Jonah - The Unwilling Prophet
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
August 4, 2013
You have all heard the story, I am sure, of the boy scout who reported at the weekly troop meeting about his good deed for the week. He said that he had helped an old lady cross the street. His friend immediately reported that he also had helped the old lady across the street, whereupon the scoutmaster said, “Why did it take both of you to help her cross the street?” To which they replied, ‘”Because she didn’t want to go.” It’s an old joke, and I apologize for inflicting it on you. But it is a fitting introduction to the last of our sermons on the minor prophets. Today we consider Jonah, the unwilling prophet, the prophet who did not want to go.
Jonah is different. If you have read the earlier prophets we considered – Amos, Hosea, Zephaniah, Micah, and Haggai- you will note that the book of Jonah is very different. Jonah is the first prophet we have considered who directs his words not to the Jews, but to the Assyrians. And his book does not consist of a series of sometimes mysterious oracles. Instead, it tells a story – a brief, fascinating, interesting, fantastic story. Some have said that it’s the biggest fish story ever told.
Biggest or not – it is a story. I expect that, of all the prophets we have considered, you are most familiar with this book – because it tells a story. The bible contains many kinds of literature, and this is a story – a story with a message. Scholars date this book as the latest of the minor prophets: it was written, they say, after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon. It is “post-exilic”. Yet the story takes place at least 200 years earlier - back in the time of Amos and Hosea. The story is about Jonah, a relatively unknown prophet, who receives a call to go to Nineveh, that great city. We know that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria – the empire that preoccupied Amos and Hosea, and that finally conquered the northern kingdom. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh to cry out against its wickedness. He was not eager to go. Indeed, he was determined not to go. So instead, he went to the seashore at Joppa and booked passage to Tarshish, which is like someone today booking passage to Timbuktu – in other words, a place as far away from Nineveh as he could possibly go. But his trip was interrupted by a gigantic storm that struck so much fear into the boat’s crew that they decided the gods must be against them (obviously they were not Jews), and they drew lots to identify the offender. Now this logic seems strange to us. We do not assume that storms are caused by God to get the attention of one particular person – but, as I said, this is a story, and in a story, we are quite willing to suspend our disbelief. When the lot fell upon Jonah, he admitted his fault and showed that he was not a coward, "Throw me overboard," he said, "and the storm will stop." They did and it did. And the crew was semi-converted by the miracle. But God wasn’t done with Jonah. He was preserved and protected - and given a time out – by being swallowed by a great fish, where he spent three days surveying his situation. When Jonah had time to reconsider things, the fish spewed him out, and Jonah was willing to go to Nineveh – that great sinful city, to cry out against its wickedness.
Now it is a surprising thing that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish. But it is even more surprising that, when he got to Nineveh and cried out against its wickedness, the people, including the king, immediately believed him and repented. As we know, this was unusual, even for the people of Israel – much less for Assyrians. They repented, and God changed his mind. But Jonah pouted. Here he was, going to all this trouble after having been swallowed by the fish, and all, and making the great journey, and crying out against wickedness , and what was the result? The Lord changed his mind and didn’t destroy the city.
What a bummer for Jonah! He went outside the city and built himself a little hut to watch the fireworks, but nothing happened. A bush grew up to shelter him- overnight, and he was happy under the bush, but the next day the bush disappeared and he was hot and angry. So God asked him why he was angry, and Jonah said; “I knew you would spare them. That’s why I didn’t want to come. Why did I have to do all this and come over here just to watch you spare them? Dog-gone it, I am mad.” To which God makes this wonderful reply that ends the book:
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘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 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Aren’t we glad that we have the story of Jonah? Aren’t we glad that the picture of God presented in this story is a picture of a God who is forgiving, who is concerned for all creation? Doesn’t this story give all of us hope – especially after we have heard so many prophecies of destruction and doom which went unheeded by the people of Israel and Judah? Well, we ought to be, but often we aren’t. Jonah wasn’t glad and neither are we. We are often people who do not want the salvation of our enemies, but rather take pleasure in their destruction.
I think of two present situations that illustrate this point.
