Today is the day to tell the story of Jonah, for this is its only appearance in the regular lectionary cycle.
Jonah is often thought of as a children's story complete with a whale, but the real message of Jonah is an adult one with an opportunity to stretch our understanding of God and salvation. The focus text is of God's second call to Jonah and his less than enthusiastic response. However, the story of Jonah is a whole piece and needs to be told from beginning to end.
One key to preaching Jonah is to not get wrapped up in historical concerns. If Jonah is a historical figure, the telling of his story is not for historical purposes. The story of Jonah is a moral tale, much like Aesop's fables, and is designed to teach the audience something about themselves. Some background, however, is necessary for a modern audience to understand the conflict within Jonah's heart and soul.
God's instruction in both 1:1 and 3:1 is "to go to Nineveh, the great city." To an Israelite like Jonah, this would be equivalent to announcing today, "Go to Osama Bin Laden's compound." Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the nation that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and held the southern kingdom of Judah as a vassal for almost one hundred years. Assyria was more than an enemy; it was a brutal occupying force that forever changed Israel's fortunes. Jonah is called out by God to go and prophesy to the enemy. For the story to work as it is intended, we must look through Jonah's eyes. We should not stand off on the sidelines and judge, but think of how we would feel in the same situation. I cannot imagine a worse position! Jonah is told to go into the enemy city and announce God's judgment.
We are not told why Jonah runs. Maybe he feared for his life, or perhaps he thought the enemy did not deserve to be offered a chance. Either way, Jonah leaves town on the first boat out. We all know that Jonah ends up in the fish, and it is only here that Jonah finally does something. He calls out to God; however his words are ones of a psalm that does not exactly fit the situation. Even inside the fish, Jonah does not use his own words to speak to God! Deep irony for someone whose job it is to speak to others.
The lectionary text is God's second command to go to Nineveh. But it appears that Jonah only learned a very small part of his lesson. He goes to Nineveh alright, but gives the wimpiest prophecy ever recorded. Again, instead of condemnation, we need to see the world through Jonah's eyes. Would we be any more enthusiastic? These folks are mortal enemies and the chance of instant death is great.
The response of the people, like the sailors in chapter 2, is hyperbolic. The king declares that everyone and every beast fast and be covered with sackcloth and ashes. Imagine the picture; all the people and all the cows and all the sheep fasting with sackcloth tied to their backs! The image of the enemy is transformed from one of fierce occupier to comic supplicant. Just as God has transformed their hearts, their appearance is markedly changed. Jonah should be ecstatic; he is the greatest prophet of all! With a couple of words, he turns a whole nation to God. He should be headed for the evangelism hall of fame.
The crux of Jonah's story is in the fourth chapter, for the point of the narrative is not about the conversion of an entire enemy population. It is about Jonah's reaction to that amazing conversion. He is not happy, and the reason is because God is being consistent to God's own self. The NRSV plays down his anger with the words "this was very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry" (4:1). The Hebrew reads roughly, "it was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and his anger burned." The "it" of Jonah's anger is the heart of the matter. He tells God why he ran, "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" (4:2). Jonah is angry at God for the very attributes that Israel has always depended on for its own salvation (Exodus 34:6-7)! God speaks to Jonah, trying to explain, but the book ends without resolution and Jonah goes away mad.
The Book of Jonah is read in the Jewish calendar on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews confess their sins against God and neighbor. Offering Jonah to the congregation yields the same type of contemplation on God's attributes that we too depend on for salvation. How willing are we to let God be God? Salvation is pure gift and grace and Jonah's story reminds us that we do not own that grace, nor is it ours to dole out as we wish. God will be forgiving because that is the very heart of God.
So the story of this old prophet is much more than a whale tale. Its message is meant for those mature enough to understand the ways of God, and to face the ways we try to lay claim to God and God's gift of grace. My father always told me that if I did not believe that God would save the most foul of humans, then I did not really believe in God's power to save my own soul. The book of Jonah puts Dad's words into action and demands that everyone who hears it contemplate God's attributes and the meaning and power of salvation.