January 4, 1998
It seems a bit strange to be preaching on the book of Jonah during the season of Christmastide. But, since the core truth of Jonah is the core truth of the good news of Jesus, understanding that distinguishes the message of Jesus from the Pharisees and even from John the Baptist, maybe it is more of a Christmas sermon than you think. As a child, Jesus was almost certainly told the story of Jonah and maybe this story was one of the things that opened his heart so wide, maybe it gave him courage and determination.
For the next five weeks we will be working with the Jonah story with our children. Perhaps some of them will find the great truth in it.
Jonah might be called the most famous fish story of all time. That would be unfortunate. The part about the fish only takes 3 out of 48 verses. Instead, you might think of it as one of the world’s greatest satiric comedies set as a short story or parable. You can laugh at Jonah all the way through, but you better be careful. The joke might be on you.
Some interpreters still want to hold out the possibility that Jonah could be historic fact. The International Standard Bible Dictionary, revised in 1979, still repeats the story of a whale fisher who was swallowed by a sperm whale, was saved when the whale was later killed and he was cut out of the stomach, bleached white by the whales gastric juices. This report by scholar Eduard Konig was investigated and found to be groundless. The possibility that Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish and lived is under the heading of, “since God is all powerful God could do anything.” The sad part of this kind of distraction is the idea that the truth would somehow be more powerful if it had happened as an historical fact. The truth of the Jonah story is vastly more interesting and important than speculation about the possibility of anyone living in the stomach of a fish.
A far worse interpretation of Jonah, perhaps the one that got it accepted as Hebrew scripture, is that Jonah was an heroic prophet who saved the Ninevites. Horsefeathers! Jonah was a rebellious jerk who resisted God at every turn of the story and may never have gotten the point. If you want to learn how to do everything wrong as a prophet, study Jonah.
God told Jonah to go to Ninevah and preach repentance for their sins. Jonah didn’t want to go. Big Time! Jonah really didn’t want to go! And who can blame him? Ninevah was the capital city of the Assyrians and the Assyrians had raided and committed genocide against the Northern Kingdom of Israel until it was totally destroyed. The Assyrians would have knocked off Jerusalem too except that the hill town was too well fortified.
Was Jonah afraid? Not in this story. Hebrew prophets were supposed to be fearless and the issue of fear never came up.
Did Jonah think it was a dumb assignment to go preach to the last people on earth that were likely to listen? Not in this story. Jonah didn’t want to go because he didn’t want to succeed. Talk about Chutzpa! I’m Jonah, one preacher. I’m going to walk into Ninevah, do my little preaching thing and they are all going to say, “Oh my goodness. I’m so sorry. Did killing off 10 tribes: men, women and children hurt? When we killed you animals and destroyed your crops was that hard on you?” Jonah definitely did not suffer from a weak ego.
So, instead of walking 550 miles east to Ninevah, Jonah walks half a day to Joppa gets on a boat to sail over a thousand miles west to Tarshish in Spain. Even though Jonah later testifies that Yahweh is the God of land and sea he thinks he can escape God by running away.
God doesn’t let go of Jonah. Instead he sends a storm which threatens to sink the ship. All the sailors are afraid. They do what they can to save the ship. They pray to their gods. And what is Jonah doing? He’s asleep in the bottom of the ship. Sometimes people try to escape God by going to sleep.
Well the sailors cast lots and figure out that Jonah is the problem. Tot his day someone who is considered bad luck on a ship may be called a Jonah. So they wake Jonah up. He confesses to the sailors that it is his fault. But does he pray to his god the way the sailors were praying to theirs. Certainly not. This is wrong way Jonah at his best. He tells the sailors to throw him overboard. That way the boat will be saved and he will die and not have to go to Ninevah. Instead the sailors model compassion and try one more time to get to shore. It doesn’t work so they ask forgiveness of God, which Jonah did not ask for, and throw him over.
