The book of Jonah is unlike any other book in the Bible. It has been described by scholars as high satire, parody, and a masterpiece of biblical irony. The character of Jonah is one of the great anti-heroes of the Bible--a begrudging and resentful prophet-- stubborn, self-serving, and resistant to God’s call. In other words-- a whole lot more like the rest of us than all those other guys. The book of Jonah is short--only 5 chapters long--but it’s packed with meaning for those willing to dig a little deeper. So that’s our task for this morning. But first, it’s important that we know the rest of the story. Because the heart of this story is actually not that Jonah gets swallowed by a really big fish, that’s really only the prelude to the main event.The real heart of the story, is in what comes after.
So Jonah is swallowed by the whale-- which, as you heard me tell the children, was because God had called him to speak a prophetic word to the gentiles in Nineveh, and he didn’t want to go. So he ran away. But this didn’t work out exactly as Jonah had planned, and so after spending three miserable days and nights in the smelly fishy insides of the whale he finally gives in. “I called to the Lord in my distress and he answered me,” Jonah cries from inside the whale’s belly, "I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will offer sacrifice to you. Deliverance belongs to the Lord.”
In other words: “Okay God, fine. You win. Can I go now please??”
So the whale obligingly spits Jonah back out onto the dry ground and he makes the trek to Nineveh to deliver his prophetic message-- albeit very unenthusiastically. And to his great surprise, the people of the city immediately repent--put on sackcloth and begin to fast. (Now if anyone had any doubts about the satirical nature of the story up to this point, the fact that the story says that all the animals also had to put on sackcloth and fast might help clear up some of those doubts.)
So Jonah should really be pleased by all of this. After all, none of the other prophets had it so easy or were so immediately successful in their efforts. Isaiah and Jeremiah were thrown into exile. Daniel was thrown into a den of lions. Elijah was constantly running for his life. And yet Jonah shows up in Nineveh, and people actually listen to him. So you would think this would make him happy. It doesn’t. Jonah is so resolved in his dislike and distain of the gentiles in Nineveh-- he is so stuck in his prejudice towards them-- that his response to their repentance and God’s subsequent forgiveness is basically to go off into the desert and sulk. He leaves the city and sets up camp in the outlying desert, grumbling the whole time. And at first, God seems to take pity on Jonah, for the story says that God causes a tree to grow and provide shade for Jonah.
And Jonah is happy about this because now he can sulk much more comfortably in the shade. But God was not about to let Jonah sit and feel sorry for himself. As soon as Jonah gets comfortable God causes the tree to wither away and die, and Jonah curses God for taking away his shade.
But all this was meant to be a lesson for Jonah. In the final lines of the story, God says to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the tree?”
“Yes,” Jonah replies rather childishly, “angry enough to die.” (Sounding almost more like an upset teenager than a great biblical prophet.)
God replies, “You are concerned about the tree for which you did not labor and which you did not grow. And should I not be more concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons and also many animals?”
In other words: “get over yourself Jonah, this is not about you.”
And then, the story ends. We get no response from Jonah. We don’t know if he is able to pull himself out of his funk. Maybe he goes back to his hometown unchanged, forever the reluctant prophet. Maybe he realizes his foolishness and goes back to Nineveh to join the party and celebrates with them in their new beginning. We’ll never know. But that’s not really the point anyway.
Some scholars argue that the book of Jonah was always intended to be read as a work of fiction. A story that illustrates the irony of human resentment and prejudice, especially when placed in contrast with the wideness of God’s mercy and the broadness of God’s love. It points out the irony of how we are often all too willing to proclaim God’s unconditional mercy and grace, but not always so willing to extend that grace towards other people. One of the lines in the story that is positively dripping with irony is when Jonah proclaims, in response to Nineveh’s repentance and God’s subsequent forgiveness: “I knew that you were a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” And then he turns around and stalks off into the desert, angry that this might actually be true, or that it might apply to someone other than himself.
As human beings, from one culture to the next, we have evolved in many ways since this story was first written down. Our knowledge of science, for instance, has evolved to the point that we know that it’s not actually possible that a man could hang out in the belly of a whale for three days and three nights.
Yet in other ways, we are slower to evolve. How many faith communities continue to proclaim God’s steadfast love and unconditional grace, but all the while are keeping track of those groups or individuals who aren’t quite as deserving as all the rest? How often do we ourselves do this?
This story presents all of us with an opportunity to stop and think about where we might still have walls of resentment built up against certain kinds of people.And I think because of that, this is a story that will remain relevant for many years to come, because humanity still has a way to go on that one.
On a more personal level, this is also a story about the reality of human nature when we are confronted with God’s call. It’s all well and good to hear inspiring stories about those who hear God’s call and immediately leave home and livelihoods behind for the greater good. People like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Aaron, the disciples who left their nets to follow Jesus. But sometimes, isn’t it also nice to know that not everyone has such an easy go of it? That indeed, some people really struggle to follow God and that we are not always perfect in our response to God’s call? But God stands by us all the same. God never leaves Jonah, even in the depths of Jonah’s childish resistance. And God never leaves us either. And so the story is ironic and satirical, funny and light-hearted. But it’s also deeply theological, and ultimately, filled with a whole lot of grace. Because if God can work through Jonah, the most resentful, recalcitrant and reluctant prophet then surely, God can work through us as well.
The question is, will we be willing or reluctant in the good work that God has for us to do? Every single one of us here knows what it’s like to hold on to resentment, or fear or prejudice. Every single one of us here knows what it's like to allow those feelings to hold us back. Holding us in the dark underbelly of resentment or fear rather than venturing out into unchartered territory.
Maybe there’s someone we need to offer forgiveness to. Maybe that someone is ourselves. Maybe there’s an old prejudice God is calling us to let go of. Maybe there’s a new friendship waiting for us if we do. Maybe there’s a phone call we haven’t made or a letter we’ve been reluctant to write. Maybe there’s a step we’ve been unwilling to take until now.
And maybe, just maybe, God is there, patiently waiting for us to take that step, in order to bring about mercy as wide as the sea, to show a love as deep as the ocean, and to bring about joy as bright as the sun. Amen.