Jonah 4: 1-4; 9-11
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “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. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 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. 11 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 may be one of the most famous fish stories of all time. It is full of the preposterous. A grown man is swallowed by a whale and survives for three days. He is sent to one of the most dangerous places in the world. He preaches for three days and the king orders the entire city to repent. But don’t miss what it has to say in the way it is said.
In a period of harsh threat from the Assyrians, Jonah is told to call their capital, Nineveh, to repentance. “But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” My assumption had always been that Johah fled because he was afraid. After all, going to Nineveh was the modern day equivalent of us going to Isis, shortly after a beheading. (To this day there are Asyrian reliefs depicting piles of heads of decapitated Judeans.) But later in the story Jonah explains himself differently. He says he didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he feared his sworn enemy would be shown mercy. “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.” (This information profoundly changes the story but more on that in a moment.)
In any case, Jonah boards a boat to flee from the Lord. He even tells the sailors that is his intent. A storm comes up, threatening the entire boat. Jonah says ‘this is all my fault, my God is not pleased with me. The only way you can be saved is to throw me overboard.’ The sailors do their best to row to shore but fail—and ultimately throw Jonah overboard. The Lord sends a big fish (often called a whale in the telling of the story) that proceeds to swallow Jonah. Alive, but in utter darkness, Jonah is eloquently remorseful—“I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me;….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.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’ (Jonah 2:1-4)
The Lord shows mercy. Jonah is spat out onto dry land and is called a second time to go to Nineveh. This time Jonah goes to Nineveh, crosses the entire city (it takes three days) preaching repentance to the Ninevites. And as unlikely as it seems, the king and the city repent. You would think Jonah would feel relieved and vindicated. But he is not. He is indignant and angry. And now we begin to realize this is not just a fish story.
Though Jonah said that he “knew” God was gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” but he did not want to follow, much less worship such a God,his first instinct was to flee such a God. Yes, the task is absurd. Who among us would go to Taliban headquarters to preach repentance?! But what was even more disturbing to Jonah was that these cruel, murderous people might be spared. What if Jonah’s certainties were not God’s will. That level of uncertainty is something most of us fear. What if God loves Mulims and the right to lifers and gays and Trumpers and Black Lives Matter—and the myriad other friends and foes that populate our political dialogues?
Facebook is filled with partisan political and theological posturing. There are posts that ridicule and troll. There are posts that declare God’s will. There are posts about gay pride and posts about the sinfulness of homosexuality—there are conflicting posts about labor shortages—arguing about lazy people who don’t want to work because they are on the dole and posts about inequitable wages. Especially when people are talking to screens instead of people, it is nearly impossible not to feel obligated to stand up for or stand against. Pick a hot button issue and it seems our most common response is to be like Jonah. We seek vindication and agreement. Extending true respect to people who disagree is asking too much. It sounds good from the pulpit but it is too hard.
Jonah wanted an avenging God. Jonah was just like the many other prophets we have been reading that called upon God to mete out a “justice” in which the righteous are saved and the unrighteous are punished. He absolutely did not want to engage the evil Ninevites as God’s children. He wanted to indict them and await God’s avenging justice. It is a terrible conundrum when we realize we are called to seek God’s will rather than God’s validation of our will.
When God crossed him up, Jonah did not know what to do. It is one thing to preach repentance and quite another for people to change. Jonah’s entire way of viewing God and justice was being turned upside down and Jonah held steadfastly to his own view of justice. Surely God would not be fooled by the Ninevite repentance. It would only be a matter of time before God eliminated these evil people. So Jonah built a booth outside of the city, sat and waited to see what the Lord would do. While waiting, a vine grows up overnight and provides shade but then the next night, the vine is devoured and gone. Now Johan is really put out. From Jonah’s point of view, there was no justice. It was bad enough that he had to go to Nineveh in the first place, then instead of a ‘terrible swift sword’, the Lord offered mercy. But now, to add insult to injury, Jonah cannot even have a bit of shade after doing the Lord’s work. Why should the murderous Ninevites be spared and the man who had risked his life to save them have to sit in the broiling sun? God owed him at least that much!
Throughout the entire book, Jonah never quite gets that God is bigger than him. God is a higher power that we seek to serve, not a big daddy who will correct our grievances. Jonah gave lip service to God’s sovereignty but his first move was to try to outrun God. (This is as prototypical as it gets—remember Adam and Eve’s first move in the garden was to hide.) That strategy is defeated when he is thrown overboard. When absolutely desperate—alone, in darkness and with no means to save himself, he prays and he is rescued. We would think after such an experience, Jonah would live in service and gratitude. But how soon he forgets!
It turns out he said the right things out of being ‘scared straight’ rather than experiencing an internal transformation. That sounds very much like a real life faith journey. All too many of us call upon the Lord when we are in darkness and then, as soon as we are on dry land, forget the grace that allows us our lives. We forget gratitude, we forget to do the work of reconciliation. We are relieved but not transformed.
Though I think Jesus made it pretty clear that the work of life is loving, I think we, like Jonah, revert to seeking vindication rather than following his example. Jesus loved whether or not he was received, whether or not he was rejected and whether or not he was killed. Repentance means turning from self centeredness, false self sufficiency and a need to impose our sense of justice upon the world. We often do not get to know, much less measure the value of such a life. Turning toward the activities of mindfulness, regard, and careful listening is what it means to turn toward God.
We live in the faith that Love matters and Love will prevail—whether or not we can see the outcomes. That is a big ask and as it turns out, it does not appear that Jonah ever learned it. The story ends with Jonah confronted and God waiting. Jonah may finally learn humility and gratitude. Jonah may die indignant and angry. One life will lead to connectedness and another will end in alienation. We cannot know. We can know we have the same choices.
God did not give up on Jonah. She called him. She saved him. She called him again. She confronted him about his indignation and anger. God’s steadfast love continued no matter what Jonah did—no matter what the Ninevites did and no matter what we do. God seeks to transform lives not force or coerce. That changes the narrative in all of our relationships—with God and with each other. Jonah’s story is not a fish story. It does not matter that it is equally unlikely that a human was swallowed by a whale as it is that Isis or the Taliban will pursue non violent paths. What matters is that God’s way is beyond our imagining and God’s way leads to life.
Jonah’s story is about our ordinary human stubbornness and self-centeredness as we encounter a God that loves in ways we cannot imagine. Let it be so.