When the Jewish exiles returned from Babylon in the sixth century B.C., they were faced with the dual tasks of rebuilding their community and trying to determine why God had allowed such a world-shattering event to happen in the first place. They wanted to do their best to prevent it from ever happening again.
The solution they came up with was, in essence, to circle the ethnic wagons. They developed a deep distrust of other countries and foreign individuals. They forced those who had married foreigners to divorce their spouse so that all foreigners could be expelled from Israelite soil.
The book of Jonah was written in response to those attitudes of exclusivity and hatred. The book is a well-crafted short story, designed to make a point about the boundless love of God. This is theology as high comedy. But I hope the story disturbs us, because it is a satire on every exclusive, narrow-minded expression of religion.
Jonah is the anti-prophet: instead of hearing, proclaiming, and doing the Word of the Lord, Jonah invariably does the exact opposite. Called to go east and prophesy repentance to the heathen Assyrian city of Nineveh, Jonah goes west and gets on a ship bound for Tarshish, a destination in far-off Spain.
In the 48 verses of this book, we find Jonah as the reverse of what a prophet is supposed to be. Throughout the book nearly everyone has more faith in God than Jonah does! The sailors on the ship had more faith; the people of Nineveh had more faith; maybe even the whale had more faith!
Jonah had very good reasons not to want to go to Ninevah, but the point of the story is that even the despised Assyrians are not outside God's love and forgiveness. And that is precisely why Jonah doesn’t want to go to Ninevah in the first place.
Ninevah was the symbol for non-Jewish people because it was the capital city of the arch-enemy Assyrians. The Assyrians were known for their cruelty. The level of viciousness they demonstrated in conquering the northern kingdom of Israel would go unmatched in history.
Jonah was well aware that when God said that Ninevah would be overthrown that that prophecy could be fulfilled through repentance just as easily as through the destruction of the city and Jonah was also aware that God would prefer repentance over punishment.
Jonah spends three days inside the whale, in the darkness, so he will have time to think, so he will learn a lesson. We, too, spend much time in darkness. The vengeance that we desire, the hurt feelings and grudges and rages that we carry for years weigh us down and eat at us. We are the ones who suffer the most in these situations. It doesn’t hurt the other person - the Ninevites were not hurt by Jonah’s reluctance, only Jonah was - but it damages us spiritually, relationally, emotionally, and physically. We are the ones spending time in darkness, we are the ones imprisoned.
When, with great reluctance, Jonah finally goes to Nineveh to prophesy repentance, the king and all the inhabitants do something almost never heard of in the writings of an Amos or a Jeremiah: they actually believe the Word of the Lord and proceed to fast and pray in sackcloth and ashes.
Everyone, "great and small," repented in sackcloth and ashes and "believed God." Even the king hears about the message and repents. We find people repenting and converting right and left. This is hilarious. This is outrageous! The king makes a decree that no one shall eat or drink anything. All the people are to put on sackcloth. Then the story moves beyond repentance to the ridiculous. In Jonah 3:8, the king decrees that all the animals put on sackcloth. Can you imagine this scene? Here is a field of cows draped in sackcloth. The dogs were repenting in sackcloth. And how in the world did they ever get the cats to keep those tiny sackcloth suits on? Did you ever try to dress a cat?
God sees all this repentance and repents as well. Verse ten says, "God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it."
We cannot help but think that any ordinary prophet would be praising the Lord with all his might, but not Jonah. “This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” (4:1) “This is why I wanted to head for Spain in the first place: you always do this God! Here are all these miserable offenders and all you can do is be gracious and merciful and forgive them! What is the point? It’s not fair! I might as well be dead!” (4:2-3)
So as the story draws to its close there is another episode involving a big tree-eating worm, and then the moral of the tale becomes clear: God’s mercy and compassion are indeed unbelievable, they go way beyond the human logic of what is fair and unfair.
God made a plant to grow right beside Jonah to provide him some shade. And Jonah was happy about the plant giving him shade. Then God sends a worm to attack the plant, and it wilts. That sends Jonah into another rage. He says, "It is better for me to die than to live." God says, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die."
Then God says "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour 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…" But to finish on a nice note of humour, God adds, "And also many animals."
Like Jonah, we sit outside the city, angry and hurting, separating ourselves from God and others. But there is a way out. We can choose to let go of our hurts and move on. As in the story of Jonah, God is ready to offer us love and mercy, too. It is that love and mercy that heals us and allows us to move out of the darkness. It doesn’t change the fact that we were hurt, it doesn’t mean that we weren’t right to be angry, but it moves us beyond that into a different place where we can go on.
We may find Jonah amusing, ridiculous, or appalling as he mutters and whines against God’s offer of redemption to the Ninevites, and as he tries to run away from God. But if we let the story touch us, if we plumb the depths of our own hearts, we will find Jonah there within us -- that part of us that judges and condemns, that desires revenge rather than justice, vengeance instead of mercy.
In the wake of Nazi Holocaust, the anti-prejudicial message of the book of Jonah became so central to the Jewish community that the book is always read in its entirety on the holiest day of the year - that is, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It's the Jewish way of reminding themselves both of the universality of God and of the cost the Jewish community paid when others chose to deny the common nature of humanity.
The character of Jonah never really admits or confronts his prejudice. Instead, the book ends with him sulking over the mercy God showed to the Ninevites. And that incomplete ending is intended to encourage us to examine our own feelings and actions in connection with those who are different from us.
But surely we are not like Jonah? We're good people and we try not to feel any prejudice. We want a peaceful and hopeful world in which all are housed and fed and given equal opportunities. But the reality is that since September 11th 2001 prejudice against Muslims has grown violent and ugly. At war in we have thrown the normal rules of civilized life out the window. It is easier to do what we think must be done in a war if we can dehumanize our enemies.
The book of Jonah declares to us that God is a universal God, whose redemptive love extends to all people. And if we attempt to dehumanize anyone, in effect we pull ourselves away from God's all-inclusive embrace.
Jonah holds before us a picture of God that is so loving, so patient, so relentlessly gracious that it pushes us to extend our boundaries of love as well.
Jesus never seemed to distinguish between the people he taught and healed. He preached to the poor. He cured those who had been ignored by physicians. One long day after another Jesus went into a crowd full of need and tended to one person after another. Just when somebody was ready to typecast him, Jesus went into the home of a rich tax collector and broke bread with the wealthy Pharisees. He never seemed to distinguish between rich or poor, male or female, insiders or outsiders. He did not restrict his care to one group or another. No. In the name of God, Jesus gave himself to the world. And this is our call as well – to follow Jesus and offer ourselves in love to others for His sake.