Personally, if I could preach a sermon – or even a three-day series of sermons – and have a whole city repent and return to the way of the LORD, I’d be feeling pretty good about my ministry. Not Jonah. I’d have been working out how I could continue to help the king of Nineveh as he worked to establish God’s ways in his city. Jonah went to sit and sulk in a shed.
Because now we get to the heart of Jonah’s problem with God’s call. It wasn’t that he was scared that the people of Nineveh would reject and attack him. It was quite the opposite – he was afraid that they would listen, change their ways and so avoid the punishment he knew they really deserved.
Jonah prayed to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; 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. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ (4:2-3)
I remember long ago, a Christian friend quoting a preacher, ‘when we get to heaven, we’ll be surprised at some of the people we find there. And we’ll be surprised at some of the people we won’t find there.’ Aside from the massive question of who’ll be in heaven before us, what troubled me about this quote was actually the fact that my friend seemed more enthusiastic about the second part than about the first. There’s a strong strand in religious traditions that would really enjoy judgement of the wicked/other rather than their repentance and forgiveness.
Jonah is set up to ridicule this whole approach to religion. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with preaching the warnings of judgement – that’s what opens the door here to repentance and forgiveness. The problem is when we forget that it’s the forgiveness that’s God’s aim, not the judgement.
God pokes Jonah in this direction – he gives him shelter through a miraculous plant, then kills the plant. Jonah’s comical anger leads to God’s wonderful conclusion to the whole book, making it clear that this book is all about the size of God’s love, not the size of a fish’s stomach – that love is so wide it doesn’t even stop at humans.
The LORD said [to Jonah], ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ (4:10-11)
Jonah doesn’t answer. I hope he listened.