Text: Jonah chapters 3 and 4
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.
The first time the word of the Lord came to Jonah it said, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.” Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the empire that ravaged the northern kingdom of Israel, Jonah’s home. They were ruthless, cutthroat, and showed no mercy to captive peoples. They were Israel’s bitter enemy.
When Jonah is first commanded to go at once and preach to them, he does go at once, in the opposite direction. Rather than head east, toward Nineveh, he boards the first ship he can find heading west, to Tarshish. If Jonah lived in Columbus and was commanded to go preach in Washington, DC, he would have jumped on the next flight to LA.
This does not work out well for Jonah, or his ship mates. A storm arises, and their ship experiences heavy turbulence. Jonah takes the blame for the storm. They throw him overboard. The sea goes calm, and peace is restored. Except for Jonah, who is sinking like a stone. But the Lord sends a big fish, which swallows Jonah whole, giving him a three day retreat in the belly of this beast to ponder the meaning of life. Unable to digest this wayward prophet, the big fish barfs him up onto dry ground, and heads on its way.
And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.
It’s the same word as the first. To get on his way to Nineveh, that great city, and call for their repentance. And so we pick up the story from today’s lectionary reading. The second, less familiar, half of the book of Jonah.
And so Jonah heads on his way, toward enemy territory. Nineveh, we’re told, was such a massive city it took three days to walk across. Upon arrival, Jonah plods into the city, into the belly of the beast, no doubt mulling over the message he’s going to preach to these wicked Ninevites. After a long day, he finds a good street corner with a nice soapbox, stands up and preaches his well-rehearsed sermon, which turns out to be a one line zinger: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That’s it. That’s the entire sermon, only five words in Hebrew. That’s the word of Lord he came all this way to deliver. “Ninevites: Your… days… are… numbered.” He most likely did not have a manuscript, did not end with reflective silence and a hymn of response. He steps down from his box, tosses his megaphone in the trash, and checks in to a motel, his duty to the Lord technically complete.
And then the worst possible thing happens. The people of Nineveh pay attention and actually believe him. They shift into repentance mode. They throw a massive repentance fest. A repentance fast, giving up eating and drinking. The Twitter and Facebook feeds light up about this urgent action. Great and small, young and old, must put on the punishlingy uncomfortable sackcloth. Sackcloth has its single greatest day of sales in Ninevite history. The king quickly gets the message. He steps down from his throne, exchanges his robe for the not-so-royal sackcloth, and sits in ashes, a sign of self-debasement and humility. Just to cover his bases, he decrees that even the sheep and cows are to participate in the fast, and put on sackcloth. Ninevite cattle and people join in solidarity. The king puts up a hail Mary and says: “Who knows, but that God may relent and change God’s mind? God may turn back from fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
And it works. God turns, changes course, calls off the fire and brimstone. Calms the Ninevite sea. The city is saved, and all the peoples and animals in it.
Most preachers I know would be quite pleased having delivered a one line sermon that changes an entire city. Jonah could have returned home a happy prophet. He could ride the momentum of his astonishingly successful speech, take up a tenured position at Jerusalem University and teach homiletics the rest of his career – how to compose a sermon that will bring an empire, and its animals, to their knees. Aspiring prophets from around the nation would flock to sit at his feet to learn his secrets to success.
But this is not what happens. As the story goes, this turn of events was displeasing to Jonah, and he becomes angry. He is enraged, not because he is surprised at what has happened, but because this is exactly what he knew what going to happen. The prophet of few words suddenly has many words for the Lord, which can be summarized in four words: “I told you so.”
“O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” And then he gets quite dramatic: “And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” To which God replies by saying, more or less: “So what I hear you saying is you’re angry?”
Jonah is not done here. He sulks out of the city, past inner and outer ring suburbs, and finds a perch overlooking the metropolis. He scavenges for materials and builds himself a little campsite. He is yet to give up on the ticking time bomb he declared to the city. Maybe they’ll forget about their repentance and the whole place really will go up in flames in forty days. If so, Jonah will have the best seat in the house to watch the fireworks. He’s willing to wait.
The Lord God, being the gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love God that he/she is, provides a plant, a vine or tree of some sort, to grow over Jonah’s head. Jack has his rapidly growing beanstalk, Jonah has this rapidly growing plant of his own, not to climb, but to give him shade, to save him from his discomfort.
And this makes Jonah quite pleased with himself and his good fortune of this shady plant. Life really can be OK sometimes. Now he has it made, cooling in the shade with a lemonade, cheering against the home team. That they’ll strike out, screw up, do something evil and get the punishment they deserve.
