Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ Isaiah 6:8
When reading scripture, it is all too easy to think that taking it seriously means there is no humor to be found. But what makes Jonah great literature is that it is one of the most intriguing, fun, clever, and curious books. It is filled with absurdity and outlandish situations. Prayers from a fish’s belly, animals wearing sackcloth, people sleeping during raging storms, and Jonah praying for death because he misses the shade of a plant.
Furthermore, Jonah’s attitude is comically shallow and there is virtually nothing redeeming about his character, making his cowardly action all the more remarkable that God uses him in the plan of salvation.
If God can use Jonah, then God sure can use me and you!
However, through its structure and storytelling, it is also one of the most revealing, pointed, and troublesome books as well. There is something very familiar to Jonah’s character that ultimately might hit home to many of us.
It begins when God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and Jonah refuses. For most of us, running from God’s will is an apt metaphor for the subtle ways we avoid being obedient. For Jonah, it was a track meet! Immediately after God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, he packed his bags and went in the exact opposite direction. No subtlety with Jonah!
We have all done it at one time or another. Perhaps it was a call to go on a mission trip or serve on the school board. But it might have been something more life changing … when you refused to take a new job or move to a place you knew in your bones God was calling you to go to. You just didn’t want to do it. But we would have to try very hard to be as faithless as Jonah.
As he kept running, he found himself on a boat with strangers. God sends a storm. Jonah knows it’s God trying to turn him around, but he says nothing. He continues to endanger these strangers’ lives by keeping to himself.
Jonah not only refuses to tell those on the boat it’s his fault, but he also fails in another way. While the others are praying, Jonah refuses even to speak to God. Perhaps he is afraid to pray, for he knows it could mean turning around and heading in God’s direction.
Desperate, the sailors cast lots to figure out who is to blame. It falls on Jonah! He finally comes clean.
At this point, Jonah actually shows some humanity, as well as another layer of stubborn refusal. We might have thought Jonah would be ready to repent and do God’s will, but no such words pour forth from his lips. Instead, as a way to save the other sailors’ lives, a commendable action, while still not doing the Lord’s will he said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you.” Jonah would rather die than go to Nineveh!
Like great humor there is something profound underneath it all that exposes his motivations and our own sometimes weak faith.
He hates the Ninevites.
It is hard to blame Jonah for his hatred. The Assyrians, of which Nineveh was their capital city, were ruthless conquerors, bent on world domination and they had committed endless atrocities in this quest. They destroyed portions of Israel and deported 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel. Listen to this description:
A captured city was usually plundered and burnt to the ground, and its site was deliberately denuded by killing its trees. The loyalty of the troops was secured by dividing a large part of the spoils among them...prisoners were dispatched after the battle; they knelt with their backs to their captors, who beat their heads in with clubs, or cut them off with cutlasses.
It sounds tragically familiar.
Jonah went the exact opposite direction because he wanted the exact opposite of God. He hated them enough to want them all to perish from God’s Old Testament-like wrath! Fire, brimstone, and hellfire destruction is what he wanted for Nineveh. Literally! We see this powerful hatred today.
Jewish students’ lives in this country are being threatened. Reuters reported the following antisemitism:
In Los Angeles, a man screaming “kill Jews” attempts to break into a family’s home. In London, girls in a playground are told they are “*!$ Jews” and should stay off the slide. In China, posts likening Jews to parasites, vampires or snakes proliferate on social media, attracting thousands of “likes.”
And we also see tragic hatred of Muslims. A Muslim mother in Illinois told her neighbor to pray for peace and he proceeded to murder her six-year-old son.
In the end, Jonah tells us exactly why he does not want to go:
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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.
Jonah knows God. He prays to the Lord. He thanked God for being delivered from the fish with great and lofty words of praise and glory. He offered the sailors an orthodox-creed understanding of faith and professed God as Lord of all things. It is easy to worship and praise God when things are going our way, like when we are being rescued, when God’s will conforms to our own. But the crux of the story takes place precisely because Jonah knew God all too well.
He knew God was a God of love and mercy. But Jonah was not ready to see Nineveh forgiven. He was not ready to let go of his hatred.
This story ends very much like that of the Prodigal Son, with Jonah playing the role of the elder brother. Jonah, it turns out, is a whining complainer who asks for death four different times in the story! He cannot stand to see mercy for others. And, because he cannot forgive, he ends the story alone, in the blazing sun, angry enough to die from heat prostration!
Jonah is the part in each of us who really does not want our enemies to find peace and wholeness. We want them to lose their business, their crops to fail, and their lives to fall apart. That is the anger we see on the streets. That is the anger burning in the hearts of the innocent Israelites and the innocent civilians of Gaza.
I do not know the political solution to this situation. But I do know what God calls individuals to do. Nadine Collier showed us the way.
In 2015 her mother was one of those murdered in cold blood by Dylan Roof in Charleston, SC at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a Bible study.
She would have understood Jonah’s feelings toward Nineveh and what they had done to the people of Israel. But, unlike Jonah, she did not run away from God’s call. She did not shy away from Jesus’ command to repay evil with good. So, with great courage and commitment she uttered those now famous words to him, “I forgive you.” But, even more, she realized that God is the ultimate source of forgiveness. This is what else she had to say:
You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. …You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.
So, Jonah is not a quaint story about a fish and some people. It lies at the very core and heart of scripture – the mercy and forgiveness of God.
Eventually, of course, Jonah does preach to the Ninevites. It must have been the most lackluster sermon in the history of sermons! Unimaginative, but short and to the point, “‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’”
And they repent! Despite Jonah’s failures, God used Jonah and accomplished His plan – the redemption of Nineveh – over 120,000 people!
The good news, the great and glorious news of the Gospel, is that God is always filled with infinitely more mercy than we could ever muster within ourselves. Let each of us be willing to speak the truth to others, accept it about ourselves, and most of all, walk into the stream of divine mercy and love. Amen.