A Reluctant Prophet
The story of Jonah and his encounter with the great fish is very well known.
It is part of our culture and has echoes in cartoon stories, (Pinocchio) and in children's
first readers and Sunday School literature.
But did you know that for many generations people ridiculed Jonah as a silly myth?
Scholars regarded it as merely a story for children. Archeologists dismissed it because
there was no proof that Nineveh actually existed outside the pages of the Bible.
But today we know the location of the Nineveh and it was a substantial city.
However, for people who do not want to believe, then the existence of Nineveh does not prove the historical
Jonah nor does it prove his uniquely wonderful experience.
Nonetheless, people of faith see in Jonah not only a wonderful story,
and it is. They see a true story about humankind, and human history.
The action of the Jonah story is a play about people and their ability to become morally corrupt to the point of gross ignorance
like children who cannot tell the good from the bad.
Jonah is about God who cares for the people he has created and
set free to live within this garden we call the earth.
He is God of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and Abraham, Issac and Jacob. Ultimately, He is shown to be the God and father of Jesus who became human because God cared.
For Christians the evidence of Jonah is witnessed by the faith of our spirirtual ancestors.
Christians look to the people of the Old Testament for understanding of the events of that ancient time - our common past.
The Jews believed the story of Jonah and included it in their Scripture.
Jesus believed the story of Jonah and used it as an illustration for his own life experience.
The earliest Christians believed the story and Christian gravestones in Rome portray it as a symbol of life after death.
For believers the story of Jonah is a true story of a man called by God to preach a message of repentence and salvation. It is the story of the God who seeks and saves his children who have become lost and cannot find their way home without his help.
Christians regard the prophet Jonah as a type foreshadowing Jesus.
Jesus said that he did not come for the healthy but for the sick. The healthy are well and they know it. So, they have no need of a doctor. But the sick may be diseased and not know it. They require someone to diagnose their sickness and prescribe the remedy. They need a healer.
People can be sick physically. And they can be sick mentally, spiritually, emotionally. For instance, the physical ailment of blindness is plain because the person cannot see. But there is also the blindness of selfishness. People can be blind in many ways.
A person can be blind to themselves. They see with their eyes but they do not understand what they see. Or they can be blind as to their experience. They interact with their world and with other people but remain isolated and lonely because they cannot see the depth and love within their relationships. Or they have very deep emotional or mental feelings but they do not see (understand) from where the feelings came. They do not know what the feelings indicate. They are in the dark as to any remedy.
Jesus came in order for us to understand, to see and gain a remedy. He came as the source of knowledge, as light in darkness and as the cure for our illness. Those in light do not need a lamp but those in darkness need the light. Jesus was sent as the light that shines in the darkness.
From the beginning to the end of the bible the theme is repeated. Humankind is lost due to deafness, blindness,
ignorance, stupidity, arrogance, selfishness and greed. That is the first act of the play.
The second act is God seeking and searching for lost humankind, looking for them in the various places of their fear, the haunts of darkness, the hiding places of those who are afraid of God.
The final act is played out in the response of each individual and society, each nation and epoch of human history.
Will man and God be enemies or friends? Will God win and regain the trust and fidelity of his creation? Or will humankind forever remain estranged? Will the people always wander outside in the desolation or will they be admitted once again into the intimacy of the Garden of Paradise?
Jonah is both a book of cosmic scope and it is individually personal. The central theme treats of nations and cultures and religions. But the story never loses sight of the person.
Jonah is representative of all humankind, all people of religion, all selfishness and narrow mindedness. He also represents the one individual human soul that yearns for the true meaning of one life lived in a seemingly senseless world.
To buy the story of Jonah is not to purchase the fact of a man in the belly of a great fish. Yes, the story says that and for the sake of the whole, we accept the truth of the story.
However, the story is not about the fish. It is about the man. It is not about the gourd but about the man sitting under it. Jonah is about the mind and heart of humankind. It is a moral message about timeless issues of morality that affect the quality of our lives.
If we can see ourselves in the story we are healed. If we can move past the Disney cartoon to the true Bible story, we have added to our lives a blessing that will benefit us repeatedly.
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me."
A great city has many types, and ages of people. This is reflected in Jonah chapter 4:11, referring to the children,
...that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand.
This great city had a serious problem. It was an evil city filled with every manner of corruption and
sin. Like Sodom and Gommorah, and like the world at the time of Noah, the people of Nineveh were a foul stench in the world. A city which not only did wrong but did evil. They were a people who not only thought of the wrong but invented new and more foul ways of doing it. Even more, they were a people who encouraged others to join in the evil. A corrupt city that corrupted everything and everyone.
But God cared about the city. That is the reason why God is sending his prophet. Jonah is to go to 'Nineveh that
great city and cry against it."
This "crying" is not a condemnation. It is preaching. It is a call to repentence. It is a diagnosis of their late stage
condition. It is a lament and pleading. It is the pathos of God's heart praying for the people to turn aside from the calamity that they are bringing upon themselves.