First: Jonah going to Nineveh would be like to Benjamin Netanyahu going to Tehran. Literally. Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria, which is contemporary Iran. The fact that peace talks between Israel and Palestine are possible once again should be a source of great rejoicing to everyone. But taking initiative to start peace talks with one’s enemy is hardly ever a popular political position. It’s not popular in Israel, or Palestine, now, even though everyone knows that the present situation is untenable. So also, of course, are the situations in Iran, and in Syria. Who knows what to do? What prophet would want to be sent to Damascus? Any volunteers? We are quite willing to send weapons, even perhaps soldiers, but we don’t want to send peacemakers and negotiators. What would have happened in Iraq ten years ago if we had trusted the United Nations inspectors who told us there were no weapons of mass destruction there? How many lives would have been saved?
Second: a few months ago, retired Bishop Gene Robinson spoke at the Dartmouth baccalaureate service. During his remarks, he made one observation or assertion that I found both provocative and strangely true. Bishop Robinson, speaking in reference to Jesus’ first sermon in his home synagogue in Nazareth – the one where you remember the townspeople got so angry that they tried to throw him off a cliff, said this:
“When you preach a God who is too merciful, too kind, too loving, too accepting, too inclusive, there will be hell to pay, and you will get into trouble, I promise you. You can preach a vengeful, hateful God and nobody will mind one bit. But you talk about a God who is too loving and I promise you you will get into trouble.”
I think the Bishop was speaking from his own experience. And certainly Jonah seems a case in point. Jonah preached a message calling people to repent or face destruction, then sat and watched, waiting for the destruction. When it didn’t come it made him so angry – that God was far more loving and accepting and forgiving than Jonah. It is probably true that some of us are unhappy with the mercy of God.
Some of us have been far too exposed to hateful preaching and not exposed enough to loving preaching. We take pleasure in the threat of God’s punishment, especially if it is directed at other people, and take offense at the suggestion that God truly loves sinners. And yet, of course, that is the essential Christian message – a message foretold In the story of Jonah, where God’s acceptance and forgiveness went far beyond the bounds of Israel to the people of a wicked city – and even to their animals.
In a sense, this is a great story for us to end on, isn’t it? But it’s also a challenging story. It does not eliminate the call to repentance, does it? The message that Jonah preached was one of repentance – of turning from evil. But the tragedy was that he had a very hard time hearing that message himself – even though he was the spokesperson for it.
The bishop said that you will get into trouble when you preach a God who is too loving. He’s right: it is a challenge to proclaim the love of God in a way that is not simply indifference. A God who is simply indifferent to the reality of evil is no God at all. But a God who teaches us, inspires us, and helps us to overcome evil with good is a God who saves us, and whose forgiveness is so inclusive that even our failures are forgiven too.
You know, I am very heartened – as I think many of us are - that it seems that we Protestants have a pope who wants to include us – a pope whose genuine concern for all people goes beyond traditional Roman Catholic boundaries. His recent remarks (“Who am I to judge?”) have been exceptionally inclusive. I wonder if those remarks will get him into trouble?
So, let us end this series by drawing a few conclusions. I hope you have learned from considering these six sermons that we must read the Bible in its context. Taken out of historical and literary context, many of these passages are mysterious at best and very misleading at worst. To read the prophets, especially the minor prophets, you need an annotated study Bible.
Second, all the prophets we have read, including Jonah, proclaim both God’s love and faithfulness and God’s judgment. Love and judgment go together; they are not unrelated. In our modern context, we often assume that loving people means making no judgment about them. That is only partly true. If you see a car speeding down the road toward a bridge that is washed out, it is a loving thing to try to stop them and tell them that the bridge has washed out. The prophets are people who know that the bridge is washed out. Their warnings are meant to turn us toward God’s love. Mercy and judgment are all part of God’s love for us. Amos in his demand for justice, Hosea in his drama of marrying a harlot, Zephaniah in his demand for humility, Micah in his reminder of what God really requires of us, Haggai in his encouragement to those who have experienced devastation, and Jonah in his pouting spoke to our ancient ancestors about the mercy, love, and judgment of God. These are messages not only for them, but also for us.