Jonah is a book which is just 48 verses long, with a big fish and a small worm, a city of animals and people crying out to God – and a successful but frustrated prophet who repeatedly wishes to die.
At the point where we pick up the tale, Jonah has been told to deliver a warning, sailed the opposite way, got chucked overboard, was swallowed by that fish, thrown-up on a beach (in more ways than one), got to Ninevah, delivered the message, the city repented – and God didn’t destroy them.
In fact, no ships were sunk, no cities destroyed, no human lives were lost in the making of this story – the most that we have to mourn is the poor plant after its encounter with a very hungry worm!
And today we have to deal with the fallout. We’re confronted with a man in a huff and unhappy at God’s compassion. Unhappy because the city had listened to his warning.
Most prophets endure a lifetime of being ignored. Jonah is upset that the opposite has happened.
Normally we expect our lead characters to have some sort of light-bulb moment when everything falls into place. When they catch a glimpse of what God is up to. But with Jonah that never seems to happen. He finishes as he starts:
“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That’s why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you’re a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing”. For Jonah, God’s compassion was a bad thing.
What happens next?
Then we turn to our Bible to find out what happens next – a fifth chapter, perhaps – but there isn’t one… There is no next instalment, no resolution.
So, does Jonah carry on sitting there, stuck in his resentment of what hasn’t happened? Does he change his mind and see God’s viewpoint? Does Jonah stay in Ninevah till the end of his days – or does he make his way back to Israel? The Bible doesn’t tell us. We’re left with loose ends.
But before we criticise Jonah too much, we need to realise just what Assyria and Ninevah represented. Assyria was infamous for mutilating and torturing its prisoners – it was the evil Nazi empire of its day. For good reason, the prophet Nahum called Ninevah ‘the city of blood’.
To think of a parallel, imagine God asking a rabbi to somehow gain entrance into one of Hitler’s mass rallies, get to the podium and start preaching. There would be no reasonable expectation of that person getting out of there alive. A quick death would probably be the best they could hope for.
And frankly most of us would think that the audience of SS and Gestapo wouldn’t warrant forgiveness anyway. They should get what they deserved. And we might start getting uncomfortable now because, privately, we suspect that in Jonah’s shoes we would probably do the same things – and feel the same way – that he did.
It’s truly remarkable that this story was ever written – and even more astonishing that it kept its place in our Scriptures. The whole book throws our ideas of what to expect upside down.
Because according to the normal rules, prophets aren’t supposed to run away from their calling and evil kings initially resist what they’re told to do – and then they get punished as a result. We don’t expect wicked rulers to immediately say: “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.”
Or, or we can handle it happening in a story set thousands of years ago, but we’d be extremely suspicious if Vladmir Putin was to hold a press-conference this afternoon and say it’s all been a terrible mistake and he’s sorry.
A stranger staggers in
Let’s flip this and imagine you’re living in Ninevah. The city is thriving, you’re defeating your enemies; and anyone who challenges the accepted order is put in their place. You don’t think you’re evil – you think you’re successful! The gods are smiling on you. Then a stranger staggers in…
He’s just walked hundreds of miles from the coast and still carries a very unpleasant smell of fish. Somehow, he lasts a day without being challenged, probably because people are keeping their distance. He gets to the middle of the city – and then cries: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
That’s it. The shortest, most effective, sermon on record. Eight words in English and only 5 words in Hebrew. No mention of God or of repentance or what they do next. But everything stops. And it’s not what he said. It wasn’t his charisma or the passion with which he said it. It’s that someone, anyone, was actually there saying it at all. Because it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. People just didn’t wander into the City of Blood and do this sort of thing.
But from that moment in time, it changed everything. Ninevah extravagantly, accepted the compassion of God in a way seldom seen, even in Israel. In that moment, the Kingdom of Heaven broke in.
Jonah turned up
I almost said that it broke in despite Jonah, not because of him. But, on reflection, it still needed Jonah to turn up, despite his misgivings. In Islam, Jonah is revered as a prophet who faithfully delivered his message despite the most testing of circumstances.
And if a rabbi had got into one of those Hitler rallies and spoken from the podium – then maybe, just maybe, it would have been so shocking, so unexpected, that it might have caused those present to think again…
It’s fitting that the Book of Jonah is read in its entirety on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, at Yom Kippur, the day of atonement – which this year starts today. Yom Kippur is when a person forgives others – and repents and seeks forgiveness for themselves. The day when they feel closest to God. The day when they start the process of returning to their purest, most peaceful, most loving selves.
Not supposed to
Jesus drew a comparison between himself and Jonah: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” Matthew 12:40
And when you think of how Jesus lived, as well as how he died, he re-enacted Jonah again and again. Because he did things and said things and went to places that he wasn’t supposed to. He wasn’t supposed to walk into a synagogue, pick up the Isaiah scroll and say: “this is about me”. He wasn’t supposed to go and eat with Tax Collectors. He wasn’t supposed to heal the servant of a Roman soldier, a symbol of the oppressive empire. Or restore a disturbed man, chained up and out of sight of the community.
He wasn’t supposed to talk with the Samaritan woman at the well. He wasn’t supposed to be surprised by a pagan woman who flipped his remark about crumbs and dogs. And he wasn’t supposed to have his feet washed by a woman’s tears and dried with her hair. He wasn’t supposed to be a Messiah who did not have an army behind him.
But, unlike Jonah, instead of being sat against a tree on the edge of town, Jesus is nailed to one. Instead of words of anger, there are only words of forgiveness. So, maybe Jesus is our long-awaited 5th chapter? Our ‘what happens next’?
Jesus did all this by walking right into places where he shouldn’t have been. We can’t criticise Jonah for his reluctance to go to Ninevah when we ourselves wouldn’t go to Mosul, or Kabul, or Pyongyang. But unless we do, will there ever really be change?
In a way that disrupts
Perhaps, we start small and go to parts of our own community that we wouldn’t normally visit. Or maybe we actively involve ourselves in business or politics or even our own Anglican church, in a way that disrupts. In a way that causes people to pause, just for a moment in time – enough time to ask themselves, “was that supposed to happen?” Enough time, indeed, for the Kingdom of Heaven to break in.
Because it won’t happen if we just sit at home thinking nice thoughts. It won’t happen, if we don’t get on that boat, with whatever misgivings we may have, and – sooner or later – head in the direction of whichever empire it is that God is calling us towards. Amen
‘Forgiveness 3: because Jonah turned up’ was delivered by Ian Banks at Christ Church, Walmersley on September 24th, 2023. It was developed from one delivered online by Ian on Sunday 20th September 2020. It’s based on Jonah 3:10-4:11.
- Blower, D.B. (2016). Sympathy for Jonah. Resource Publications.
- Moller, K. (2023). Jonah’s Story, Our Challenge. SCM.
- There are a number of places which claim to have the tomb of Jonah, one of which is Mosul, built on the site of Ninevah. So, maybe Jonah stayed after all? ISIS destroyed the tomb in Mosul during their time of occupation. Other traditions have it that he returned to Israel.