I don’t know when it was. Fifth grade, sixth grade, even earlier? Somewhere around there I first recognized just how implausible the story of Jonah was. By that time, I knew enough about the anatomy of wales, human physiology, and the digestive system to know that it the likelihood of someone being swallowed by a whale, surviving in its belly for three days, and then being vomited up on the seashore was quite slim. I knew enough geography that a whale swimming from the Mediterranean Ocean to the Persian Gulf in three days was far-fetched, and that a whole city might repent in response to a six-word sermon was impossible. For the literal mind of a precocious and inquisitive pre-teen, the book of Jonah presented enormous problems.
It’s taken me the rest of my life to recognize that the book of Jonah is a wonderful story, worthy of closer examination for at least three reasons. One, because Jonah is a rich tale that confronts the reader with significant theological questions to ponder and connects us with profound personal questions of call and vocation. The second reason it’s a shame is that part of the story of Jonah is one of the most familiar of all the stories in the bible and that the story of Jonah has worked powerfully on the Christian imagination for 2 millennia. The third reason is that it is full of humor that we often overlook or ignore because, well, it’s in the Bible, so it has to be serious.
Modern, progressive Christians’ discomfort with Jonah is evidenced by the lectionary editors’ decision to include only a few verses over our three-year lectionary cycle—the verses from chapter 3 we heard that include the description of Jonah’s preaching and the king of Nineveh’s proclamation of repentance in response. That’s it, that’s all. I included chapter four in our reading today because in many ways, that’s the heart of the story—Jonah’s response to his preaching, and the response of God to Jonah’s pouting.
What do you know about Jonah? Right, he was swallowed up by a whale. Why? Because God called him to go prophesy against the wickedness of the city of Nineveh. Instead of heeding that call, he took ship in the opposite direction. A storm came up and the sailors threw Jonah overboard to appease the wrath of God. This part of the story everyone knows well. He was swallowed up by a big fish and stayed in its stomach for three days. From the belly of the whale, Jonah prayed to God for deliverance, and after three days, he was spewed up on dry land.
God called Jonah a second time to go prophesy against the city of Nineveh, and this time he went. This story presents the modern reader with many problems, the first being the impossibility of a whale, or a big fish swallowing a man whole, the man surviving for three days inside it, and then being spewed out. One commentator remarked that of all the details in the story of Jonah, that he was eaten by a whale is the most plausible.
For if there’s anything unlikely, unbelievable, it’s the effect of Jonah’s preaching. The text says that Nineveh was a large city; it was a three-day’s walk from one end to the other, and that when Jonah arrived, he walked a day into it, and there preached his message of doom and destruction. That’s all it took. One lone voice, six simple words in Hebrew. Just this, coming from a foreigner, and the whole city, man and beast, put on sackcloth and ashes, and repented of their wickedness.
It could happen, I suppose.
What comes next is equally surprising. Having prophesied doom and destruction, Jonah leaves the city, finds a hill overlooking it, and settles in to watch the carnage. God provides him with a bush that grows up to give Jonah shade from the hot sun, a turn of events that made Jonah quite happy, but the next day, God caused a worm to kill the bush so that it withered and Jonah got sunburnt. He also got angry.
If you were Jonah, how would you respond to this development? One would think he would be pleased with himself, proud of the effects of his preaching. But no. He complains to God, saying that the reason he didn’t want to go in the first place was because he knew this would happen. He knew God was a gracious God, full of mercy, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent. In other words, if Jonah was going to prophesy doom and destruction, he wanted to see it happen.
So what should we make of all this? A prophet who doesn’t want to be a prophet, certainly doesn’t want to be a successful prophet and resists his call. On that level, we can understand the story all to well. We can imagine resisting the tug of duty and responsibility, turning away from what we know we ought to do. We can even imagine, most of us, sensing God calling us in a certain direction, calling us to deeper commitment, to a richer spiritual life, and turning away.
That’s all easy to imagine, and in that sense, Jonah represents us. But there’s more to the story than just Jonah. Besides Jonah and God, there’s another actor, or set of actors in the story, and that is Nineveh itself. Now, Nineveh was the heart of the Assyrian empire, one of the great empires of the ancient near east, and one of the most brutal. It was Assyria that had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century bce. Nineveh was the evil empire. Its power dwarfed all of its neighbors, including the kingdom of Judah. That makes Jonah’s resistance to God’s call all the more understandable, even if that’s not the excuse Jonah gave himself.
In the end, the book of Jonah is not primarily about Jonah. It is about God. It is a story of God’s love, mercy, steadfast love. It is about proclaiming not just God’s displeasure and threatening destruction, it is about knowing who God is, and proclaiming that message of love, mercy, and steadfast love.
When God rebukes Jonah at the end of the story, God points out that if Jonah was concerned about a bush, how much more should God be concerned about the city of Nineveh with its more than 120,000 inhabitants, and also animals. This is a story about the universalizing of God’s love and mercy. Jonah, and the original readers of this text, were being challenged to expand their notion of God and of God’s love. For all God’s love and concern for the Jewish people in the post-exilic period, the Hebrew Bible and the book of Jonah, bear witness to a growing understanding that God is God of all creation, the God of all humanity and God’s love and mercy extends to all humans, even to one’s enemies.
I wonder how many of us are like Jonah, so hardened in our attitudes, so critical of those with whom we disagree, that what we really want is to see them destroyed by God’s wrath, embarrassment in the media, or humiliating political defeat? We proclaim God’s judgment on our opponents but do we ever consider what might happen if they changed their minds, if they repented of the actions that we regard as sinful, evil, oppressive and unjust?
Are we like Jonah, who having delivered our prophetic message in the most self-righteous of language and attitude, are now sitting above the city, waiting for its destruction? Or can we imagine that God might accept the repentance and show mercy?
And that’s the message for us as well. Like Jonah, that is what God is calling us to, as individuals and as a congregation. The God who is calling us is not a God of wrath and destruction, no matter how much some Christians in our culture would have us and everyone else believe it. The God who calls us is unimaginable in the extent of the love, mercy, and patience God has. It is that God we have experienced ourselves in the forgiveness of our sins. It is that God we are called to share with a world that knows hate and fear and violence. It is that message, a message we know for ourselves, that we need to bring to those around us. And we need to proclaim it throughout the our community and the world. Wherever there is animosity and hate, whatever enemies we fear, God’s steadfast love and mercy reaches.