Our Old Testament reading opens today with the prophet Jonah on a beach in the Mediterranean.
This is no beach vacation. Jonah looks stunned and confused. You would, too, if you had just spent three days in the belly of a giant fish, then were spewed out onto the beach.
That is the one thing that everyone knows about Jonah. It’s a pretty memorable fish story.
Unfortunately, this fanciful tale has often obscured the important message of the rest of the story about this reluctant prophet.
First, there’s the matter of how Jonah ended up in this predicament. God told the prophet to go to the city of Nineveh and “cry out against it” because of its wickedness.
But Jonah had other ideas. Instead of heading for Nineveh, he hopped a boat going the opposite direction. When a great storm arose, threatening to sink the boat, he confessed that perhaps the storm was because of God’s anger at him.
The sailors threw him overboard, the storm ceased, and the big fish swallowed him up. Being in a fish belly is enough to turn the most recalcitrant of prophets. After three days of Jonah’s ardent prayer and repentance God instructs the fish to spew him out on dry land.
That brings us to the beginning of today’s reading.
Jonah is still sprawled out on the beach, barely recovered from his ordeal, when God appears to him a second time with the same message: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
Jonah heads out again, this time to follow God’s instructions.
So why is Jonah so reluctant to carry out God’s orders?
Most of the Old Testament prophets are speaking to their own nation and people – warning that the nation of Israel has lost its way; calling out the people and the nation for turning away from God; for building up the riches of the powerful at the expense of the poor; for neglecting children and immigrants; for putting their trust in military power rather than in God.
The prophets are motivated by love – love of God, love of justice, love of the people and nation that has gone astray. The prophets’ often withering criticism of the nation is offered in the hopes that it will bring the leaders and people back into the fold of God.
But that’s not the case with Jonah and Nineveh. God is not sending Jonah to cry out to his fellow Hebrew people or the nation of Israel.
Nineveh is seen as enemy territory to the Hebrew people. It is full of heathens, who do not even give lip service to the worship of God. The prophet Nahum describes it as violent and vile, “a bloody city, all full of lies and booty.”
Jonah has absolutely no desire to set foot in Nineveh. He does not care about it or its people. In fact, he’d be happy to see God smite the whole place.
But with the memory of the fish belly still fresh in his mind, he reluctantly sets off for the evil city.
It’s easy to imagine that Jonah shouts his warnings without much enthusiasm, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” He offers no explanation, no listing of the city’s sins, no call for repentance. He doesn’t even mention God.
And then a funny thing happens. The people of Nineveh repent.
Again, this is not the way it usually works. All of the great Hebrew prophets – Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Joel – all exhort Israel until they are blue in the face, usually to no avail.
They are often despised by the people and leaders, labeled as unpatriotic for pointing out the nation’s flaws. The leaders and people of Israel, supposedly God’s elect, generally ignore the prophets’ warnings, no matter how vigorously they are made.
But not the heathens of the evil city of Nineveh. They recognized that this unenthusiastic, reluctant prophet was of God.
“And they believed God, they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth,” the symbol of repentance and mourning.
Even the king got off his throne, removed his royal robes, covered himself in sackcloth, and sent out a proclamation to his people:
“No human being or animal shall taste anything,” he decreed. “Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.”
“Who knows?” the king added. “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
And God, moved by the sincerity of the king and people’s remorse, does change the divine mind and calls off the punishment.
Now our reading ends there, but you really need to know a little bit more to understand the importance of this story.
One might think that Jonah would be happy at this turn of events. He has followed God’s command, and the people have listened. An entire city has been saved. Other prophets would be ecstatic at such results.
But not Jonah.
Jonah is furious, and he lets God know it.
This is why I ran away to begin with, he says. “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Jonah does not intend that as a compliment.
Jonah is outraged that the God of Israel has shown mercy on Israel’s enemy.
God’s universal love stands in stark contrast to the prophet’s narrow-minded exclusivism.
It’s easy to laugh at this amusing story of the reluctant and petulant prophet, but the truth is that if we are honest we can see ourselves in Jonah.
The Israelites were considered God’s chosen people, and the nation of Israel was also considered divinely blessed, so why was God caring for the people of Nineveh?
Imagine how we would react if God were to show mercy on North Korea, or Iran, or members of Isis or the Taliban.
The Book of Jonah challenges the people of God – challenges us – to examine our attitudes toward people who might be our enemies, or who might come not from the Norways of the world, but from Haiti or Africa or El Salvador or Mexico.
God reminds Jonah – and us – that the divine love and mercy extend to all peoples of the world, not just to the ones who look and act like us.
And it reminds us that we, like Jonah, exist for the sake of the people of the world, and that if we are blessed – which we are – then we have a God-given responsibility and obligation to use that blessing to bless others, to break down walls and barriers that divide us.
The Book of Jonah warns against an arrogant insider/outsider, superior/inferior way of thinking and looking at the world. There are no limits on God’s mercy and forgiveness.
In poet Robert Frost’s play about Jonah, the prophet laments:
“I just can’t trust God to be unmerciful.”
God can’t be trusted to join us in the hatred of our enemies or those whom we deem inferior.
Thanks be to God.