First Presbyterian Church, Marietta, Ohio
April 29, 20178
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
By Rev. Marc van Bulck
Our Scripture reading is one of the most familiar stories in Scripture. Sunday School curriculums have been made about it. Veggie Tales made a movie about it. I’ve met people who have told me that they’ve never heard of Jonah in the Bible, but upon hearing “He’s the guy who got swallowed up in the belly of a fish,” they’ve said, “Oh, yeah. I know that story.” It’s also a great story for seminarians and Bible snobs who love to correct people and say, “You know, the Bible doesn’t actually say it was a whale. It says it was a ‘large fish.’” Whatever.
Jonah is one of the most beloved Bible stories that we tell to children, but when I read it today, it reads a lot more like a religious, political satire. The business with the fish only takes up about a fourth of the story, and in my opinion this narrative feels like something much closer to Mark Twain than Mr. Rogers.
God has had it up to here with Nineveh’s shenanigans and warns Jonah that they’re goose is cooked if they don’t get their act together. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria whom the writers of the Hebrew Bible largely looked down their nose at. They were foreigners. Outsiders. They didn’t exactly believe what we believe. They didn’t go to our church. They behaved differently. They were sinners!
So, God tells Jonah to get his butt over to Nineveh and warn them that a can of you-know-what is about to be opened if they don’t start to straighten up and fly right. So, naturally, Jonah hops on the first boat for the exact opposite direction instead as you do when you’re a Biblical prophet.
This makes Yahweh very grumpy who sends a storm over the water that threatens to break the boat to pieces out on the open ocean, and in a rare moment of self-awareness Jonah recognizes that maybe the problem is him! So, he has the crew to toss him overboard.
As Jonah is sinking into the depths of the water, Jonah begins to drown and begins to die. And so the large fish that God sends to swallow him up is not there to seal his fate; it saves his life. Jonah is vomited back onto dry land, and our Scripture reading catches up to him:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you. ’So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
I relate to Jonah a little bit more than I like to admit. I used to like this story back in seminary when I thought that relating to him was a good thing. I’m not so sure I feel that way now. Jonah is the very definition of privilege. He’s got all the right religious beliefs. He’s the good, well-behaved church-going boy. He can recite the B-sides to the Psalms even when he’s swimming in fish guts. When his life is in danger, God swings in and saves him and makes sure he’s okay. When Jonah gets uncomfortable, God plants a nice, shady tree just for him. Isn’t that nice?
Jonah has everything he could possibly want, and yet throughout this entire story, all he ever does is whine about it. Jonah whines all the time. He is spoken to by the very voice of God (a privilege afforded to very few), and the first thing he does is slam the door like a moody teenager and run in the other direction. God saves the lives of every living person in Nineveh, and Jonah still manages to find a way to make it all about him. One minute he’s all, “Thank you, O Lord, for saving my life!” and the next minute: “I’d be better off if I was dead!”
And why? “Because a worm was eating my shady little tree! Boo, hoo, hoo!” God says to Jonah, “Is it really right for you to be angry about this?” and Jonah says, “Yes, it is! Angry enough to die!”
You know what the real irony here is? The way this story sets up how horrible, evil, sinful, and depraved these Ninevites are, we might expect this kind of behavior from them. The irony, though, is that when God asks them to do something, the text tells us they wasted no time jumping into action. Verse five tells us “the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast…everyone, great and small!”
They don’t whine. They don’t complain. They don’t ask stupid questions. They don’t try to argue with God. Their very first response is, “Holy Moses! Thanks for letting us know, God! Quick, come on, gang. Let’s get it together. Maybe there’s still a chance we can turn this ship around before it’s too late.”
The supposedly horrible, sinful people who we’re not supposed to like are the ones who come out looking like the heroes in this story, and it is the supposedly good, faithful, religious-type who is portrayed as a selfish, entitled hypocrite who has everything he could possibly need but can’t seem to do anything but complain like he’s being persecuted all the time. It’s just the saddest commentary on our religious institutions you’re ever going to find in a story like this. It would be a pretty biting piece of satire even by today’s standards, and this was written over two thousand years ago.
I’ve never been to Nineveh. I’ve never traveled to that part of the world, but I’ve seen plenty of Ninevites in my own life – or at least people that I was raised being told were Ninevites. People who were outcasts in my neighborhood but not because they were from some old country from the Old Testament.
