The story of Jonah is a scathing criticism of prejudice. It was written at a time when the Hebrews were convinced that the problems they were experiencing were a result of ‘impurities’ within the nation. Intermarriage had polluted the purity of God’s chosen people they thought. A tribunal was set up to examine blood lines within families and if impurity existed the impure were to be driven out. Wives, husbands, children were separated. The story of Jonah was written to act as a mirror to show the people that God’s love knows no borders. Here is the story.
Jonah received a message from God that he was to go to preach to the people of Nineveh, an unclean Gentile city. He protested, but God was insistent and so he did what so many of us do when someone in authority demands we do something we don’t want to do, he said yes but had no intention of doing it. He booked passage of a ship going in the opposite direction. He unpacked on board, made himself comfortable and settled back as they sailed out into the Mediterranean. A strange dark cloud began to follow them, no matter which way they turned. It got bigger and darker and lightening began to shoot out. The waves got bigger and things were looking grim. It was such a strange phenomena that the captain knew it could only be from God. Someone had really angered God. Finally, when it looked like all was lost and the captain determined (by drawing straws) that Jonah was the culprit. So, over the side went Jonah. God had positioned a big fish ( a whale is never mentioned in the text), ready for just such an outcome and Jonah ended up in the mouth and down the gullet of the fish. He stayed there for three days and three nights! Finally the fish just couldn’t stomach him any more and threw him up on dry land. God asked Jonah, once again, to go to Nineveh and this time Jonah, very wisely, decided to do what he was told. He went to Nineveh, but he was still being peevish. He wandered off the main streets, muttering that in forty days Nineveh would be overthrown, not really caring if people heard him or not. Well the people did hear him, including the king and everyone paid attention. They set about pleading with God for forgiveness. This made Jonah very, very angry. He had endured all this and the least that could happen is that he could see these people punished! He was sure that God would forgive them and he would be denied that pleasure. He stormed off to the desert on the outskirts of town to sulk. During the night, God caused a great tree to grow so that it shaded him during the day and provided shelter from the wind at night. Jonah was happy and comfortable. The next night, God caused a worm to eat the tree and in the morning there was a pile of sawdust. Jonah was once again angry. God then asked Jonah, how he could have such passionate feelings and empathy for a tree and yet have no compassion for the one hundred and twenty thousand people who lived in Nineveh, to say nothing of their cattle.
The book of Jonah reminds us that God’s love has no limits. It is not bounded by ethnic or racial or religious constructs. God cares for all people, indeed all creation. No one group has an exclusive right to God’s caring. The book of Jonah is as relevant in our world of genocide and ethnic cleansing as it was 2500 years ago in Israel. It is a fanciful story of a big fish and a sulky man, but it is really a story about the boundless love of God.
The Story of Jonah is our theme for Messy Church this month. Messy Church is this wednesday, Sept. 10 starting at 4:30pm.
(image: source: https://flic.kr/p/hRFZbX Title: “A Whaling Cruise to Baffin’s Bay and the Gulf of Boothia. And an account of the rescue of the crew of the “Polaris.” … With an introduction by … S. Osborn, etc” Author: MARKHAM, Albert Hastings – Sir, K.C.B Contributor: OSBORN, Sherard. Shelfmark: “British Library HMNTS 10460.pp.4.” Page: 87 Place of Publishing: London Date of Publishing: 1874 Issuance: monographic Identifier: 002385199)