But Jonah was a man with a mind of his own. When he received the command of the Lord, Jonah set out immediately but
not to Nineveh. He ran in the opposite direction. Instead of going the way God directed, he went to Joppa, a seaport,
and took a ship to carry him away from the Lord. He would go to Spain!
We wonder what Jonah was thinking. How was he going to escape the God of the Universe? Or did Jonah think that the God of
Israel was only a local God who could be escaped?
At the start, it seems like Jonah succeeds. God does not prevent him.
Sometimes, God places barriers before the person who seeks to escape. These barriers are for protection. They are a hedge
around potentially dangerous behavior. God knows that the person's actions, done according to the person's
selfish motives, will only cause harm to self and others.
It is for caring that God sends Jonah. But when Jonah runs away it seems God does not care. However, God will not allow his prophets to turn aside forever. Instead, God knows that when a person is obstinate, he must be allowed to ensare himself in his own folly. Jonah refused the Lord's command and thereby created his own dilemma.
God cares what people do. It is for caring that God comes into the Garden after Adam and Eve had sinned. It is for caring that God calls out to Cain when he is about to hurt his brother. It is for caring that God questions Cain after the murder of Abel. And it is for caring that God sends the angels to Sodom and Gomorrah at the time of its impending destruction.
Why did Jonah run away. The answer is a surprise. Jonah knew the true nature of God.
The book of Jonah reveals Jonah's thinking. He reasoned that if he did not go to Nineveh then God would judge that great city and it would be destroyed.
But he knew that if he did go to Nineveh and tell them of the impending judgement,the people might repent and God would
then relent from his judgement and forgive the people.
After all, there were one hundred and twenty thousand children in Nineveh who did not know their right hand from their left hand.
Echoing the words of Abraham when he argued with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, Jonah asked himself the question, "Shall not the judge of all the earth do Justice?" And he knew the answer!
But although Jonah considers God to be just, the same value does not apply to him. He does not care about Nineveh.
He regards them as a people who deserve whatever they get.
They are not Israelites, and the peoples of that region had been oppressive to Israel. So why should Jonah care to save them?
It's not his responsibility. At least, that is what he thinks.
Jonah can flee from the command of the Lord. He can refuse to carry out the will of God. He can shut the door of compassionate
caring against the Ninevites. Nevertheless, the prophet of God is responsible, since it is the God of the universe who has commanded him.
Why is he responsible?
Consider that by his refusal to obey God's command, Jonah contributes to the death of the city. Yes, the sins of the people are many and their hearts are far from God.
But if we apply the words about the children to the adults then what do we see? Then the observation of their moral inadequacy is extended to them all.
It is a city, the entire population of which is blind to their situation. It a people who's moral compass is not working and therefore, they do not know their right hand from their left hand.
It is the responsibility of those who know the right to inform those who do not know (or refuse) the right.
This concept is reflected in Ezekial. In Ezekial God tells the prophet to go and tell the people their fault and if they heed him then their salvation is credited to the prophet. But if he tells them and they refuse then the prophet is blameless. However, if he refuses to tell them and they die in their moral blindness then their blood is required at the hand of the prophet.
Moral responsibility is not removed by running away. The person who knows better is required to act accordingly. That is not to say that responsible people cannot refuse to act rightly. They can and they do refuse.
But upon refusal, the the situation changes to one of accountability. The responsible person is accountable.
Jonah can run away from God but where can he go? There is a sense of humor in the story. A humor reflected in many of our human decisions and consequent actions.
Jonah runs to the sea. By entering upon a ship and then launching out to sea Jonah runs directly into the hands of God. Where shall he go from off of the ship? The ship of his escape is his prison.
No sooner is he on the deep sea than God displays God's all present power. God sends a storm so violent that the ship is going to sink. The sailors throw cargo overboard to lighten the load. But it is not effective and the storm continues to rage. As a last resort, each Mariner calls out to his own God for help.
Isn't it remarkable that they are all in the same boat,a reference to their mutual community in the midst of their calamnity, yet, each is separated by their personal and
individual religion. No one seems to know the One God of the Universe. So, it obvious to ask, "Where is Jonah?"
He had gone down into the hold of the ship and there fallen asleep. Mindless of the world outside and heedless of the turmoil of the ship in the storm, Jonah slept! Outside his dark cabin death beat upon the door with each wave but he cared not.
Finding him, the Captain of the ship exclaimed, " What meanest thou, O sleeper? Arise, call upon your God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not."
The prayers of the others were not effective. Maybe this traveling stranger's God could control the storm.
The Captain was not an Israelite yet he reminds the Israelite prophet of his prophetic duty. The Captain is in danger of death and he is the one who wakens the sleeper who seems not to know of the danger of his own death.
This is a man whom Jonah regarded as a heathen and who therefore deserved any disaster in which he found himself. Yet, Jonah is
in the same boat under the same judgement and it is the so called heathen who preaches to the prophet that he should get up and pray to his God.