They were outcasts because they were gays and lesbians. They talked about things like “gender identity” that we didn’t understand and rolled our eyes at. Maybe they were Ninevites because they lived over on the other side of town, or maybe they were atheists and agnostics. Maybe they were Ninevites because they went to that other school, and heaven forefend one of them actually muster up the courage to wander into our church on Sunday morning. Most of the time, however, we never really saw them that much. They lived over in Nineveh. They kept over there. We kept over here, and that was just the way we liked it.
I also remember many people I knew who were supposedly good, faithful, church-going Christians who had everything they could possibly want. People…well, like me! We grew up in beautiful homes in beautiful, safe neighborhoods. We knew the lyrics to every single hymn in the hymn book. We had beautiful families who often had plenty of money to send kids to good schools.
Yet sometimes it seemed like all we were able to do was complain. “Oh, my God, can you believe what so-and-so is wearing to the Christmas Eve service?” “Here comes that horrible person from the committee. Can you believe she wants to change the colors of the drapes in the fellowship hall to chartreuse?” “He’s an alcoholic, you know.” “I heard they’re getting a divorce.” “Christianity is under attack! Why can’t these poor people just get a job?! It just makes me so angry! It makes me angry enough to die!”
The truth is that the Ninevites are dying both in our world and in Jonah’s. Like any good satire, the book of Jonah does not end with a nice little moral that spells out the lesson that we’re supposed to learn. It ends with a punch line, and in this case, it’s a real zinger. God says, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow…should I not be concerned about Nineveh…in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons…?” (4:10-11)
The painful irony, though, is that when the original audience first heard this story, Nineveh had been destroyed long ago. Was that God’s will? It didn’t sound like it in the story. Either way, humanity let it happen anyway, and the city was never rebuilt.
Many of the Ninevites in our neighborhoods today are dying, too. Dying from poverty, from hunger, from suicide, or from occupying forces. For all its wit, irony, and sarcasm, I believe there is also a vision of possibility embedded deep between the lines. A commentary from the author that says, “It doesn’t have to be this way. History doesn’t have to repeat itself. The cycle can be broken.”
However, like any good satire, it doesn’t let us off the hook either. It is also a cautionary tale. That’s the other side of the coin. The cycle can still continue. We can choose to just ignore all that stuff and imagine all of the ways that we think we have been persecuted instead and how we are the real victims here. Not these Ninevites. The thing about satire is that it doesn’t always wrap everything up in a nice, comforting reassurance that everything is going to be okay. Rather, the author uses irony and wit to simply tell it like it is. To show us both choices and say, “It’s up to you.”
Jonah may have a thing or two to learn from these Ninevites. He might learn something from their example and the way that they respond to God. It makes me wonder if we could learn a thing or two from the Ninevites in our own midst. Many of those same Ninevites I told you about that I grew up with were people who acknowledged that our society is guilty of letting things like poverty, hunger, prejudice, misogyny, and addiction become problems in our world and that they were guilty of participating in it! Even though they were not always necessarily churchgoers, it was often through their example that I learned a thing or two about the practice of repentance. To come to that realization and to respond with humility by actively taking steps to change it.
I have seen Ninevites in my own life model that example. Maybe you have, too. I have known Ninevites who volunteer in soup kitchens and homeless shelters over the weekends. I have known Ninevites who have spoken up far louder and at far greater risk to themselves than I ever have about equality, prejudice, and social injustice. Who have demanded vocally and visibly that the marginalized be treated with dignity and integrity. I’ve known people who have shared with me that they are in AA who were far more open, honest, and willing to own up to the issues in their own life than I fear I am even on my good days. These issues were of far more interest to them than the local gossip about so-and-so and what they did about such-and-such.
Not to bring Jesus up when preaching about an Old Testament story, but when we see Jesus treat the wretched, the outcasts, and the sinners as if they were royal guests of honor at his table, we remember that in the Biblical world of Jonah, God saw people like Ninevites as the real heroes in this story. They are the ones who really, truly get it. They are the ones who know what time it is. Maybe we have something to learn from these Ninevites. Will the testimony of our faith look like theirs, or will our response look more like Jonah’s? The choice is up to us. Would the real Ninevites please stand up?
To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.