Text: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Taken as read this morning, the book of Jonah sounds like an early missionary story, maybe a misplaced part of the book of Acts: God tells Jonah to go to a foreign city and preach, Jonah does, the people miraculously repent, and there you go, God decides to take mercy on the Ninevites and spare the city. This short passage is read in the season of Epiphany, and is paired with other texts about the end being near, and the need to repent.
To put it mildly, this is an over-simplification. To put it strongly, this is like ripping the heart out of my favorite book of the Bible! And this is one of the ways the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by most Protestant churches, can actually impede church-goers’ knowledge of the Bible. But if you take care to read the book in its entirety, you’ll find that the book of Jonah is one of the hidden treasures of the Bible, a book that rewards you more and more the longer you spend with it.
The book of Jonah is four chapters long, and we get just a few verses this morning; most of the book centers on Jonah himself and has very little to do with the Ninevites. Rather than a missionary story, it is instead a tale of God’s long struggle – and his patience – with the human heart.
Here’s what happens: God tells the prophet Jonah son of Amittai to go to Nineveh and tell them that God has noticed their violence. And the first thing you need to know about Nineveh is that it was the one-time capital of the Assyrian empire, the nation that oppressed and eventually destroyed Israel, probably several hundred years before this text was written. When you know that, it’s not entirely surprising that Jonah goes the opposite direction and gets on a ship that will take him even further away, to Tarshish. So God sends a storm, so violent that even the pagan sailors know that God is angry with someone, whereas Jonah looks set to sleep through the whole thing. After the captain wakes him up, after the sailors confront him, the reluctant prophet finally admits he is running away from God’s command. He tells them to save themselves by throwing him into the sea. Well, they have more respect for life than Jonah does, but after all their attempts to get the ship out of the storm fail, they obey, and cast Jonah overboard.
This is where the big fish comes in. God appoints the fish to swallow Jonah, and save him from drowning. After three days and three nights, Jonah prays to God, and God instructs the fish to vomit Jonah out onto dry land. That’s where we are when today’s reading picks up: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’”
This time Jonah obeys. And he is met with the most astounding conversion ever made in response to a prophet’s call – the whole city, from the king on down, repents of the violence they have done. All the inhabitants of Nineveh – including the animals – fast, pray, and put on sackcloth. “Who knows?” says the king – “perhaps the Lord will repent and will not take our lives.” And look, God does repent, and does spare the lives of the Ninevites.
If the book ended there, we could take the story as a tale of the marvelous possibilities of foreign missions – and that is what generations of Christians have done, by focusing narrowly on the mission to Nineveh. But it doesn’t end there. The focus pulls back from the glorious conversion to the unrepentant prophet:
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 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. 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?”
I love that ending – the many animals, also. Talk about the big picture. Talk about the all-encompassing love of God. And talk about patience – people love to talk about the “Old Testament God,” who is supposed to be wrathful and forbidding, unlike the “New Testament God.” Aside from the fact that it is heretical to speak of one God for each testament, it’s not even a true dichotomy. There is plenty of wrath in the New Testament, what with Jesus talking about people going to Hell or Gehenna. Then there’s Paul and his lists of sins, all of which seem to start with “fornication.” And the Old Testament is full of grace and love as well as sternness and stories of violence. Micah, for example, writes, “What does the Lord require of you, other than that you act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?”
And then there is Jonah. I wish somebody would tell me where this “Old Testament God” is in Jonah – not a single person or animal dies in the whole book. The pagan sailors trust God and are saved from the storm. The reluctant prophet finally accepts God’s mission and is saved from the sea. The capital of what the Israelites could justly have called The Evil Empire is saved from the consequences of their own violence and oppression. The book is a comedy in the oldest sense of the word; that is, rather than death and discord, it ends with life and reconciliation.
