JONAH: Jonah’s story is not so much about a big fish, but about the surprising mercy of God. We are used to hearing in the New Testament about the generosity of Jesus, his willingness to reach out to the outsiders of society, the forgiveness he offers even to those bent on getting rid of him. But in the Old Testament? We have been following the story of Israel through some of the Old Testament key players, like Abraham and Joseph and Moses with his brother Aaron, David and the prophet Elijah, all Jews, all bent on keeping the people of Israel connected to God with little or no attention to those on the outside of the circle. God did bless the non-Jewish widow through Elijah. But Jonah’s story pushes the limits—Israel’s self -understanding as the favored child of God is stretched. God’s mercy is not reserved for them alone. It is much bigger than they thought.
Using humor and exaggeration, this long parable type of a story is set in a historical setting with honest to goodness enemies of Israel, the Assyrians, whose capital city was Nineveh. Assyrian troops were known to savagely slaughter the Hebrews, collecting their heads for bonus pay. It’s no wonder Jonah doesn’t want the job. It might be like asking a gang member here in Baltimore to approach members of a rival gang with the news that they were going to be obliterated. A sure way to get shot. Jonah tries to get as far away as possible. He gets a ticket on a ship traveling some 2500 miles to the west to Tarshish, a city on the southern coast of Spain!
Even a runaway prophet has an impact on the people around him.
The sailors on the ship to Tarshish are not Jews. They have their own gods. They, like most people in their time, were superstitious about why and when storms arose. They saw storms as acts of a god who was angry with someone, they narrowed it down to Jonah. Their panic at the pending demise of their ship forces them to find out more about Jonah and Jonah’s God, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. Jonah knows the sea will calm if they throw him overboard. At first they try to get back to shore and drop him off, but the waves and the wind prevent it. So they ask forgiveness from God and dump him off the ship. The sea calms and they know who to thank, making commitments to follow Jonah’s God. Because of Jonah, outsiders to the faith end up following God.
You know the in-between section of this story, when Jonah is swallowed by a fish, repents of his running away and recognizes that God has saved him. The fish spits him out and he gets another chance to follow God’s call. God’s message was short and to the point. All Jonah says to the people of Nineveh is this: “In 40 days, the city shall be overthrown!” And that is all it takes. One sentence announced through the city turns into a major call to repentance, a major change in life style for an entire city. At the direction of the king, the people of Nineveh as a whole repent of their wicked ways. They begin to fast and pray to the same God who was ready to wipe them out due to their wicked ways. The king decrees that all will turn from their wicked ways and from the violence that is in their hands. This is the miracle, the real impossibility, in this story that tops the part about a fish swallowing and spitting out a man. Can you imagine that overnight, the entire city of Baltimore, of one accord, at the direction of the mayor, turns completely from the ways of injustice, violence, addiction, or prostitution? The whole city turning to God? This is what good Christians in the pews have been praying and praying for, and it seems like a definite impossibility from our view. That is the miraculous kind of about face which happens in this story.
Someone actually listened to the words of Jonah. They took his message to heart and turned over a new leaf. So God changed God’s mind. God did not overthrow them. Jonah’s words have positive results, but he is not happy about it. He thinks the people of Nineveh should be wiped out by God. They do not deserve God’s mercy. He goes out to the edge of the city to sulk. God gives him a shade tree to sulk under and then God takes it away. Jonah whines.
How quickly he forgets the mercy shown to him by God. A runaway prophet should have drowned in the stormy sea. But God appointed a fish to save the day. A pouting prophet should have had to withstand the hot sun. But God appointed a shade tree. God gives Jonah a second chance. God continues to care about Jonah. Why can he not appreciate that God also can give the people of Nineveh a second chance? That God can care about the people and the animals who live in Nineveh?
So often we assume we are somehow uniquely and specially deserving of God’s mercy. We mess up time and time again and expect forgiveness, another chance. We forget that God loves the ones we disagree with, the ones whose behavior seems to be really off kilter from God’s expectations (at least from our point of view), the ones who will vote for the other candidate. We forget that our God is generous to a fault, and not just toward us. We forget that God’s mercy is wider than we expect.
I am remembering a similar response to this amazing grace of God in the parable Jesus told about the workers in the vineyard who began work at different times of the day. At the end of the day, the owner paid each one the same agreed upon day’s wage, meaning that the ones who worked only for the last hour earned the same amount as the workers who toiled all day in the vineyard. What? Anyone knows that is not fair. But Jesus said: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belong to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
At the end, God says to Jonah: “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 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Jonah has petty concerns about the plant that had given him shade. God has major concerns for a city full of people (and animals).
It is only at the end of the story that we learn the real reason Jonah ran away from God. It wasn’t his fear of being killed by Ninevites. It was his fear that God was merciful enough to change God’s mind and spare these wicked people. He had an idea that God would show mercy to them and he did not think they deserved it, so he ran away.
We are not going to get on a ship to Tarshish, but running away from God can happen in other ways. It often happens because we are not happy with the way God has been acting. Notice it is all about us again! Some people get furious at God when a loved one is killed or dies suddenly from an illness. I spoke with a woman not too long ago who shared that she had grown up in the church, but after her grandfather died, she had no use for the spiritual side of her life. I think internally, she ran away from God. Some people give up on God when change is not happening fast enough, when the world around us seems mired in trouble and pain and fear and violence. They gradually stop participating in a faith community. They remove themselves, which is a form of running away. There can be lots of reasons for running away from God. We make a choice—sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious– to turn in the other direction when we judge God as not kind enough, not forceful enough, not attentive enough, not powerful enough or not ____ enough. You fill in the blank.
As Jonah found out, you can’t run away from God. You only think you can. God is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. Toward more people than you would expect. And even to animals. Amen.