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Reflection May 26, 2019
"Jonah’s Job" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
At our most recent Bible Study, we encountered the fabled prophet, Jonah. Jesus recalls Jonah in a passage from Luke, chapter 11. So this may be a good time to look at this mysterious and reluctant prophet, Jonah, who flees from God’s will and winds up on a very memorable adventure. Jonah is a very short book, only four chapters long, two pages but contains much worth pondering. Jonah is not a historical book. It is a fable, a parable.
We meet Jonah as he is commanded by God to go to the people of Nineveh and preach so the city’s inhabitants might repent before God destroys them because of their wickedness. Jonah wants none of this so he flees in the opposite direction. Jonah boards a ship heading west towards Spain. The city of Nineveh is to the east of Israel, near the present day city of Mosul in northern Iraq.
Nineveh was the capital of the great Assyrian Empire. It was the Assyrians who came upon the northern kingdom of Israel and completely destroyed it in the year 722 B.C. They also laid siege to Jerusalem but were not successful in that siege.
But make no mistake, the Assyrians were among the most hated people by the ancient Israelites. The Assyrians had despoiled and destroyed ten of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Sometimes people may be confused about why Jonah flees from doing what God commands. Some may suppose that Jonah was lazy. But the answer to why Jonah flees is very obvious from the text. He flees because he hates the people of Assyria, the people of Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t want them to have any chance of repentance, any chance of conversion.
Jonah wants them destroyed. Jonah understands that if he doesn’t preach to them, God will have to be true to his word and destroy them. The only chance the people of Nineveh have is if Jonah goes to them and they actually repent of their wickedness. But Jonah doesn’t want these despised people to receive God’s mercy.
So he flees by ship, but God stirs up a storm and the ship is in dire straights. Jonah must have been a good sleeper, he sleeps while the ship is in the process of sinking. The captain wakes him and asks Jonah to pray to his god to keep them from perishing. All the sailors have been praying to their gods to save them. The sailors also throw dice to determine who’s at fault for the storm. Jonah is selected by the dice-throws as the one responsible for the storm.
Jonah admits that he is fleeing from God and accepts his fate for fleeing. As a righteous man, he doesn’t want the sailors to die because of him so he tells the sailors to throw him overboard. At first they refuse, but the storm continues to grow so they finally toss Jonah into the sea.
The sea is immediately calmed and the sailors believe in the God of Jonah. To keep Jonah from drowning he is swallowed by a great fish. And Jonah spends three days in the belly of the beast. This beast is not to be seen as some kind of punishment from God. It is how God saves Jonah’s life.
Many of us have probably heard the phrase “in the belly of the beast.” Sometimes this phrase is used to speak of those people who are incarcerated in our prisons. I’ll return to Jonah in a moment but first I’d like to point out a societal issue in need of healing. In 1970, the number of people in state and federal prisons was 200,000.
At the end of 2018, that number was 6,613,500. We have the highest number of prisoners of any country anywhere. We must beseech God to bring healing to our country and to all who choose the path of crime.
I am incapable debating why we have so many of our brothers and sisters in prison but I do wish to state that something is obviously amiss in this country of ours. Something must be done. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population.
And I know we need to be protected from violent offenders. But we should study this situation and pray to God to help us become a society that doesn’t need to put so many of our brothers and sisters behind bars.
As Jessica Williams points out in 50 Facts that Should Change the World: “Some criminologists believe that the U.S. could be reaching a ‘tipping point’: when more than 1% of the population is in prison each year, social networks are paralyzed, and crime becomes impossible to keep under control.”
Williams continues: “It costs the U.S. something like $30,000 to keep a prisoner in jail for a year. Imagine what might happen if that kind of money were diverted elsewhere: into street-level crime reduction programs, into development in inner cities, into drug and alcohol treatment programs. As well as saving taxpayers’ money, we might start to see a real drop in crime rates. We might see poverty levels fall, too, and children from minorities staying in school, choosing another path.”
