In the Old Testament book of Jonah we meet the most reluctant prophet ever. He is asked by God launch his ministry by preaching a compelling sermon to his enemies so that they might convert. It’s as if he were asked to do a revival in Baghdad a couple of years after 9-11. Imagine being asked to lead a mission trip to a Taliban training camp, making their lives easier, preaching in hopes that they might repent of their sin. I doubt that many of us would sign up for either destination. Is it possible that we don’t wish for some people to be redeemed? Could it be that we don’t want to share the gifts of our Christian faith with others whom we deem grossly undeserving?
I have various pieces of artwork that feature this familiar tale. They all depict a human form inside the belly of a great fish. We think it’s cute because we know he gets out of that dark, slimy prison. But it’s not a charming children’s story. Jonah, in my estimation, is the least admirable prophet because he drags his heels every step of his missionary journey. His heart is simply not in it. The fact that God would use someone like Jonah is good news to me. There’s hope!
The story begins with God tapping unsuspecting Jonah with a mission: go to the great city of Nineveh and preach repentence to them. Jonah gives God a thumbs up then jumps on board a ship that goes the opposite direction! This is one gutsy guy! He thinks he can deceive God. He disobeys and thinks he’s going to get away with it. Why is he so against this assignment? It has to do with the destination. The Jews hated the Ninevites.
A little history. The Assyrians were the world superpower in the 8th century BC. Nineveh was the capital city of their empire. They waged war on the Northern Kingdom of the Israelites for three long years, ultimately taking the city. The prophet Nahum gives voice to the hatred toward these violent captors who were ruthless toward the Jews. In his writing Nahum daydreams about these enemies being slaughtered and addresses them directly: “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses…’I am against you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. All who see you will flee from you and say, ‘Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?’ Where can I find anyone to comfort you?…Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?’”
Bedtime stories for little Jewish children of Jonah’s generation had to do with bringing their ancient enemies down and Nineveh was on the frontlines of their hatred. So Jonah must have felt like he picked the short straw when directed to bring his enemies into the fold of God’s love. Instead, his nationalistic fervor leads him to sail in the other direction, assuming God’s GPS had limitations. But God’s sonar knew right where this reluctant prophet floated. Jonah was ultimately cast overboard by his crew members when they learned he was messing with God. They didn’t want to do it and even tried to save him as he thrashed in the water. But before they could get to him, a great fish surfaced from the deep and swallowed him whole. Imagine the conversation over dinner in the mess hall after witnessing that! After that biblically significant time of three days, the fish obeys the call of God by vomiting Jonah up onto the shore. Even the fish is more obedient to God than the slimy prophet! Realizing that it was hopeless to escape God’s notice, Jonah finally obeys. But remember, obedience doesn’t always equate with genuine repentance!
In the earlier chapter we read that Jonah walks a full day into the city before uttering the first word of his carefully crafted sermon: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That goes down as the shortest fire-and-brimstone sermon on record! He didn’t give an “unless clause”: “…unless you repent of your sin!” Did he delight in preaching it more as a proclamation of truth than an invitation to change?
In spite of his lackluster sermon delivered from a cold heart, the whole city repents, including the King and even the animals! They put on the traditional outfit of penance—sackcloth—and fasted, hoping to win the favor of Jonah’s God. Verse 10 is a triumphant announcement which would have been the perfect ending point of the story: God sees their changed hearts and decides not to smite them. The Ninevites cry out, “Three cheers for Jonah’s God” and thank the reluctant prophet for his successful revival. Yay! Win-win, right?
Not so fast. This is where our reading begins. Jonah’s anger burns when God acts with mercy. He offers the oddest prayer to God. In essence he yells at God saying he knew God would do this. He knew God was a softie and always willing to forgive a remorseful sinner so that’s why he—Jonah—fled in the first place. He didn’t want these enemies-of-the-state to be forgiven and he knew God would extend grace. So he invites God to kill him off right then, right there. If he had to head home with the news that he was responsible for the salvation of Nineveh, he would be utterly rejected by his own people.
