If you consider the length of the bible, or the Old Testament, or even just the prophetic books of the Old Testament, Jonah seems insignificant in comparison — both in the space he takes up, and the gravity of his actions. The book of Jonah is only 4 chapters long, which takes up a mere two pages in my bible. But Jonah is memorable. After all, he gets swallowed by a giant fish, and lives to tell about it. Who could forget a story like that?
That part of the story, along with the verses in today’s lectionary text, are only part of the narrative, though. So let’s back up, and remember how it all began.
The people of Ninevah, we’re told, are wicked, and God is not pleased about the way they’re living, so God tells Jonah to go to them, and deliver the message that God is against them. Jonah doesn’t want to go. He’s not so keen on the whole prophet gig. In fact, in the whole book, Jonah never calls himself a prophet. He stands out from the other Old Testament prophets in that he never really plays the part of the obedient servant, calling people to repent. He’s reluctant. So reluctant that he runs away.
At this point I should interrupt our narrative to say that, lately, Jonah is my favorite prophet. I would venture a guess that I am not the only one who has had “Jonah” moments in my life.
Many Christians speak of wanting to be “a prophetic voice” in our world, yet the reality of the actual prophetic work God calls Jonah to is less glamorous than the Hollywood film version we might imagine — the lone voice speaking out against powers and principalities, drawing people together for a just cause.
So, when God calls, Jonah runs. He runs right down to Joppa and hops a ship to Tarshish. Of course, you can’t run from God, not really, a message that is sent very clearly when a dangerous storm threatens the ship and all who are aboard. When he realizes his plan has failed, when the sailors realize Jonah has put them in danger, Jonah tells them to throw him overboard. I dare say at this point he figured he was going to die, so suffice it to say that going to Ninevah was still not on his itinerary.
But God doesn’t let Jonah give up so easily. Instead, she sends a large fish to swallow him up, and leaves him there, in the belly of a fish, for three whole days. Three days! When you’re trapped inside a fish, three days is plenty of time to reflect on your poor life choices. Plenty of time to pray. Plenty of time to repent.
Jonah seems to have learned his lesson, so God tells the fish to vomit him up onto dry land, and calls Jonah a second time: “Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message I tell you.” This time Jonah gets up, and he goes.
He walks for a full day, about a third of the way across the city, crying out that in forty days God will destroy Ninevah. And here we encounter another unexpected twist: the people begin to fast. Everyone, including the king, dons sackcloth and ashes. They plead with God, and God does not destroy them.
This is where the lectionary text ends, but what happens next is where things really start to get interesting: Jonah gets mad. This, he tells God, is why he didn’t want to go to Ninevah in the first place. He knows God is gracious and merciful, and he knew that she would relent. Jonah would rather die than go on living while the Ninevites’ sins go unpunished. I picture him stomping off to the edge of the city, where he sets up camp, watching and waiting to see what will happen. He did what God asked! Now it’s God’s turn.
God doesn’t destroy Ninevah, nor does God give up on Jonah. She makes a bush grow up next to Jonah to offer him shade, which seems to sooth his frustration a bit. But then God sends a worm to attack, and subsequently kill, the bush, leaving Jonah exposed to the sun and wind. Again Jonah asks to die. He is still angry, fed up, and definitely done with this prophet business.
For a third time God speaks to Jonah: “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 Ninevah, 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?”
They don’t know any better, Jonah. That’s why I sent you to them, God seems to say. We aren’t told how Jonah responds; we can only wonder. I wonder, in Jonah’s shoes, if I would have behaved any better. I doubt it. Maybe they don’t know, God, I might say, but they should. Ignorance is not an excuse. Did they really need me to tell them the obvious news that their behavior is wrong?
Being a prophetic voice sounds important, meaningful, exciting, until you consider what it often means: going alone to those who do and say wicked things, condemning their words and actions, putting yourself in a vulnerable position among people who don’t share your moral values.
I’d be on a ship to Tarshish, too.
But let’s say we want to follow God’s call, despite all of that. What then?
We bring a word of rebuke; we call people to repent and turn toward God. Personally, I would never expect that to work. I’d assume that the groups of people I most associate with Ninevah these days wouldn’t listen to a young woman who claims to know something they don’t about goodness and love and the life God calls us to. So I’d figure, if God said she’s going to destroy them, sooner or later she will. Maybe not on an Old Testament scale, with fire and brimstone, but surely God won’t let things continue as they are. These imagined modern day Ninevites might even destroy themselves before long if they’re not careful. Evil actions have a way of tearing things apart.
Well. I am but an imperfect, impatient, begrudging human, and God is not. God forgives. God is merciful — to Ninevah, and to Jonah as well, patiently pushing him in the right direction while he repeatedly misses the point. No, God will not condemn anyone if she can help it.
There are times when it is tempting to say, look God, we’re trying so hard to be faithful, and these other people are making it difficult. Can’t you do something about that? And I am afraid God will only tell us to continue to speak as she has called us to speak. I don’t expect to be swallowed by a big fish if I don’t, but I can imagine modern day equivalents. I can imagine the alternative, too: remaining silent in the face of evil, allowing hatred to continue unchecked. God doesn’t call Jonah because Jonah is perfect or has it all figured out; in fact, it’s unclear why exactly God chooses Jonah at all. What’s most clear is that Jonah messes up, and that God uses him anyway.
We cannot control whether others will hear the truths we speak with our lives, as individuals and as a community. We cannot control whether the people of the Ninevahs of our day will heed God’s call to repent, or scoff and continue on as before. I’m enough of a cynic to doubt the outcome of such efforts; I’m enough of a Jonah that sometimes I’d prefer to run away to the beach.
But God has shown that there is enough time for all to repent, and if that is true, then even the most reluctant prophets have reason to keep speaking.