Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
Mark 1: 14-20
When it comes to the book of Jonah, some people scratch their heads, and wonder how something so silly could have gained entrance into the sacred canon. A man being swallowed by a big fish and living in its belly for three days before being vomited out on land? Come on, now; it sounds more like a tall tale or a fable for children than a biblical story with a lesson for adults. And yes, to some degree that is true. The Book of Jonah is filled with hyperbole, but exaggeration is hardly unknown in the bible, and sometimes exaggeration is the most effective way to make a point. So what is the point of Jonah’s story, and why is it paired in the lectionary with Mark’s telling of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples?
While Mark shows us people, who are immediately willing to follow Jesus, and Mark, by the way, uses this term immediately 33 times in his gospel, the Book of Jonah shows us a person who was the exact opposite of willing. Jonah had no interest at all in obeying God’s command to go to the people of Ninevah and preach repentance. He hated the Ninevites, and the last thing he wanted to see was their repentance and God’s mercy to them. Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, probably the largest city in the ancient world with a population of over 120,000. Assyria was the hated enemy of the Jews, especially when it conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, and then extracted huge tribute payments from the southern kingdom of Judah. Its pagan sinfulness was legendary as was its cruelty. It was said that the Assyrians scorched their enemies alive to use the skin as a decoration for the walls of their pyramids. And so, to put it very bluntly, Jonah wanted them to burn as well. He wanted the magnificent city along with its population completely destroyed, and he thought he could achieve his objective by running away from God. And so he boarded a ship for Tarshish, traveling around 750 miles west, when he should have been going east to Ninevah. When a storm arose on the sea as a signal of God’s disapproval of Jonah’s disobedience, Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard, which landed him in the belly of a big fish for three days, (Note: three days was the length of time Jesus was in the tomb). Then God spoke to the fish, which spewed Jonah out on dry land.
And this is where our text picks up today. For the second time Jonah is commanded by God to go to Ninevah, and this time he went. I guess he figured he had no other choice. Notice that the number three comes up again. The city of Ninevah took three days to walk across, but after only one day of walking, Jonah spoke God’s Word: Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown. (Note: forty is another important number---Jews wandered for 40 years in the wilderness; Jesus was tempted for forty days, also in the wilderness.) The amazing thing is that everyone believed Jonah’s words, and they repented, wearing sackcloth and ashes---everyone from the king to the animals. In Hebrew Jonah’s words amounted to five. It took only five words to get the people to repent. No other biblical character, including Jesus, was ever this successful. But again, we have exaggeration. Everyone repented, and so God showed mercy.
The totality of this repentance is in contrast to another story, found in Genesis, where Abraham bargained with God in an effort to save the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is not fair, Abraham pleaded, that the innocent should perish with the guilty, and so what if I can find 100 just people, what about 50, 40, 30, or how about 10. Only ten just people were needed to save those cities, but with the hated city of Ninevah, it took everyone’s repentance to change God’s mind. Now this probably says more about the hearers of the story than it does about God. Apparently, the status of Ninevah as a despised enemy was so strong in the mind of the Jews that nothing less than total repentance would satisfy them. But even then Jonah was not happy. He was miserable precisely because God had shown mercy to his hated enemy. And he had suspected all along that this is exactly what God would do, which was why he did not want to go to Ninevah in the first place. Going to Ninevah was not Jonah’s idea; it was God’s. And it was also God’s command. And so Jonah went because he was forced to go.
Though this story is certainly not literally true in all its details, it is existentially true in the sense that it does show us what life, what human existence is sometimes like. And sometimes we are pushed, pulled and yes, even shoved hard to go where we do not want to go. While God compelled Jonah to go to Ninevah and preach God’s message of repentance, God could not or would not force Jonah to be happy that his enemy repented. God could not or would not compel love of the enemy, and indeed, the story ends with Jonah’s anger and hatred still burning. And that reality, so profoundly human, is what also makes the story existentially believable, because it shows us who God is, the merciful one, and who we are, the angry, resentful ones. The story, in other words, is revelatory, not because it is literally true, but because it is symbolic of real life, showing us what human life often looks like.
I know this woman from the Y, who lost her husband in the World Trade Center on 9/11. And she is still very angry---angry with the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center, and angry with all other terrorists as well, because it reminds her of her loss. She and I had a little exchange once about torture. She believes in it, and when I told her that I did not, she said, “You might feel differently if you had lost your husband to terrorists”. “I might, indeed,” I admitted. “But how I might feel is not the point. Being wounded does not automatically give any of us a deep insight into moral questions. In fact, sometimes our wounds predispose us to make the wrong choices.” For all we know Jonah could have carried deep wounds within his soul. Perhaps someone he loved might have suffered at the hands of the Assyrians. But Jonah’s feelings and his sufferings are not the point. Of course they matter, but God’s commands and God’s mercy matter more.
Another woman I know is a member of this very upscale, wealthy Presbyterian Church, where the average parishioner is either extremely wealthy or can boast a PhD. She told me about one of the members, this very wealthy businessman, who told her he had a hard time understanding some of the sermons. I don’t have a PhD, he said, but I come anyway, because I always learn something here. Well, this woman decided she would volunteer at a local soup kitchen, and whom does she see there: this wealthy businessman from her church. I have to admit I was shocked to see him there, she told me. He just looks so uncomfortable, like it’s the last place he wants to be.
Well, finally, she got up her nerve, and she said to him one evening while they were both cleaning up after the dinner, “I think it is wonderful how you come here every Monday evening, but I must admit, I was very surprised to see you here, and even now, you look as if you are not at ease. “You got that right,” he said. “I don’t like a lot of these people,” he admitted. “They drink or use drugs or refuse to take their medication for mental illness. And some just seem lazy to me. There’s a reason many of them are homeless, and almost impossible to help. They won’t take any good advice.” Well, if that is the way you feel, then why are you here came the shocked question. Because, he said, this is where God sent me. It is not about what I feel or what I want; it is what God wants. God must think I have something to learn here. And so here I am. I am trying to learn, though I do not find it easy. But I guess it is not supposed to be.”
Jonah, or Jesus’ disciples could not have put it any better. Sometimes we get pushed or pulled or shoved into going someplace we would rather not go, or doing something we would rather not do. And that push, or pull or hard shove may actually be God’s grace, though at the time we may not realize it.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!