Satirical comedy isn’t one of the bigger genres in the Bible. Apart from some of Jesus’ parables, I think it’s pretty much the book of Jonah. Which makes it ironic that we’ve spent so much time debating the species of fish which swallowed him.
I probably knew the story of Jonah before almost any other in the Bible. Actually, I knew it as told in Jonah Man Jazz, which I played when I was about 12. Perhaps in a sanitised version, the sinfulness of Ninevah (which is never actually spelled out in the Bible) seemed to be jazz and rock and roll giving God a headache. Perhaps the librettist got mixed up with Amos’ denunciation of the hollow worship songs of Israel a few pages back. I also got the impression that Jonah refused to go because he was afraid of the people of Ninevah. So I remember the surprise of reading the book of Jonah for myself years later, and how much I came to love it.
Jonah’s attempted escape isn’t about fear but about defiance. He knows perfectly well what he should do, and chooses to do the opposite (for reasons that will be spelled out later). He knows that the God who has sent him is the maker of all things, so he can’t really think that he’ll get away from him by getting on a ship. So, of course, he ends up in the sea and then in the fish.
Jonah’s prayer must then be the prime example of how our prayers are more affected by our needs than by our environment. There can be few less comfortable places to imagine prayer, but Jonah means it. And it strikes me what’s at the heart of his prayer. He’d told the sailors that he was fleeing from the Presence of the LORD – but what came to his mind as he sank was that he would never again see the Temple or be seen by God.
Comedy can hold deep truth about human nature – at its best that’s what makes it funny and sad. Jonah realises that he has done what he tried to – he has escaped from God. And now he realises that was the last thing he wanted.
Then he realises something new in 2:7. The fish’s stomach doesn’t keep him from the Temple, for when he prays from the depth of his heart he has entered the Temple even there. As much as anywhere else in the Old Testament, the book of Jonah is filled with the awareness that God is everywhere and in all things. I love it!
Then at last Jonah finds himself back on the beach after all. His rebellion has got him exactly nowhere – but hopefully he’s learned something. I remember when I first explored a call to priesthood, the wonderful Franciscan who helped me to faith in the first place, Brother Christian, gave me two wise pieces of advice that have stayed with me (and which I’ve often quoted) ever since. One was ‘Don’t get ideas above your station. God only calls to holy orders those he doesn’t trust to be Christians any other way’. The other, more relevant here, was ‘If a call is from God, don’t worry about the timing. God gives us free will, but he has a way of getting what he wants from us in the end.’
Jonah found that out the hard way. When we know what God wants from us, there’s no real point in running or refusing. We tend to end up in the same place again, only this time smelling of fish sick.