This is where the fish comes in. Like the storm, God uses the fish to thwart Jonah’s escape plan. Now God could have let Jonah drown and found someone else to go preach to Ninevah. But that would ruin a good story. So Jonah stews in the belly of the whale and finally cries out to God. What did he cry out? Probably something like, “I don’t like the way this fish smells. Get me out of here?” Jonah gave in to the sheer power of God but that doesn’t mean that he liked it. It doesn’t mean that he changed his mind. It just shows that even great Hebrew prophets have a limit to their stubbornness.
Back on shore, God tells Jonah one more time to go to Ninevah. Jonah goes.
When Jonah gets to Ninevah he starts preaching and it is some of the sorriest preaching you can imagine. He doesn’t call for repentance. He doesn’t tell about God’s mercy for those who have done wrong. He just tells the Ninevites that God is going to destroy them. But, in this story, that is just what is needed. The Ninevites immediately repent, confess their sins, change their ways. So, not only did Jonah do a rotten job of preaching, the one prediction he makes doesn’t come true.
Jonah can’t believe it! He is furious. He tried to escape. He did the worst job he could. And still God used him to spare the Ninevites! So he sits down outside the city to see if God is really going to let them off the hook so easily.
At least Jonah is paying attention. So God asks Jonah a question, a real good question. Just the kind of question that Seekers record in their journals when they do their daily disciplines. “Do you do well to be so angry?”
But Jonah isn’t in the market for helpful questions. Instead he answers God with his anger. “Damn it! What do you know about being God! It is just as I feared. You’re too soft on the bad guys. They come and destroy us, we your chosen people! And you let them off with, “Oh I’m so sorry. We’ll do better next time. If you knew anything about being God you’d be destroying them right now. How about a few plagues like you put on the Egyptians?”
Well, God not only doesn’t give up on the Ninevites, God doesn’t give up on Jonah.
Jonah is sitting and sulking in a little booth, a sort of stick tent. Instead of punishing the Ninevites, God sends a hot wind to punish Jonah for his rebelliousness. Once more, Jonah just wants to die. Against such despair God tries a lighter hand. God sends a plant, maybe a castor oil plant with the big leaves, to relieve Jonah’s suffering. Jonah likes that. He still has human feeling. Then God kills off the plant with a worm and leaves Jonah suffering in the heat again.
This time God tries a more indirect question with Jonah, a question arising within Jonah’s recent felt experience. “Did you feel sorry for the plant?” Jonah know the right answer. The plant was his friend. “Yes,” says Jonah. Then God says, “Don’t you get it? I can feel pity too.”
Did Jonah get it? We don’t know. The story stops, leaves the question hanging. The author leaves the question for you. Do you get it?
I can tell you one person who got the point. His name was Jesus. He knew the Jonah story. He built out from the message of John the Baptist and preached the good news of Justice AND mercy, of healing and peace.
How about it? Do you want justice and forgiveness just for yourself, maybe your friends and family, maybe your religion, your race, the United States? Or, do you worship a God who wants what is good for everyone, who puts you on an even footing with those you dislike, with those you fear, with the person who has abused you, stolen from you, shamed you, mocked you?
Perhaps Christians and Jews have an inside track with God. Perhaps we are a chosen people. That is not the same as having an insider deal with God, earned by our obedience, by saying the right things in worship, or praying the right prayers in the silence. If we have an inside track it is because we know the love of God, know how precious it is, and are eager to share it with others, even those who hurt us.
Jesus thought that message was worth his life. He preached the whole truth. In the real world it is dangerous business to walk into Ninevah, to walk into Jerusalem, to walk into Washington. Following your calling may not be very rewarding in practical terms. Your destiny may not be the fame, fortune and happiness promised in the TV game shows. All Seekers promises is that we will try to be companions to each other on the journey.
Nice funny short story, this book of Jonah? Are you sure you want to laugh along with it?
In Seekers we talk about calling as one of the greatest gifts God gives us, individually and collectively. Amen. Sometimes we slide by the part about the hard times in callings, the confusion, the insecurity, the threats, the losses.
Maybe Jonah is just a curious fish story after all.
I have posted a modern retelling of the Jonah story on this website under Worship Resources.