The first readings so far this week have been from the Book of Jonah. Earlier this year I posted a series of 14 or so blogs, a kind of mini-commentary on the Book of Jonah. You can see the groups of posts here, with the beginning post at the bottom of the stack. But if you would rather see an overview of the Book of Jonah, our good friends at The Bible Project have this great video on Jonah. As always, I encourage you to support the not-for-profit work of The Bible Project.
Today’s first reading is from one of my favorite books: The Book of Jonah. The book is only four chapters long and we are in Chapter 3. The whole Jonah and the “whale” has already happened, Jonah has traveled to Nineveh as a very reluctant prophet. Frankly Jonah hopes that God calls down a rain of fire, death, doom and destruction upon the king, the people, and all the animals. His entire call to conversion is five words in Hebrew. We get a few more in English, but not many: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” Jonah does not say who will destroy them or why or in any way amplify the bottom line.
“When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” (Jonah 3:10) Great! The Ninevites repented, God relented, and Jonah’s prophetic mission is complete. But poor Jonah, it’s not the result he wanted. Chapter 4 is a long description of Jonah pouting about this turn of events.
But such are the turn of events when the Holy Spirit comes in ways you’d never expect.
It happens all the time to every homilist if we are honest. Sometimes I sit and wonder from whence came the idea for a particular homily. But mostly I am surprised after the homily.
A person comes up to say, “Thank you, Father, your homily really touched me. It was just what I needed to hear.” Often I will ask them what moved their hearts. The reply is often not the point of the homily, but there was one word, one phrase upon which the Holy Spirit descended and turned into a seed which will bear great fruit in the life of the listener.
But such are the turn of events when the Holy Spirit comes in ways you’d never expect.
Enthusiastic or reluctant, gifted or timid, … whatever… speak into the waiting world. The Spirit can take over from that point.
The “sign of Jonah” is mentioned three times in the Gospels, twice in Matthew (12:38-41; 16:4) and once in Luke (11:29-32) – as well as indirectly perhaps in Mark 8:12 (“Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”). A comparison of the two gospels is perhaps of interest:
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 He said to them in reply, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. 40 Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. 41 At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here. 42 At the judgment the queen of the south will arise with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here
28 He replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” 29 While still more people gathered in the crowd, he said to them, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. 30 Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 At the judgment the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation and she will condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here. 32 At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here.
Matthew 12:40 is questioned by some scholars and thought to be a later interpolation. Justin Martyr did not include it in his early commentary on Matthew, plausibly because it was not part of the gospel available to him, the gospel not having reached final written form. Not convincing in itself, but one wonders why it is not part of Luke’s gospel given how similar the two passages are. The Matthean passage focuses on the “three days” while the Lukan passage focuses on Jonah as a sign to the Ninevites.
Without explaining it in detail, let me just offer that being swallowed by the whale was not a form of punishment, but rather the means of Jonah’s salvation. Without the whale, Jonah drowns. The sea is the enemy, the bearer of death; the fish is Jonah’s ally by divine provision. This view is supported by Jonah’s prayer while in the belly of the beast which borrows from Ps 18: “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction terrified me… He reached down from on high and seized me; drew me out of the deep waters” (Ps 18:5,17).
It should be noted that the Psalm does not reference death and subsequent resurrection, but rather a deliverance from the drowning and death altogether. Then again, Jonah’s time under the sea afforded a close enough parallel to Jesus’ burial in the earth to generate the analogy used in Matthew 12:40.
Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites – they repented at the preaching of Jonah. Given that the Ninevites were about as evil as they come, it must have been a heck of a preaching to get them to convert. Consider Jonah’s proclamation: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” Eight words in English; only five in Hebrew. Short, sweet and to the point. Delivered with passion? With a 21st-century teenager “whatever” attitude? Intended to change hearts and minds? Intended to be so unenthusiastic that destruction of Nineveh is inevitable?
I think it is important to return to the idea of Jonah as the run-away prophet, now saved, but is he committed to the mission? At the beginning of the story, Jonah may want no part of Nineveh or its king, but more than that, he does not want God to forgive them. He wants divine retribution upon them for all the evil they had done. I would suggest that he accepts rescue from God, but in no way wants that same grace extended to the Ninevites. I think it possible, perhaps likely, that Jonah is engaging in a little prophetic sabotage. He does the minimum, hoping they will ignore him, not repent, and thus not find forgiveness or grace. Besides, the world would be a better place without the Ninevites. This hypothesis is consistent with the trajectory of Jonah’s behavior before the great fish, and, as we will see in Jonah 4, consistent with the behavior there.