I imagine God asking quietly: “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah has a clear understanding of God’s goodness…but wants God’s wrath for these heathens. Even after three days facing his mortality in the belly of a great fish, Jonah’s hatred for his enemies hasn’t abated. In fact, if we review the history of Jonah’s people, the Israelites, our ancestors in the faith, we see that they sin repeatedly, unabashedly and seldom repent of their sin. Yet Jonah thinks that they are entitled to God’s grace whereas his enemies are not. The Ninevites display a remarkable showing of penance and they weren’t even raised to believe in this God! Their confession of sin disgusts Jonah. He simply isn’t having it. “Let ‘em burn”, he rages in his heart.
Just over 23 years ago on September 10 I was in the hospital, spending the day with laboring to give birth to my fourth child. For several hours, when the labor was easier, Garrett and I had the TV on. Pretty much every channel was covering the death and recent funeral of Princess Diana. She had been laid to rest four days earlier but the world wasn’t ready to let her go. She was royalty, a sainted hero of her people and the world, who could do no wrong. She was entitled to a mass funeral procession and a memorial service with Elton John singing his now-beloved requiem. We remember her two young boys trailing behind her casket, carrying the sadness of the world on their small shoulders. It was hardly the right TV programming to distract me from my own increasing pain!
Every now and then there would be a news report about another death, one that happened five days after Princess Diana’s: Mother Theresa. She died in Calcutta where she had poured out her life caring for the desperately poor alongside her Sisters of Mercy. Her death was almost completely eclipsed by the global mourning over Diana. Her funeral mass was a week after the princesses’ lavish memorial. The tiny saint’s body was laid out on a slab of ice to prevent decay. While some world leaders took time out of their busy schedules to pay tribute to Mother Theresa, her funeral followed the ancient order of a mass for the dead in which prayers were made for her soul. God was urged to have mercy upon her and to receive her into eternal keeping. Her funeral, rather that worshiping her, reminded viewers of the universal need for God’s grace. The juxtaposition of these two women in death laid bare our human notion that only certain people are deserving of God’s grace. Too often we assume that we not only have access to that list but have a say-so in shaping it! The sermon I heard as I labored toward welcoming my fourth child into our family was that of entitlement versus grace. Welcome to our conflicted world, baby girl!
Before we turn the page on Jonah and write him off as misguided, we would do well to see how his life mirrors our own. Jonah was all too ready to throw his enemies under the bus. He prays for God’s justice to be meted out toward them. In his small-mindedness, this can only mean annihilation. He cried out to God for rescue from the belly of the great fish. In spite of his disobedience, God dramatically rescued him. Jonah reasoned that he was entitled to God’s good grace. Too often we follow suit. We demand justice when what is needed is God’s mercy. Our myopic prayer is, “Be loving to me—but not to them!” We want to keep our God and the best of God’s gifts for ourselves. We’re often like spoiled children, assuming we are deserving of our parents’ Visa Gold Card to buy the life of our dreams. We are entitled to the best whereas those poor schmucks over there have it coming!
It’s interesting to note that the whole city of Nineveh repents of their sin when a foreign prophet comes in and mumbles a really pathetic sermon. Clearly it wasn’t his words or oratory skills that converted them. So what did? Their hearts were unguarded such that they were able to encounter God—one they had never met before—in spite of the messenger! The “heathens” met and worshiped God whereas Jonah, who had grown up with this God and been rescued a couple of times, sat in a heap of his own pity. He was pouting and unimpressed. If Jonah were our child, sulking because there was no petting zoo at his birthday party, we would want to shake some gratitude out of him! We would probably raise our voices to teach this selfish child a lesson. But I imagine God dealing quietly with Jonah. God asks the prophet a reflective question: Is it right for you to be angry? Jonah’s answer shows he is still inwardly focused: “Yes, angry enough to die.”
Gently building the case away from entitlement, God continues the effort to move the reluctant prophet’s view away from his own self-interest: “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?”
And that’s where the story ends. Not at the triumphant conclusion of one of the greatest movements in national penance we’ve ever read about. It ends with a quiet confrontation of one of God’s chosen servants about the sin of entitlement and the universal need for grace. Who are our Ninevites? Do we want them to be saved? Or have we already turned our back on them and walked away?
I remember the wristbands we wore about twenty years ago: WWJD. What would Jesus do? Do we believe that Jesus has enough love to go around? Or is it a limited commodity that we need to hoard? Entitlement or grace? Jonah’s struggle still confronts us.