Jonah Read the whole thing. Make sure to add lots of emotion and drama to the reading. Have friends/family help act it out. It should be over the top!
Now, before we read the story of Jonah, I’m going to suggest that it is not an historical story but is satire. It’s a story meant to tell the truth of humanity through the ages—to show us ourselves more than just give details of one man’s mission. This form of story-telling makes everything larger than life in order to drive home a point. It is ridiculous for a purpose. So, here goes…
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” [Now, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria—the empire that completely destroyed Israel. The city was a symbol of all that was evil in the world.] But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. [Do you think anyone can really hide from God?]
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. [As opposed to Jesus, who could sleep through a storm because he trusted God, Jonah somehow managed to sleep out of sheer will of ignoring reality.]
The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” [Jonah knows exactly who God is and what God is about, but he was still foolish enough to try to outrun God’s call.] Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” [An awfully noble suggestion from someone who was trying to outrun God and his responsibility to God.]
Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. [So, these non-Hebrews recognized God even when Jonah tried to ignore God.] But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. [Among half-digested plankton and seaweed.]
Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
‘I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, “I am driven away
from your sight;
how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?”
The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’ Do you think Jonah really meant it, or was he just trying to convince God to make the fish release him?
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
[Now, everyone thinks of the big fish with the story of Jonah. But it’s only after the fish that the story gets REALLY interesting.]
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. [In reality, Nineveh was probably not as large as that—but this detail is given to make a point.] Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. [Only a day’s walk—only a third of the way into the great city.] And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ [Not much of a proclamation. Makes you think that maybe he hoped no one would hear him.] And [yet] the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. [EVERYONE responded to Jonah’s half-hearted message.]
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. [The king! Can you imagine any national leader doing something like that?] Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. [Imagine the cattle all wearing sackcloth and being kept from food and water. Really?] All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. [God changed God’s mind?]
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, [in your whiniest and most annoying voice…]‘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. [Usually, we think of these characteristics as good qualities of God—not an accusation. But Jonah’s unhappy about God’s grace.] And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ [Is it really as bad as that?] And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. [Like a child hoping to get a good seat to watch someone else get what they deserve.]
The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; [that was nice] so Jonah was very happy about the bush. [Happy, but not very grateful.] But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’ [Back to his tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants—what he thinks he deserves.]
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ [What a diva.] Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about 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 many animals?’
[I love the animals part. But this is where it ends—with God leaving the reader with the question hanging in the air.]
History is true once, while a story is true forever. As I said before, I suspect Jonah isn’t history but, rather, a story that challenges the way God’s people see themselves and others. It is a story that stands the test of time by smacking us upside the head with a wallop of Truth—Truth that we aren’t particularly fond of. That Truth is that God’s mercy and grace are beyond our control and are more extensive than we consider proper.
As I cleaned out Seth’s backpack last week, I found a list. The list was divided into three columns—he likes keeping statistics: Good, Good/Bad, and Bad. Under each heading was a list of names of his classmates. He had placed each classmate into a column based on how they behave in class and how they treat him. I’d like to say that we didn’t teach him to separate people like that. However, I know that even though we may try to talk a good game about grace and kindness, even the simplest actions and words don’t go unnoticed.
I, like Jonah, have my ideas about who deserves God’s grace and who doesn’t—who needs a second chance or benefit of the doubt and who is so vile I’d prefer never to encounter them for fear of what I might say or do. And I imagine I’m not alone. It is human nature. But that should never be an excuse to dismiss such things.
The thing is, the story of Jonah isn’t about Jonah, at all. And it’s certainly not about a big fish. And it’s not about the miraculous repentance of Nineveh. It’s about God—the pervasive, persistent, unconditional grace that God bestows on God’s beloved creation. It’s about the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love—which Jonah, apparently, sees as a character flaw. And it’s a story to challenge our approach to God’s abundant love for even the most unlovable and unloving among us. It’s about God’s abundant love for our very selves, when we are ungracious and unmerciful.
John Holbert comments on Jonah in his 2015 article, “Prophet Gone Bad”:
“What do you suppose happened to Jonah? Is he still standing on a hill above Nineveh, watching the joy of the Ninevites, secretly hoping that God will drop a low-yield nuclear device on them, ridding his world of such scum forever? Just who is Jonah anyway?
“The tale tells us who the bum is. He is any religious person who claims to know God, and to follow the ways of God. This person can quote the scripture, as Jonah does several times, can pray up a storm, or in Jonah’s case after a storm in a fish’s belly, can imagine themself as a prophet of God. But in reality this person is the rankest of hypocrites. Scripture serves only their purposes, and God is their lap dog, called upon to affirm the narrow things they already believe. In short, Jonah is a prophet gone bad, a religious mountebank [a swindler], an ecclesiastical huckster. Unfortunately, Jonah did not die a long time ago; he is alive and well and living among us, and too often, in us.
Whenever we read the Bible and use it to exclude, deny, and reject living creatures of God, there is Jonah. Whenever we say we will follow God — “Here am I, Send me,” we sing — but in fact follow our own bigoted desires, our own narrow-minded ways, there is Jonah. Whenever we hope that persons who are not like us, who do not sound like us or think like us or act like us, should be removed from the earth by some edict of God, there is Jonah. Jonah, like the Frankenstein monster, keeps getting reborn to wreak havoc on the world that God has loved and redeemed.”
Our world is full of Jonah’s—our lives are full of Jonah’s—we, ourselves, have our Jonah moments and Jonah thoughts and Jonah tantrums. And still—and still—God does not abandon us any more than God abandons the Nineveh’s of this world. But God is also not satisfied with leaving us Jonah-like any more than God wants to leave Nineveh in its evil. No, God is about the business of transformation.
I like the Facebook meme that says, “God isn’t about the business of making bad people good but making dead people alive.” In baptism, we say that we are dying to sin. It is something that happens once and yet must happen internally over and over and over again. It is only in death that true life can be brought forth. And, like Jonah, we often run from that death—going to great lengths to avoid truly dying.
It may be in our efforts to avoid changes in those areas of life we look to for comfort. It may be in the ways we fight against letting outsiders into our country, into our city, into our church. It may be in our denial of our limitations as we age. It may be in our holding onto long-awaited dreams that remain beyond our reach. It may be in our efforts to live through our children what we never experienced ourselves.
What is your Nineveh? What are you running from? What are you fighting against? And where in your life does God’s grace simply infuriate and baffle you? That, my friends, is where we are called to enter. That is where we are invited to walk in all of our vulnerability and anger and disbelief—to boldlyl proclaim God’s message of grace and mercy. It is where we are challenged to listen to God’s promise for ourselves and others and trust that God can and will do a new thing.
It is our call to follow—in spite of our questions and arguments. A call to bring our God-given gifts to bear for the sake of the world. A call to let go of controlling the outcome and simply let God be God. A call to be transformed from unwilling prophet to agent of grace. And a call to watch and wait—to bear witness to God’s unfailing, surprising, mysterious love for God’s broken and blessed Children—for you, for your neighbor, for your enemy, for Jonah AND Nineveh, alike.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church