Abraham interceded for Sodom
but Jonah couldn’t have cared less
if Nineveh had harbored one
relatively innocent inhabitant
or even one hundred and twenty.
They all looked alike to him—
seeing he hadn’t tried to see them.
But God’s vision is better than twenty-twenty. (Thomas John Carlisle)
But then, the vision and the power of the words of the prophet were never about the prophet.
The people of Jesus’ time want a sign? Really? Nineveh repented on 5 words. Israel has had 3 years, lots of words, lot of miracles – they have yet to repent and now want more signs? No wonder the men of Nineveh will arise and condemn them.
Earlier this year I posted a series of 14 or so blogs, a kind of mini-commentary on the Book of Jonah. You can see the groups of posts here, with the beginning post at the bottom of the stack. But if you would rather see an overview of the Book of Jonah, our good friends at The Bible Project have this great video on Jonah. As always, I encourage you to support the not-for-profit work of The Bible Project.
“10 When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” (Jonah 3:10) Great! The Ninevites repented, God relented, and Jonah’s prophetic mission is complete. As mentioned, that would have been an “they all lived happily ever after” ending. But there is another chapter in the story whose first verse gives us an idea that the story’s ending is anything but happy.
“But this was greatly displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” (Jonah 4:1) Jonah’s reaction reveals something about the nature of repentance. In Nineveh, the King and all the subjects repented in their heart and in their actions. And Jonah? While externally he is obedient, he has long since lost the inspiration that fueled his psalm of thanksgiving in the belly of the great fish. When God relents of the destruction of Nineveh, the “fuse” runs out on Jonah’s own internal bomb. The prophetic saboteur falls prey to his own true feelings. When it becomes clear that Nineveh will be saved by the gracious mercy of God, Jonah is infuriated – “greatly (gā·ḏôl) displeasing.”
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” (Jonah 3:4) I think it noteworthy that Jonah does not announce the reason for the destruction or by whose hand, what the Ninevites can do to avert disaster, only that there is a set time of 40 days. What was the reaction of the Ninevites to Jonah’s proclamation? “When the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.” (v.5) It does not seem as though it took a whole lot to get Nineveh to repent.
The American poet and Presbyterian minister, Thomas John Carlisle, wrote a short collection of poems in a volume, “You, Jonah” – a poetic commentary on each chapter of the Book of Jonah. Here is one of his poems, rather summarizing the book to this point:
“I know a better way to circumvent your silly streak of mixing love with righteous judgment,
All I need to do is take the next flight west beyond Your jurisdiction.
This will give you time for sober, second thoughts to swear off this kick of simpleminded kindness. Inside the monster I was as low as I could get when I remembered God,
odd, that my distress impressed me with His apparent absence
when his premised daily presence hadn’t meant a blessed thing.
Finding myself in that hole with my soul fainting and rolling with the swell of my swollen ego.
It was a good enough to kill me.
Instead, I saw stars in the dark and started home on a welcome water spout.”
When last seen Jonah had just hit bottom, swallowed alive. Up to this point, despite lots of opportunities, Jonah had not prayed, even when commanded by the ship’s captain in the midst of the raging tempest at sea – even as all the crew around him offered prayers to a pantheon of gods. But now it is different. He is alone, his choices and their consequences have “consumed” him, and … and what?
1:15 Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. 16 Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. 2:1 But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and he remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Interestingly, many modern translations position Jonah 2:1 as Jonah 1:17, including it with the previous chapter where it makes more sense from a literary point of view. It is good to be reminded that chapters/verses were assigned by Robert Estienne in 1551 for the New Testament and 1571 for the Hebrew Scriptures for his print editions and so chapter/verse is not sacrosanct. But if you read other Bibles and commentaries and are wondering why the verses are “off” by a single digit…now you know.
11 “What shall we do with you,” they asked, “that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more turbulent.” 12 Jonah said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you; since I know it is because of me that this violent storm has come upon you.”
These were the ending verses in the previous post. But there was also a question to ponder: What is the motivation for Jonah to suggest being thrown into the sea? To be fair, the narrative is silent on the matter, we only know of the suggestion. It seems there are at least two plausible motivations:
- Jonah has had a change of heart. He has realized that his choices and actions are a wrecking ball in the lives of the captain and crew. In an altruistic moment, he takes responsibility and offers his life as the solution, as the means of salvation. He is willing to die as he recognizes his guilt before God.
- Jonah is not done running. If Tarshish is not far enough away, then maybe death is. He would rather die than obey God and be part of a potential rescue of the people of Nineveh from their sins.