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Shorter Books of the Bible: Jonah

 

 Jonah 1:4-6

I: — Victims of horrific cruelty don’t forget readily.  Victims of horrific cruelty remain suspicious for centuries.         Victims of horrific cruelty find it hard to forgive.  They don’t want to be told they should forgive.  They simply want to be left alone.

In 722 BCE Assyrian armies swept through the Near East . They became notorious for their cruelty. Do you remember the poem by Lord Byron we studied in high school – “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold”?         There are caves in Palestine to this day where we can find etched into cave-walls depictions of Assyrian cruelty: men beheaded, children disembowelled, pregnant women ripped open. The Assyrians did it.   Up until the Assyrian assault there had been twelve tribes in Israel . The Assyrians slew ten.  After 722 BCE there were only two tribes left, Judah and Benjamin. The other ten will never be seen again.

The capital city of Assyria is Nineveh . Jonah is commanded to go to Nineveh and announce the gospel; then he’s to summon the Ninevites to repent in light of the gospel. Jonah objects. “How can you expect me to announce the news of your amnesty”, he cries to God, “in light of what the Ninevites have done to my people, Israel ?”

Perhaps we want to say, “Whether or not Jonah has it in him to announce God’s amnesty to the Assyrians and invite them to join Israel in the kingdom of God isn’t our problem. It may be Jonah’s problem, but it isn’t ours, since Assyria is long gone, and together with it its capital city, Nineveh .”

But if we speak like this we have spoken too soon, because the city of Nineveh is alive and well today. Its name today is Masoul. Masoul is a city in present-day Iraq . Regardless of how we assess American intervention in Iraq , I trust we are aware that present-day Iraqi cruelty is no small matter. I trust we don’t think that Saddam Hussein was a Boy Scout.

As if the Assyrian savagery in 722 BCE weren’t enough, in 586 BCE the Babylonians overran Israel . This time the Babylonians didn’t put Israel ’s people to the sword; instead they carried some of Israel ’s people off into exile and humiliated them.  The Jewish people who were left behind were leaderless.  They fell apart.

The exile, however, didn’t last as long as expected.  The exiled people who survived the exile and returned to Palestine had terrible stories to tell. Jonah cries to God that he can’t forget what the nations have done to his people, and for this reason he simply can’t announce the gospel of God’s amnesty and issue the invitation to repent or “come home” to the waiting Father. Is there anyone here whose heart doesn’t go out to Jonah?

The Assyrians had tortured, and then slain, ten of the twelve tribes. The remaining two tribes had had detestable pagan practices forced upon them. The leaders who returned from exile vowed that Israel would purge itself of all pagan accretions and make itself religiously pure, ethnically pure, nationally pure.  Israel would purify itself in order to protect itself, and protect itself in order to preserve itself. Jonah fears that even to carry the message of God’s good news to Nineveh might find Ninevites wanting to join Israel , thus compromising Israel ’s purity. Besides, Jonah has no stomach for the enterprise in any case.

Israel knew that God had appointed it to be a light to the nations, a light to the gentiles. Israel was ordained to be the cutting edge of God’s transformation of the world. Israel was therefore always to be looking beyond itself and moving beyond itself. After the exile, however, many Israelites had lost all heart and all stomach for their vocation. They were too weary and too dispirited to be a light anywhere.   All they wanted to do was purify themselves in order to protect themselves in order to preserve themselves.

Nevertheless some Israelites wouldn’t settle for this. They protested. We can read their protest in two of the shorter books of the bible, Ruth and Jonah.  These two books tell us that God’s care for his creatures is as wide as the world – and so must be Israel ’s. Israel must take up its vocation once again: a light to the nations, even a light to that nation which has savaged Israel .

 

II: — Let’s look more closely at the book of Jonah itself.  It’s listed as one of the prophetic books of the Older Testament, but it differs from them in that it’s about one man, whereas all other prophetic books feature a prophet’s message, not a “prophet’s” biography. In other words, the book of Jonah isn’t a prophetic book of the order of Isaiah or Amos or Jeremiah.