Everyone lives, but only Jonah is unchanged. The sailors begin to worship the God of Israel, the Ninevites alter their way of life, but Jonah holds on to his old way of life, the view that some people are insiders and others are out, that there are the good guys, the Israelites, the people like me, and then there are the foreigners, the unenlightened, the people like them. In this, Jonah is an everyman; we can see ourselves in him, we can see the way we fall short of perfection, the way we begrudge God’s mercy and love towards others. It is no wrathful God who sends Jonah out to Nineveh; God does everything he can to save both the Ninevites and Jonah, too. Despite all the power God unleashes in the storm at sea, Jonah is unharmed. Despite Jonah’s contrariness, his sulking and his drama-queen act, God doesn’t give up. God wants to take this prophet and help him change his soul, just as Jonah reluctantly helped change the Ninevites’ souls. This God is not a judge but a parent, one who engages a beloved but wayward son in conversation, face-to-face. In their conversation it is implicit that God’s love for Jonah is in no way diminished or threatened by his love for the people and animals of Nineveh.
What God sends us out to do may be bigger than we can ever know. God may have mercy on those to whom we would not show mercy. God may love – does love – those we cannot stand. Ann Coulter, for one. I would probably run away if God told me to go prophesy to Ann Coulter. But that doesn’t stop God from loving her, just as I am loved. I want to be better than those I dislike, those who have hurt me and the people I love. Frankly, I would like God to consult me before making any big decisions. But, as Anne Lamott says, “You know you’ve created God in your image when he hates all the same people you do.” In a similar vein, Thomas Merton wrote, “So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other [people] and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”
I am reminded of the song sung by Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, in the movie The Prince of Egypt: look at your life through heaven’s eyes. The song is about discernment, about how we discover our place in the world, the good that we are here to do. It is about how the humblest of us may bring about great changes, about how we all fit into a community, no matter how out-of-step we may feel at times. It is a song that lifts up the lowly, and it also reminds us to look at others’ lives through heaven’s eyes, too: imagine if you knew yourself loved and cared for by God, more than you could ever fully grasp. Imagine if you also knew everyone else, even the animals, to be loved and cared for by God as well. This is heaven on earth. This is the real conversion, the one that needs to happen everyday in our lives. It is a reorientation to love. There is a line in one of my favorite medieval Christmas songs that ends with a single Latin word, “transeamus,” which is to say, “let us be changed.”
The changing of our stubborn, willful, and self-righteous souls is at the center of comedy, especially religious comedy. The final sentence of the book of Jonah is God’s question, “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?” This question, this openness of God to be in dialogue with us, pulls each and every reader of Jonah into the conversation. It demands that we stand in Jonah’s place and consider this question seriously for ourselves. With its orientation to mercy and to life, it forces us to confront our allegiance to cultures of judgment and death. I have a friend from seminary, a priest out in Washington state. And just yesterday, as she prepared her sermon for this morning, she was remarking over the difference between her current parish and an old parish she served. Her new parish is open to sermons centered on social justice, sermons that call the people to look out at the world beyond themselves and their communities. At the old parish, however, she was screamed at for talking, in a sermon, about how George Zimmerman needed to face the consequences for murdering Trayvon Martin. She was told that, if she ever preached a “political” sermon again, she would be out of a job. She was told that she “did not love her own people.” White people. Middle-class people. People too blinded by their own fears to witness, much less try to change, the suffering of people different from them.
We don’t know whether Jonah repented of his hard-heartedness. The storyteller doesn’t want us to know, because that would have closed the story up neatly. The storyteller wanted to leave this jagged opening, this insistent demand from God that we wake up, open our eyes, and confront the fact that we are not the only ones deserving of God’s care and mercy. Maybe the book’s writer wanted us to chuckle ruefully as we recognize the Jonah in all of us, and to recognize our own enormous need for redemptive change.
So let us be changed. Let our souls be in accord with our mission, so that we do not go grudging into Nineveh. Let us never think that God’s love for others diminishes God’s love for us, or that the good God wants to do in the lives of others diminishes the good that we can receive. Unlike money, there’s infinite love, more than enough to go around. God has work for us to do, God is sending us to the pain and need in each other and our communities and the communities that are not ours. It’ll be a lot more pleasant for us, really, if we can accept God’s love and health and take that love and health to the world with a willing spirit. And it will be better for the world, too, if we come to meet its needs with a sense of humility and joy, with gladness and singleness of heart. Amen.