If people know anything about Jonah, it’s that he was swallowed by a whale. Although the Bible actually says a big fish. The book of Jonah is only four chapters long, but there’s a lot more to it than the whale. It’s great: lots of action, and completely hilarious. Our reading this week gave just the ending, but it’s worth reading the whole story, and I hope you will.
Jonah is a prophet, and as prophets do, Jonah gets an assignment from God: go and warn the city of Nineveh that they are in trouble. Well, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a very powerful nation, known for its war crimes and brutality, a major enemy. Like any patriot, Jonah hates those lousy Ninevites, and besides, they’ll probably string him up the second he walks through the gates. So Jonah has a brainstorm: he’ll run away from God’s assignment. Sure, that sounds like a good idea. So he hops on a ship to Tarshish, which is basically as far as you can go in the opposite direction. It was as if Jonah showed up at the dock and said “Gimme a ticket for wherever is furthest from Nineveh.”
But at sea, there is a storm. Jonah confesses that he is running from God and the sailors freak out: “what did you do that for? Are you nuts?” And he says: “look, I’m ruined. Just throw me overboard.” And when they do lo! the sea calms down – as, we might expect, rebellious Jonah sinks to his well-deserved doom.
But the Bible doesn’t say what we expect. It says instead, God didn’t let him drown. God sent a huge fish, and it swallowed him whole. I certainly expect Jonah wasn’t in very good shape when he got vomited up three days later, but still this fish saved him from death, and Jonah prays a psalm of gratitude for God’s mercy.
And then, we might expect, God says to him, “You’re finished! I’m never trusting you again!” But the Bible doesn’t say what we expect. It says that God gives Jonah a second chance to be obedient and blessed. He speaks to Jonah again: go and warn the city of Nineveh that they are in trouble.
So off Jonah goes, but you can tell he still doesn’t like it. The city is of a size that it would have taken about three days to walk across it; well, all Jonah does is come partway in and say one sentence. “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown.” Boy, that’s really going to be helpful to the Ninevites, isn’t it? Don’t put yourself out, Jonah. But God is on the case, so nevertheless the Ninevites get it. In response to this lackluster message, they demonstrate one of the greatest examples of group regret that we find in the Bible. The mayor proclaims a fast. They remove their fancy clothes, they sob in grief, and most important, they change their behavior.
And this was the moment where our reading started today: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” God sends Jonah to warn the Ninevites that the road they are on leads to disaster, but all along God was really just hoping for them to repent.
And what does Jonah think of this? He is furious. First off, these guys deserved to be punished; they are an evil regime. Second, Jonah looks like an idiot – he said they’d be destroyed and now they won’t.
The Ninevites got it, but Jonah sure didn’t. I mean, listen to the words he speaks in rage: “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!” And Jonah does not see this as a good character point. So, we might expect, because Jonah’s so judgmental, God smites him! But the Bible doesn’t say what we expect. No, God just asks gently, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah ignores this overture of love, and sets up camp a little ways away to watch what happens. And the narrative pictures God arranging a comical little object lesson. He has a shade tree grow overnight at Jonah’s camp, to keep his poor judgmental prophet cool. Jonah likes the tree. Thanks, God! The next day God has a parasite attack the tree, and it withers, and poor Jonah gets a sunburn.
And what does he do? Becomes furious again. God asks once more , “Is it right for you to be angry?” And what does Jonah say? “You bet it is! You killed my tree!” Jonah is outraged that his personal plant is hurt, but he feels nothing for a whole city of perishing human beings made in God’s image.
So does God finally show him who’s boss? No, all he does is ask a question: “You care, Jonah, about this little tree? Shouldn’t I care about Nineveh, these people who are lost, these people I made, even if you don’t like them? Are you angry because I love other people besides you? Should I not be concerned about this great city?” And that question is the last line of the book.
“Should I not be concerned about this great city?” The book ends with a question. It’s written that way to force us to ask ourselves for an answer. To ask why we keep being tempted to focus only on what benefits people we like or who look like us. “Should I not be concerned about this great city?” Who or what is your Nineveh? Who can you not stand the idea of God loving every bit as much as he loves us? Who would you likely avoid the invitation to talk to and listen to? Who is your Nineveh, and will you allow God to be concerned about them?
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