Then of course there’s the incident of the whale. “Jonah and the whale” is the story that children are told since infancy.  What too few people notice, however, is that a whale isn’t even mentioned in the story. The text speaks not of a whale (which is an air-breathing mammal) but of a great fish. The “great fish” episode, however, can scarcely be the point of the story when the fish episode takes up only three verses of the entire book.

Then is the book of Jonah history or parable? Let me say right now that if it isn’t history its force as Word of God isn’t diminished at all. Our Lord’s parables are just that – parables, not history, and no one questions the truth and force of his parables (sanctified fiction) as Word of God on the ground that they are parables and not history.

Let me tell you what I think.  If Jonah is history, it’s the oddest history written anywhere:

-a prophet who runs away from his divine appointment instead of honouring it (as all prophets elsewhere honour their appointment – or else they wouldn’t be prophets);

-he grudgingly takes up his task after the bizarrest intervention of a great fish;

-when his preaching does bear fruit, instead of rejoicing and praising God he complains and sulks;

-speaking of bearing fruit, when Jonah preaches in Nineveh , the entire city, without any exceptions (according to the tale) repents and comes to faith. No evangelist before or since has had 100% success like this, not even Jesus, we should note;

-in the midst of Jonah’s sea-voyage a storm arises, but the storm abates as soon as Jonah is pitched overboard;

-when Jonah finally gets to dry land and the sun is beating down on him, a gourd large enough to give shade to an adult (the gourd must have been five feet in diameter) grows up in a single day.

If you want to regard the story as history, no one is going to object; if, on the other hand, you find the story makes more sense as parable, you stand in good company.

 

III – Now to the story itself.

[i] The first thing to leap out at us is the capacity of our wounds to deflect us from our vocation. Our wounds can easily precipitate bitterness and vindictiveness, thereby deflecting us from our vocation. God orders Jonah to Nineveh . Jonah boards the ship and deliberately heads in the wrong direction, as far from Nineveh as he can get. Jonah wasn’t around when Assyria, the country whose capital city is Nineveh , savaged the Israelite people. The cruel deed occurred hundreds of years before Jonah was born.  Still, just to think of an event hundreds of years ago is enough to acidulate Jonah’s heart and curdle his spirit.  So very bitter is Jonah – not at what was done to him but at what was done to his ancestors generations earlier – that the mere historical recounting of his people’s tragedy blinds him and deafens him to the work God has assigned him.  So very bitter is he that even after he has turned around and gone to Nineveh ; after the city has repented and turned to God he’s angry: the repentant city will now be spared destruction, and Jonah would rather see it pulverized and all its people perish.

The wounds you and I sustain have enormous capacity to render us vindictive. Our vindictiveness fills up our heart until we are preoccupied with it, until every other consideration has been squeezed out and our vocation is long forgotten.

I learned a long time ago that the wounded person may have been victimized by something that isn’t his fault at all. Therefore we rightly pity him for the pain he’s in. I learned too, however, that the person horribly victimized and in dreadful pain should never be regarded as harmless.  The more someone is in pain, the more dangerous he is.

The primary damage we sustain when we are wounded is the wound itself. The secondary damage is the poisoning of our own heart and mind.  The tertiary damage is the damage our poisoned spirit then inflicts on other people.

The story of Jonah should find us all searching our heart, soberly and seriously, lest the wounds we’ve accumulated render us both dangerous to others and useless to God.

 

[ii] The second truth this story always drives home to me is the world’s heart-hunger for God. Jonah’s people have endured dreadful treatment at the hands of the nations, twice over in fact, and now are understandably hostile to the nations, even as those same nations are crying out for the God of the people they have mistreated. Nineveh ’s repentance at the announcement of the gospel proves this.

