The Reverse Example of Jonah
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for February 23rd: Psalm 51; Jonah 3:1-10; and Romans 1:1-7. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
The Book of Jonah is an important piece of religious thought if we can move beyond the being swallowed by a large fish. It is not historical, but allegorical, almost satirical. In so many other ways than the large fish, it speaks unexpected lessons. Take Jonah as the prime example. The prophet is the one who is the least sympathetic character in the book. He is also the farthest from God. The Book of Jonah is only two pages long. It may be good to refresh your memory of the story if you have not read it since Sunday School.
Jonah is charged by God to warn the people of Nineveh of judgment. Instead, Jonah heads in the opposite direction by purchasing passage on a ship sailing to Tarshish. Nineveh is to the East; Jonah heads to the proverbial farthest point West. God sends a fierce storm to prevent Jonah’s escape. The sailors act sympathetically when they discover that Jonah is being pursued by his god. The prophet tells the sailors to throw him overboard to save themselves. They refuse to sacrifice the man. They struggle harder against the storm. Eventually, they realize it is hopeless. Jonah is cast into the sea and then that famous large fish shows up and swallows him whole.
In desperation, Jonah prays to God for a second chance and it is granted. The prophet is regurgitated and journeys to Nineveh to preach judgment. Nineveh is a foreign capital. The people do not worship Jonah’s god. They have their own faith just as the sailors had their own. However, for some reason, they heed Jonah’s warning of judgment, and they repent. Even the king, relevant on this day after Ash Wednesday, humbled himself and sat in ashes.
So far the foreign sailors and the foreign Ninevites have acted with notable moral character. God is impressed by the repentance of the Ninevites and in today’s passage we read, “God changed his mind …” It is almost like God was surprised by the Ninevites. This is as unaccustomed a message as the godliness of the pagan sailors and people of Nineveh.
But then there is Jonah, the reluctant prophet of God.
God’s compassion insulted Jonah. It upset his supposedly righteous contempt for these 120,000 plus people. In the belly of the large fish, Jonah pleaded for mercy, begging, “‘Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’” (2:9) Now when deliverance is granted to all in the “exceedingly large city,” Jonah cannot transpose his emotions to the plight of the Ninevites. With an insurmountable wall of self-centeredness, Jonah pouts on the outskirts of the city. Maybe like a child in a tantrum Jonah thought that God would accede to his complaints, and Jonah waits and relishes the thought of pushing God to destroy Nineveh.
The verses that bring the Book of Jonah to a close about the bush that grows and withers and Jonah’s continuing tantrum should be read because they speak so simply yet powerfully, first, about the love of God, and second, about the absurdity of wishing it away. Jonah, the only believer in the story, is the one who least understands God. What an eye-opener this is. There is a penetrating lesson here for believers who seem to relish the thought of judgment passed harshly and unrepentantly against the other, whomever that may be, for believers who push against the revelation of a compassionate God whose concern is not limited to those who believe, of a God who cares deeply about all of creation so that the Book of Jonah ends with the note that God’s compassion extends even to the animals.
This is an important message to be shared early in Lent. It gives us time to think about Jesus crucified and the sort of love that the cross symbolizes. During Lent we can pause and imagine Jesus looking down upon those who actually did Him harm, and praying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” This is the Saviour we follow. Jonah’s faith was in name only. He was the least godly of all in the Book of Jonah. We should keep this warning in mind. Instead of Jonah’s charade, let us be challenged by what Paul writes in his greeting to the church at Rome: “To all God’s beloved in Rome who are called to be saints.” We are all called to be saints, to follow Jesus as best we can and then to try and do even better, and Lent is our time to focus on this challenge.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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