Jonah is one of the least read books in the Bible. (At least according to handy analysis of what people access electronically.) I was quite surprised to see this. Surprised because it is short and easy to read; surprised because it is an engaging story; surprised because there are an awful lot of people out there who know about Jonah and the big fish. Ok, make that Jonah and “the whale.” It’s a well-known story.
For those a bit more familiar with the story, we might consider it a love story. An unconventional one, indeed, but a love story, nonetheless. It’s a story of pursuit; of not letting go of the one you love. The God of the entire universe pursued Jonah deep into the sea. God would not let go of Jonah, nor the mission he had for him. And that mission was to take a message to the people of Nineveh who God also refused to let go of. The message is clear; there is no place we can go where God is not there with us. That is a great love story.
But there is much more going on in Jonah. On Sunday, we focused on another angle in the book. If you missed it on this welcomed long weekend, you can listen to it here…
If we do read the book, and know any of the background of the nation of Assyria, we have no trouble empathizing with Jonah. He is afraid to take this message to Nineveh. They are a huge city in the most powerful nation at that time. And, they were not known for being nice. But how hard could it be? The message was short and to the point: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Yeah, Jonah was afraid.
But there was a lot more than that. Jonah was afraid of God. That is, afraid of what God might do. Although he was a voice piece for God, Jonah didn’t really trust God. He didn’t trust God’s judgment. He was afraid God was going to do things that he didn’t think God had any business doing; things that Jonah thought were not right or fair. He was afraid that after he delivered this word of destruction, that God would mess everything up and actually forgive them. God would enact his sense of justice, not Jonah’s.
Jonah was not remotely comfortable with the notion that a good loving God could forgive the wickedness of “those” people. They weren’t deserving. Their dark behavior was legendary. In Jonah’s mind, God’s grace and mercy had no place being extended to such a people.
If we are honest with ourselves, does that feel at all familiar? It seems that looking at the heart of Jonah gives us a glimpse inside of ourselves. Jonah is a story about the prophet, the people of Israel, and about all of us. We have our sense of justice. But I’m not too sure it looks like God’s justice. We are somewhat OK with our mission to share God’s love with others. But we are most agreeable when it is to others who are like us. For those inside the fold, very much including ourselves, we can be extremely understanding and forgiving. To those people outside the fold, we can be very harsh and demanding. Jonah appreciated God’s grace and forgiveness when it was extended to him and those who were deemed deserving. But for “them?” He wasn’t interested. Jonah forgot that he wasn’t deserving. We can forget that we aren’t deserving; that none of us is deserving of God’ grace. Not a one of us.
May God give us eyes to see that we stand along with all those made in His image, in need of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness. In need of God’s justice.