Assyria is sunk in ungodliness, says Jonah. No doubt it is. But according to Israel ’s prophets, Assyria is no more ungodly than Israel itself, since Israel is sin-ridden too. The sailors in the Jonah story are pagan gentiles; they are neither better nor worse than the rest of us. Yet when Jonah is pitched overboard and the storm is stilled, says our story, the sailors tremble before God.  The people of Nineveh soak up the gospel like a sponge. To be sure, the Ninevites aren’t acquainted with the religious subtleties of Israel , but this doesn’t mean that they are extraordinarily wicked or unteachable or hopeless.

When I was a post-graduate philosophy student an undergraduate English student who shared my library desk spoke to me about my decision to study theology and enter the ministry.  Usually I speak of my vocation without any awkwardness at all.  In this case, however I felt awkward in that she had already told me, emphatically if not defiantly, that she was an agnostic.   What would she understand of what I had to say?   Nonetheless, as straightforwardly and as unselfconsciously as I could I related my experience of and understanding of the summons I’ve never been without since age 14. When I had finished she said quietly, “I understand you.  Plainly I don’t share your space.   I’m not in your orbit. But I understand.” This is precisely the sensitivity and the hunger Jonah found among the Assyrians.

It’s easy in the church to magnify the world’s wickedness when in truth the world’s wickedness is so very blatant as to need no magnification.  We need instead to magnify that light and life and truth which the world needs and for which it hungers even as it tries to feed itself with what doesn’t nourish and therefore won’t finally satisfy.

When Jesus came upon crowds of people who seemed hungry and bewildered and wistful all at once, he wasn’t angry with them (as Jonah had been.) He was moved to such pity for them, the Greek text tells us, that his bowels knotted. He spoke of the crowds as sheep without a shepherd, clueless.   God had spoken exactly like this at the conclusion of the Jonah story: “You pity the gourd because it has withered in the heat of the noon-day sun, but you don’t pity people who are like children in that they don’t know their right hand from their left, who are like cattle in that they’ve become a herd without knowing it?”   Cattle without benefit of discernment; children who don’t know right hand from left; sheep without a shepherd – and through it all a Father whose heart aches for the people he has made in his image.

 

[iii] Lastly, the story of Jonah confirms us in the joy that surrounds the triumph of God’s activity. Jonah should have rejoiced too; instead he sulked.   His petulance, by contrast, only magnifies the joy we find everywhere else in scripture when God’s word and way triumph.

When C.S. Lewis detailed his journey from agnosticism to faith, he titled his autobiography Surprised by Joy. After much intellectual wrestling Lewis concluded that the case for God, philosophically, was stronger than the case against God.    Once he was at the door of the kingdom he peeked through the door, he tells us, and saw within this kingdom a mountainous superfluity of joy. He stepped ahead and never looked back. It all squares with the note of joy that crowns so many of our Lord’s parables.

Let’s be honest: if there isn’t greater joy upon entering the kingdom of God than there is at remaining outside it, who would ever enter it?   Why would anyone bother? We all have more than enough grief, anxiety, and difficulty in our lives right now. The kingdom promises something better: relief, release, rejoicing.

From time to time people ask me why Christians sing at worship.    There are many reasons. The simplest, however, is also the profoundest: singing is what joyful people do naturally. Singing is the spontaneous exclamation of joyful people.   The fact that we sing here frequently is a reminder that the bottom line of our worship, like the bottom line of our Lord’s parables of lost-then-recovered coin and sheep and son, is joy; the joy that Lewis glimpsed through the doorway to the kingdom and which he held up for the rest of his life.

 

What are we to think of when we hear the word “Jonah”?   Not of a whale; not even of that “great fish” which is mentioned in only three verses.

We are going to think of a story as new as it is old, of a story concerning a reluctant fellow who proved, albeit left-handedly, that God’s compassion is as wide as the world and therefore ours must be this wide as well; that whatever bitterness and resentment and vindictiveness our wounds have brought us must be flushed away by our awareness of the spiritual hunger all around us, not to mention the joy that such hungry people will know when finally they are fed.

 

                                                                                                            Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

November 2005