This is a good time, for about a day. Until God, who, as we know, always reserves the right to change plans, sends a little worm that attacks the plant so that it withers. Just like the squash in our garden every summer. And not only that, but God sends a scorching wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and the ice in his cooler has melted, and he remembers how angry he is, and how much he wants to die.
And the Lord asks a familiar question, with a slight twist. “Are you so angry…about the plant?” And just so God knows exactly how he feels, Jonah assures God, “Yes. Angry enough to die.”
The story ends unresolved. It actually ends with a question. God posing a question to Jonah who is still perched, still overlooking the city, still uncertain whether he can accept such mercy, still mad about the only thing giving him temporary comfort, that little plant that shriveled. God says, perhaps even pleading with Jonah, “You are concerned about the plant, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” That’s the last line from the book of Jonah. We’re not told how the prophet responded.
So is Jonah a misguided counter-example to the faithful life, a drama-king so caught up in his own world that he is blind to God’s big picture of love and reconciliation? Maybe. Probably! You can read it that way. It’s kind of fun to read it that way.
And here’s another angle. The scholarly consensus is that Jonah was written when the Jews were under the rule of Persia, maybe about 500 years before Jesus was born. By that time the city of Nineveh as a center of power was long gone, destroyed by the Babylonians who came before the Persians. The Assyrians conquered the world, decimating Israel, then the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians, including their capital Nineveh. Then the Persians took them down. The Jonah story shows all kinds of signs of being a fable and parable rather than history, but it is based on a character of Jonah the prophet who lived only decades before the Assyrians had conquered Israel. This Jonah is mentioned briefly in 2 Kings 14:25.
So you got that? For the original readers – or hearers – of Jonah, Nineveh has already been wiped from the face of the earth, yet only after they did irreparable harm to Israel. And this is a story about a prophet who lived right before they did that harm.
If you are Jonah the prophet, do you go to your future abuser and warn them of the evil of their ways, or do you stay as far away as you can, hide out in Tarshish and let the Lord destroy them before they destroy you? Because they will destroy you, that much is known.
As the story goes, the Lord doesn’t give Jonah the option of getting to Tarshish. Jonah’s resistance is met with a storm, and even though he voluntarily opts to end his own life by having his shipmates toss him into the sea, thus saving them, the big fish comes along and keeps the story alive, keeps Jonah alive.
And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.
And so he goes. He heads toward this so-called great city which has built its fortunes on the destruction of others. A city of plunderers and war profiteers.
There’s a unique Hebrew phrase that gets translated as Nineveh being an “exceedingly large city.” More literally, it could be translated as a city as large as the gods. Big like god. Titanic proportions. Like people drove around with bumper stickers on their chariots that said “Not even god can sink this city.”
The foreigner Jonah gives his little sound bite of a sermon, and the city instantly goes from terror alert code yellow to code red. The whole city fears impending danger, and follows protocol to avert the crisis, in this case putting on sackcloth to appease the angry deity. If the Lord won’t be moved by people, maybe the Lord at least not attack if reminded that the animals would be collateral damage. And so the cows and sheep are enlisted in the pageantry.
And it works. God does not sink the city.
The powerful are pardoned with no questions asked. Nobody is put on trial, nobody goes to jail, everybody walks away with a clean record. No need to pay reparations toward those they have harmed. No need to restructure society or call off the next conquest of the empire. The conquerors live on. The sea is calmed, and everyone is at peace.
Except for Jonah, who’s still rocking the boat. As it says: “This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
“O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” To which God asks Godself: “Is it right for Jonah to be angry?”
In this reading Jonah is accusing God of practicing what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace.” Grace that demands nothing of those who ask for it. Grace that simply lets people off the hook without the difficult work of re-orienting their lives toward repair of harm. If this is how it’s going to go down, Jonah doesn’t see the point in living.
And so for Jonah, this is not good news. He finds a place outside the city where he will keep vigil. Where he will sit with his anger. Where he will contemplate what is next. He is alone. He continues to wonder whether it would be better if he were dead.
The plant that grows up gives him a passing glimpse of contentment, but it doesn’t last long. It quickly gives way to the worm. And the burning sun and scorching wind.
The Israeli artist Jacob Steinhardt captures the essence of this alternative reading in the woodcut image that we put on the bulletin cover. Jonah is angry and depressed, holding on to the dead plant, which had been his only source of comfort – defeated by God who sent the worm and sun and wind, and who has allowed the great city to thrive, the city that will soon ravage his people.
The story ends unresolved. We don’t know what the Lord’s next move will be. If the Lord might again change course and affirm Jonah’s anger. We don’t know what Jonah’s next move will be. Will his anger be constructive, or will it drown him? Will hard anger and soft grace merge and mature into fierce compassion? We don’t know what the great and powerful city of Nineveh will do next, and if its people and animals will learn the ways that make for peace.