Today we get that awkward bit in Jonah. The tail end, if you like, after the ‘whale’ has gone. A prophet wasn’t supposed to be upset when his warning is heeded. And we’re uncomfortable because, privately, we suspect that in Jonah’s shoes we would probably do all the same things – and feel the same way – that he did.
To recap: Jonah was told to deliver a warning, sailed the opposite way, got chucked overboard, was swallowed by a big 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.
Jonah in a huff
And today we have to deal with the fallout. We’re confronted with Jonah in a huff and unhappy at God’s compassion. Normally we expect our lead characters to have some sort of light-bulb moment when everything falls into place. But with Jonah that never happens. 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”.
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 installment.
So, does Jonah carry on sitting there, stuck in his resentment of what’s just 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? We don’t know. We’re left with loose ends.
But before we criticise Jonah too much, we need to realise just what Assyria and Ninevah represented. Assyria wanted to conquer all the known world. It 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’.
So, imagine, 80 years ago, a Jew somehow getting into one of Hitler’s mass rallies and preaching repentance. There would be no reasonable expectation of 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. They should get what they deserved.
That’s exactly where Jonah found himself – and would we really feel any different? It’s truly remarkable that this story was ever written – and even more astonishing that it made its way into our Scriptures. Because the whole book throws our ideas of what to expect upside down.
According to the normal rules, prophets aren’t supposed to run away from their calling; 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, we can handle it happening in a story set thousands of years ago, but we’d be suspicious if Al Qaeda were to go on the news and social media to declare it today.
Let’s flip this a moment and imagine that you’re an Assyrian living in Ninevah. The city is thriving, you’re defeating all 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 must be smiling. Then a lone 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. Eight words. No mention of God. No mention of what they’re to do next. But everything stops. And it’s not what he said. It wasn’t his charismatic personality or the passion with which he said it, both of which would be questionable. It’s that someone, anyone, was there saying it at all. Because it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. It was madness. It made no sense. People just didn’t walk in and do this sort of thing.
But for that moment in time it changed everything. Ninevah wholeheartedly, extravagantly, accepted the compassion of God in a way seldom seen, even in Israel. In that moment, the Kingdom of Heaven broke in.
And if a Jew 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 caused people to think again…
It’s fitting and it’s wonderful that the Book of Jonah is read in its entirety at Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar – which this year is next weekend. Yom Kippur is when a person forgives others – and repents and seeks forgiveness for themselves. The day when they feel closest to God.
Jesus and Jonah
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
But when you think of how Jesus lived, as well as 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 me”. He wasn’t supposed to talk to the religious authorities in the way that he did – or go and eat with Tax Collectors or spend time with prostitutes. And he wasn’t supposed to heal the servant of a soldier, a symbol of the oppressive Roman 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 or bring back people from the dead. He wasn’t supposed to be thrown by a pagan woman who flipped his remark about dogs. And he wasn’t supposed to have his feet washed by a woman’s tears or dried with her hair. He wasn’t supposed to be a Messiah who did not have an army behind him.
Words of forgiveness
But, unlike Jonah, instead of being sat against a tree on the edge of town… he’s nailed to one. Instead of words of anger… there are words of forgiveness.
So, isn’t this 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 really ever be change?
Perhaps we start small and go to parts of our own town that we wouldn’t normally visit. Or maybe we actively involve ourselves in business or politics or even religion, in a way that disrupts. That causes people to pause, just for a moment in time – enough time to ask themselves, “was that supposed to happen?” Enough time 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 and – sooner or later – head in the direction of whichever empire it is that God is calling us towards. Amen
Let’s finish with prayer: ‘And then you’. Walter Brueggemann.
“Jonah: it wasn’t supposed to be like this” was delivered by Ian Banks to St Zoom’s on Sunday 20th September 2020. It’s based on Jonah 3:10-4:11. St Zoom’s is a mix of congregations from Bury, Heywood and Rochdale meeting on-line.
- This Reflection is inspired by David Blower’s ‘Sympathy for Jonah’. 2016. Resource Publications. Thank you David.
- 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… Other traditions have it that he returned to Israel. ISIS destroyed the tomb in Mosul during their time of occupation. In Islam, Jonah is revered as a prophet who faithfully followed the call of Allah in testing circumstances.
- Previous thoughts by Ian on Jonah can be found here: https://stjohnstmarkchurchbury.com/sermons/jonah-jesus-fred-and-you/
- Nahum 3:1 – city of blood
- See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assyria and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineveh for more on Assyria and Ninevah
- For more on the reading of Jonah during Yom Kippur please take a look at this site: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4687/jewish/Yom-Kippur.htm
- See Leviticus 16:30 for the Day of Atonement
- For the prayer go to Walter Brueggemann’s ‘Awed to heaven, rooted in Earth’. 2003. Fortress Press.