Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

January 22, 2012

First Reading
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Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

It is difficult to imagine a less elegant prophetic oracle in the Old Testament. There are brutal messages of judgment and painful indictments throughout the prophets, and I can think of none so bare of rhetorical flourish as Jonah’s proclamation, yet this message inspires an entire city — inhabitants both human and animal — to repent, don sackcloth, and fast. No other prophet in the Old Testament had such an overwhelmingly positive response!

Jonah sounds a distinctive note among the prophets for a number of reasons. First, the content of the book is not primarily oracular as is the case with the literary prophets, in whose midst we find this biblical book. Jonah tells the story of a prophet faced with a difficult message and mission, and it is the story of his struggle with this calling that is at the forefront of the book rather than the message itself. The story is told in prose, with a psalm embedded in the narrative, and the prophetic oracle itself is not even a verse long. The second distinctive note of Jonah is the fact that the inhabitants of the Assyrian city of Nineveh are the recipients of the prophet’s message.

The prophets of the Old Testament offer oracles of judgment or of hope to the people of Israel or Judah; even those that deal with other nations still have Israel/Judah as their intended audience. But Jonah makes no mention of God’s chosen people. Considering the brutal treatment the people received from the Assyrians, it is interesting that the book does not mention the history of the Assyrian empire and its terrible destruction of Israel and many other nations in its quest for dominance. It is certainly not the case that the author or audience was oblivious to this history, and so it must be the case that the omission of the history serves a narrative purpose. What might this purpose be? Perhaps to acknowledge the elephant in the room and force people to talk about it. Am I not making sense yet? Bear with me just a bit.

The story of Jonah is well known. An Israelite prophet is called to deliver a message of judgment to Nineveh, the capital city of the dreaded Assyrian Empire. In typical Hebrew narrative style, the internal reaction of Jonah, son of Amittai, is revealed through his actions. He takes a boat going to the other side of the world, away from Nineveh and “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3c). The audience is left to assume that Jonah is simply acting sensibly, fleeing a prophetic call that would surely result in his death. Jonah’s behavior and speech on the boat bound for Tarshish adds another level of insight into the character of the prophet, who tells the sailors — panicked by the unnaturally fierce storm — that he is fleeing “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9-10).

It is God who has provoked this reaction in Jonah, not fear of the Assyrians! Jonah is then thrown overboard at his own request and ends up in the belly of a big fish, where he remains for three days and night. This lectionary reading finds Jonah back on dry land and confronted once again with the divine call to proclaim a message to Nineveh. The lectionary selection focuses upon the delivery of the message, when the prophet walks barely a third of the way into the city and shouts his warning, remarkable in its brevity. And the people of Nineveh — Nineveh! — respond with immediate and total contrition. Then the narrator reports: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it” (verse 10).

It is at this point that the elephant in the room becomes impossible to ignore: Jonah is talking about Assyria, a by-word for brutality in the ancient world. The Assyrian Chronicles describe horrendous acts of torture which were employed to create fear and, thus, submission in the enemies of the empire. It is all very well to be forgiving and merciful when say Tarshish is involved. It is quite another thing to forgive Assyria. Justice and mercy at this point seem diametrically opposed.

When later in the narrative the prophet sits beneath a dead bush, angry that it can no longer provide him shade from the relentless sun (4:6-8), we the readers should not be too quick to poke fun at him. Rather we should be spurred to ponder how on earth we are to deal with one who is a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:3). This God is willing to forgive even Assyria.

There is much that is absurd in the book of Jonah: a man gets swallowed by a fish; animals don sackcloth, and a prophet gets so angry over the death of a bush that he wishes he were dead. But the questions the story provokes are quite serious. Is God clueless or just terribly irresponsible? How can justice be served in the face of such mercy? How on earth can human beings hope to make sense of such a deity?

As we consider these questions in the context of worship, it is vitally important to remember that God’s ability to do the incomprehensible, to extend mercy to the least deserving that opens the door to our own hope. A friend recently remarked that the spiritual gift most Christians seem to possess is the gift of righteous indignation.

Jonah challenges the perspective of the righteously indignant to put aside moral superiority and take on the character of God, whose mercy is from everlasting to everlasting. Cycles of violence and blame can only be broken where mercy is extended. The only way forward for any of us is to demonstrate the same mercy that has been offered to us.