The book of Jonah is simultaneously pathetic and hilarious.” (J. Clinton McCann, Narrative Lectionary Commentary on Jonah at WorkingPreacher.org.)
And that is so true. Looked at one way, this book really does tell us about all the troubles of the prophet, from his causing a storm that made his shipmates throw him overboard, to his being inside the belly of a great fish calling out pathetically to God, to his being under a hot sun with nothing to shade him.
Looked at another way, of course, this is a book about a backwards prophet—one who goes left when God tells him to go right, one who spouts bad poetry inside a fish before the fish spews him out onto a beach, and one who pouts over his own success at being a prophet like some kind of kid who really, really wanted that piece of candy before dinner. Kind of hilarious.
But before we get to Jonah in all his quirkiness, we need to understand exactly where he’s coming from. Where he’s coming from, is exile.
Last week we were with the northern kingdom under Ahab, as being challenged by the prophet Elijah. This week we stay with the history of the northern kingdom—only that kingdom has been destroyed. Around the year 740 BCE, in the midst of a dispute between the northern and southern kingdoms, the king of Judah (in the south) asked for help from the king of Assyria. Assyria stepped in, and conquered all ten tribes of the northern kingdom, and carried their people away into exile.
Exile, along with creation and slavery, is one the pivotal events of the Old Testament. Not many of us know what it is to be exiles, to be taken away from our homes—often without warning—into another land. People from coastal New York and New Jersey know, many of them. One day they were in their homes, and the next they were elsewhere—with friends, or family, or more likely, in shelters, with no idea when they might return home or what they would find when they got there. That is a kind of exile.
This information casts a different light on the book of Jonah. Or, perhaps, it casts a shadow. At the outset of the story, God speaks to Jonah: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” [Jonah 1:2]. Jonah is commissioned by God to carry a message to the people of Nineveh—the capital of Assyria. The message is one of warning, that God will destroy Nineveh for its wickedness.
Jonah speaks not a word, but his actions speak loudly. God says, Go east—that is, towards Nineveh. And instead, Jonah goes west—to Tarshish, “Away from the presence of the Lord.”
Interesting prophet, whose instinct is to flee from God. But God does have a way of getting our attention, and God gets Jonah’s attention of by hurling wind at the sea, causing the ship to come close to breaking up.
The mariners all cry to their gods for help, and they cast lots to figure out what the problem is. This would be kind of like asking a Ouija board to point to the person at fault. The lots point to Jonah, who pretty quickly owns up to the whole situation. He even tells them to throw him overboard. But the very decent mariners refuse, and just keep rowing. Eventually, with a prayer to God not to blame them for Jonah’s death, they pitch him into the sea like a crate of spoiled bananas. And a “great fish,” appointed by God to the task, promptly swallows him.
From the belly of the fish, Jonah prays. Jonah’s psalm sounds pretty good to us, to our English speaking ears. But you know that scene in “Sister Act,” in which Whoopi Goldberg is pretending to be a nun, and she’s asked to bless the meal? And she ends up praying a fabulous mishmash of the traditional Catholic grace, the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Pledge of Allegiance? That’s what Jonah’s prayer sounds like to Hebrew-speaking ears. And, evidently, to God’s ears. It’s so bad, it even makes the big fish sick to his stomach. Finally, God gives the fish the go-ahead, and Jonah is spewed out, presumably onto some ancient Assyrian beach.
God speaks once again to Jonah, whom I imagine sitting there covered in krill and sand. “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” [Jonah 3:2]. And let’s be clear: for God to send Jonah to Nineveh is on a par with sending a Jew to Berlin in 1939, or sending an African to Lynchburg, Virginia in 1850. But Jonah goes. He goes to Nineveh to proclaim God’s message. And it’s simple, and to the point: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” [Jonah 3:4b]
Now, I could imagine this being an incredibly satisfying message for a prophet to proclaim. Jonah is getting to tell the capital city of Assyria, the kingdom that is responsible for the misery and exile of his people, that they are sinners, that their wickedness has come up before the Lord like some kind of foul stench. And Jonah’s message is wildly successful! From the king to the tiniest child to the last member of every herd, they put on sackcloth to show that they are remorseful. And each and every person and animal fasts, as well, not a morsel of food or a sip of drink touching anyone’s mouth. This is how remorse is shown in the ancient world. In the 21st century, we might kneel and pray, and make amends by contacting those we’ve harmed. In the ancient world, people put on garments of rags, and cover themselves in ashes, and stop eating and drinking. And God sees their actions, hears their prayers, and God changes his mind. Again.
But Jonah is furious. This is not satisfying to Jonah. This does not give him joy, that the word of God has been passed successfully to the people of the land that took his people into exile, and they have won a reprieve. Jonah does not think, “Oh good! I’ve helped to save them!” Quite the opposite. Jonah says, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” [Jonah 4:2b-3].
Jonah wants God to punish the Ninevites. Jonah wants them to suffer for the bad things they have done. And for all the ways this story pokes fun at Jonah, I think we need to pause a moment, and recognize that Jonah’s sentiments are very, very human. And most of us don’t have to look any further than our own reactions to being harmed to understand where Jonah is coming from.
Think of a time when you were hurt, or your child was hurt, or someone else whom you love with a protective love. There is a young woman somewhere out there who hurt my daughter in the fifth grade, the thought of whom still raises my blood pressure. Think of a time your community was hurt, or your country—think of our collective response after September 11, or after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was a rare person who, in the aftermath of attack, thought, “If only we could give our attackers an opportunity to repent, we would be so joyful to hear that they had a change of heart.” That didn’t happen. If it did, it didn’t happen much.
Jonah’s reaction is a very human reaction.
And it is not God’s reaction. This is the way God is described in scripture, over and over: gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, ready to forgive. Over and over. So… if you happen to hear people invoke a God who is eager to punish, to rain down fire and brimstone on any particular person, or any particular country, following any particular event… well, God is simply not likely to agree with that plan. Again, Saint Anne Lamott says it best: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”[i]
The problem is, God loves everyone. God loves us. God created us in love, and re-creates us in love, and redeems and sustains us in love. And God loves the people we hate, too. God loves the people who have harmed us. Even though there are moments in scripture that seem to contradict this notion, there are far more that affirm it.
Thus, the troubles of the prophet Jonah, hilarious and pathetic as they—and he—may be. Jonah is hilarious and pathetic, and he is also a tremendously effective prophet. Everywhere he goes, God’s message is heard and people respond. God is able to use Jonah, despite his best efforts not to be used. God is able to save through Jonah, despite Jonah’s best efforts not to save.
We don’t know how Jonah’s story ends. This happens occasionally in scripture. Characters are introduced, and then slip away, without a satisfactory resolution to their story, without an “Amen!” to wrap things up. The last words we hear are the words of God, who says, very reasonably, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” And that’s it. The end. We don’t know how Jonah will respond. We don’t know what chapter 5 will bring.
All we know is how we will respond to a gracious God, a merciful God, a God who is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. We might respond with relief. We might respond with joy. We might respond with anger. We might respond with resentment. We might find ourselves bathing in the cool and refreshing river of God’s love and mercy, or we might find ourselves sitting furiously under the sultry south wind of our own anger and self-righteousness.
And no matter how we respond, it will not lessen or change the essential character of God—towards our enemy, or towards us. We will never wear God out. We can still be assured of that grace, still be confident of that mercy, still count on that slowness to anger, and that abundant, steadfast love, and that eagerness not to have to punish. For us. For them. For us again. We will never wear God out. God will never change. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.