It’s been well stated that there exists a “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” in our country. This “Pipeline” must be broken. It’s a national disgrace that an African American baby boy born today has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison. This is plainly wrong.
This situation cries to heaven for God’s intervention and healing. I’m not sure what we can do as a small congregation but one thing we can do is what Jonah did in the belly of the great fish, we can pray to God for deliverance from this insidious plague.
So back to Jonah: After three days in the belly of the fish, God has the great fish vomit Jonah onto dry land. Jonah realizes that he cannot run from God and he best do what God asks of him so he goes to Nineveh. He preaches a very simple message: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” It’s a simple message, in the original Hebrew, it consists of only five words.
Now, surprisingly, the people actually take Jonah’s message to heart and repent of their evil ways. Jonah’s preaching is profoundly effective, the most effective preaching ever known. The king of Nineveh puts on sackcloth and covers himself with ashes. He decrees a complete fast from food and water for the people and the animals. Every person and every animal is to be covered in sackcloth.
All are to turn from violence and cry out to God to save them. And God hears their cries and decides against punishing them. He has mercy on the people and animals of Nineveh.
Jonah, though, isn’t happy. Instead of rejoicing in the effectiveness of his preaching, he gets angry with God and complains to God. He wants these people punished. He wants God to destroy them. It’s only fair that they be destroyed because of their incredible cruelty. So God asks Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?”
God is trying to convert Jonah. Jonah received God’s mercy when the great fish swallowed him and kept him from drowning. God saved his life. Can God not save whomever God wishes to save? God is a God of compassion. But Jonah apparently doesn’t want a God of compassion. Jonah prays for death because of what has happened. Jonah thinks that God is unfair because he has spared these hateful people.
The story of Jonah is very important. The story of Jonah is one of the first places in the Old Testament where God is seen not only as the God of the Israelites but as God of everyone, even the enemies of the Israelites. The theological truth of Jonah is critically important for all of us. Many believers need to be converted from a spiritual sickness I call “Jonah-ism” - the misguided notion that God is “my God” or “our God” and not the God of “those people.”
The message of the Book of Jonah could not have been easy for the people of Israel to accept. As the Scripture scholar Anthony Ceresko notes: “The legendary city of Nineveh represents all that is hateful, repugnant, and cruel … and the notion of a God who is willing to show compassion to such as these (people of Nineveh) must have been a challenging one indeed, but no less challenging than the God whom Jesus preached.”
Until we are fully converted to belief in a God of endless mercy and compassion who can extend his mercy to whomever God chooses, we are stuck in the belly of the great fish. Until we accept the radical freedom of God to do as God pleases, we are stuck in the belly of the great fish. Until we surrender our desire to constantly tell God what God should be doing, we are stuck in the belly of the great fish. Until we recognize our need for continual repentance, we are stuck in the belly of the fish.
We don’t know if Jonah was finally converted or not. The story ends abruptly. But the story of Jonah is also our story. If we’ve been converted through the power of Jonah’s God, then we must never proclaim that God is only on our side. If we’ve been converted through the power of Jonah’s God, then we must never proclaim that God is punishing anyone anywhere. If we’ve been converted through the power of Jonah’s God, then we must always remember that God can never be limited in any way.
Jonah was a reluctant prophet. I imagine many – if not most of us – would have also been reluctant if we were in his shoes. Yet Jonah ends up doing the will of God in spite of himself. This is why we celebrate Jonah. We also are called like Jonah to do the will of God.
To discern the will of God individually and collectively is our main task in life. There is no greater task for a believer. In the story of Jonah, we see what happens when we flee from what God wants.
What God wants for all of us is the most powerful force in this enormous universe. We can run from God for a while but we can’t hide from God for very long. Jonah came to accept this divine truth in the belly of the great fish, showing how hardship can bring us into greater alignment with God. May we accept this truth without having to spend too much time in the belly of any beast!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor