January 24th, 2021
The story of Jonah, who is sometimes called the reluctant prophet, is a story told to make a point. It is kind of like the tall tales that are told around the campfire, passed on from generation to generation. Maybe it could even be called a long parable. It is full of humor and satire, both tools that writers can use to get a lesson across. It perhaps dates from the post exilic period (during the 5th or 4th century BCE) when the people of Israel had already been run over by the powerful Assyrians to the north. It is a message about the wideness of God’s mercy and compassion stemming perhaps from the descriptive words of praise repeated in various places in the Old Testament, first found way back in Exodus. Listen to the ancient credal statement from Exodus chapter 34: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity ad transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” Please note that the people of Israel long assumed that this God was merciful and abounding in steadfast love exclusively toward them! The story of Jonah puts a question front and center for the people of Israel and for us: Just how far can God’s mercy and grace extend?
Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, described elsewhere in the Old Testament as a wicked, violent place; an enemy of Israel, often threatening to overpower them, ultimately doing so in 722 BCE, forcing the Israelites into exile. It was a very large city. When God told Jonah to carry a message to the people of Ninevah, calling on them to repent of their wicked ways, Jonah ran in the opposite direction. He hopped on a boat and God hurled a great wind, whipping up the waves and threatening the ship with an extremely likely wreck followed by death to its passengers and crew. Jonah seemed unaware of the threat. Listen:
The sailors did not want to be responsible for the death of Jonah, so they did their bests to get the ship to the shore. The sea grew more and more stormy until they finally asked the Lord to not blame them for Jonah’s death and threw him overboard. The sea calmed. Amazed at the power of Jonah’s God, the Gentile sailors turned to the Lord, offering their praise and commitment to God.
As you likely know, Jonah ended up in the belly of a big fish. What a laugh this part of the story would have gotten as it was told around the campfire at night. What? A human swallowed whole by a fish? A human who could pray from inside the belly of the fish? Anyone can see God’s humor here. I hope you also see God’s mercy toward Jonah in this rescue.
Jonah’s prayer seems to alternate between blaming God for his current situation and seeking God’s rescue. Listen:
God’s response to Jonah’s prayer is equally funny. The Lord spoke to the fish and it spewed (maybe vomited?) Jonah onto dry land. What a sight on the beach! Soaking wet with seaweed wrapped around his head. Smelly contents of a fish stomach covering his body.
God comes a second time to Jonah with the same request as before: Go to Ninevah with the message I will tell you. God is clearly a God of mercy, giving Jonah a second chance to obey God’s instructions. This time Jonah listens. He heads to Ninevah and only gets about 1/3 of the way into the very large city, crying out “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown.” No mention of God, no mention of a possibility of changing their behavior or their attitude and getting a reprieve from certain destruction. It is only a short, terse message of judgment. You have no hope, Ninevah. Only 40 days left.
First the people of Ninevah and then even the king of Ninevah react in a way similar to the sailors—they turn to God, seeking forgiveness with the traditional acts of contrition—putting on sackcloth and ashes and asking for grace from God.
Now the laughter really gets loud. Listen to what the king says:
The livestock are dressed in sackcloth? The livestock are forced to fast? What? How could the cows and the sheep and the goats have been accused of following evil ways, of performing acts of violence? This points out in hilarious hyperbole how deep the repentance of their evil ways went!
Jonah is not happy. He knew what kind of God he was dealing with, and that was why he ran the other direction in the first place. Neither he nor the people of Israel as a whole would have ever thought granting mercy to the Assyrians would be a good idea. Listen:
God is challenging Jonah’s mindset here. This story of Jonah is challenging the mindset of any of us who would lump our enemies into the bucket of those who do not deserve mercy from God. God’s mercy is too much for Jonah’s taste. Here a third time in this short story God shows mercy to Jonah, providing a very quick growing plant big enough to shade the sulking prophet as he stews over the merciful, gracious work of a God who abounds in steadfast love even for Ninevites. Then just as quickly as the bush appeared, it disappeared the next day, leaving Jonah baking in the hot desert sun, hopefully trying to understand what God is attempting to teach him! I wonder if we can begin to see our own grudges against groups or individuals as we listen to this tale. Can we remember the people we have written off as undeserving of mercy? The humor continues with Jonah’s repetition of the same dour statement: “It is better for me to die than to live.” The “kill me now” joke is a foundation of much modern Jewish humor as well. God is not finished with Jonah and has no intention of killing him. The message is too important. Listen to the words of God at the close of this story:
Don’t forget the animals! God’s concern for the city of Ninevah is broad and inclusive. The residents have been counted. God includes all of them who had been wandering around in the dark and their livestock. Must be the same livestock who put on sackcloth and ashes as an act of repentance after Jonah’s message! If God chooses to care about the whole city, Jonah has no room to complain. It is God’s choice to be merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Jonah knew it the whole time. We know it too. Thanks be to God.