You know the story of Jonah—Jonah the reluctant prophet who, when asked by God, to go to Ninevah—the capital of wickedness, the center of corruption, the home of cruelest of all Israel’s enemies—heads straight in the opposite direction. Jonah who chooses certain death (or so he thinks) in the raging waters of a violent storm. Jonah, who weathers that storm in the belly of a whale. Jonah who finally and most reluctantly travels to Ninevah to proclaim an oracle of repentance. Jonah—a short-winded preacher whose sermon, in Hebrew, amounts to only five words—and in English eight. Jonah—some say he was a failed prophet for God did not smite those Ninevites. Some say he was a stunning success. After all, 120,00 Ninevites and their cattle responded to his short sermon by putting on sackcloth and ashes and changing their ways. Jonah, the disgruntled prophet who waits and watches on the sidelines hoping for the destruction of Ninevah. Jonah, the Israelite, so angry at God for saving his enemies the Ninevites that he begs to die not once but twice.
What kind of story is this—this story of a runaway prophet, this story of an angry prophet, this story of a prophet unlike any other prophet. Some focus on Jonah of the whale and make it into a children’s story romanticizing that time in the belly of the whale. There are even those who think that Dr. Seuss was talking about Jonah when he wrote The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
Some see this story of Jonah as a story of repentance—Jonah’s and the Ninevites. After all, Jonah does, in the end, go to Ninevah and the Ninevites do repent. But I’m not so sure about all that. I don’t hear repentance in Jonah’s words. I hear anger and resentment and a deep sense that the Ninevites—the other, the enemy—don’t merit God’s compassion.
So I wonder—what is this story all about? What is the story the storyteller is telling?
My mom was a storyteller. Every time she had a point to make about how I should be living my life, she’d pull out a story—the story of the wayward girl, the story of the college drop-out, the story of the long winter and the search for green grass under the snow. With each of these stories, my mom was making a point about how I should be living or looking at my life.
So I wonder—what is the back story behind the book of Jonah? What is the teller of this story saying to her people and, by extension, to us?
This story of Jonah is not history—of that I am sure. The Book of Jonah was written long after Ninevah was destroyed. The story, itself, is something else indeed. This story was written at a time when Israel was recovering from a horrible defeat and a forced exile, a time of re-grouping, looking inward, focusing on their special status as the children of the Covenant. This story was told at a time when the Israelites had forgotten that Abraham was to be father of all peoples, that the temple was to be house of prayer for all nations. This story of Jonah was one told to a people who had even forgotten their obligations to the strangers and aliens who lived among them. I wonder if this is the story of a question—a question about kin and kindom, a question about what we owe to and what we want for one another? A story challenging the very limits of connection. A story about limitless connection? An invitation to care as God cares for even the most ruthless of people? An invitation to care as God cares for creation itself?
I’m beginning to think that the story of Jonah is really about that open question at the end of the book when God says “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” How does Jonah, how do we, respond to God’s question, God’s invitation? What do we say ?
What do we say—you and me and us—us as individuals, us as a faith community, us as members of the Diocese of the Rio Grande, The Episcopal Church, and the worldwide Anglican Communion, us as Americans, us as citizens of the world, us as part of God’s creation. How do we respond to God’s great compassion? What do we—what do you and I—do with that open question God asks? Do we, like those Ninevites and their cattle, clad ourselves with sackcloth and ashes and turn to God and to connection with all of God’s creation or do we with Jonah of the ship and Jonah of the shrub clad ourselves with the garb of insiders, holding tight to our version of the right, our sense of ourselves as somehow different from and maybe even better than others—different in our capacity to understand complexity, more enlightened, more tolerant, more compassionate, more right.
I don’t think this is a question we answer only once in our lives. I know that this is a question that confronts me, and I suspect you as well, again and again and again. The question at it’s base is “Who is kin to me?” “Who is kin to us?” and “What does this mean for how we live with one another?”