Sunday 20th September 2020 Year A Proper 20 Trinity XV
Poor old Jonah!
When you read that passage from the Old Testament book of his name you really get to see the human side of a prophet in glorious technicolor. In fact if you read the whole of the Book of Jonah despite its brevity you see humanity expressed through out - both the good and bad sides of our nature.
The Book opens with God asking Jonah to go to Nineveh and to warn the residents of God’s displeasure. Jonah, like many of us is reluctant to do God’s bidding and he attempts to hide from God by nipping down to Joppa and boarding a ship to Tarshish. Jonah was a reluctant prophet, in fact, as one reads the opening verses you get the idea that he would do anything rather than give warning to the population of Nineveh:
“ … so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.” 1:3b
As well as being reluctant Jonah does come across as a rather daft prophet as well. Did he not realise that he could not escape the sight of the all seeing God? Was hot-footing it to Tarshish really going to give him the hiding space he wanted? He quickly learns that it won’t, when God sends a storm that threatens to destroy the ship. The sailors being pretty canny draw lots to discover the jinx - Jonah. They ask him what he thinks he is doing running away from his God.
Jonah asks them to toss him over board but the sailors are actually good guys and they initially refuse to do so and try rowing hard to get to safety. It is only when all seems lost that they chuck him in the sea, praying to Jonah’s god that he won’t punish them because of it. In fact in the act of throwing Jonah into the waves seems to lead to their conversion and they not only pray to God but make sacrifice and vows to him as well. Jonah maybe a reluctant prophet but he is a missioner; because ironically in this instance his feckless actions bring the sailors to faith. The sailors ‘feared’ the Lord because they saw his power and they turned to him. They must have been even more amazed when the fish swallowed Jonah! Is there no end to God’s powers and surprises?
The shock of being swallowed by the fish, shakes Jonah out of his self-pity and he thanks God for saving him from a watery grave and pledges himself to God’s service. This time when God asks him to preach to the people of Nineveh, he does so. No longer a reluctant prophet but a prophet so convincing that his words and the fact that the fish spewed him on to dry land, causes the people to repent of their ways and they went about in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their conversion.
“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” 3:10
And, this is the point where today’s first reading comes into play. Jonah is in a sulk. He is displeased and angry with God for saving the people of Nineveh. After all his ups and downs God shows mercy to a debauched people who repent. Jonah says to God, did I not tell you that you wouldn’t do away with Nineveh because of your forgiving nature? Why then did I have to go thorough all I did for you to be merciful? Could I not have stayed at home?
After all his adventures Jonah still really doesn’t get it. He is still self-pitying and moaning that it isn’t fair. He sounds like a petulant teenager. Still a reluctant prophet.
So he sits and sulks in the heat of the sun until God causes a plant to grow up and shade him. The next day the plant dies and Jonah bakes and once again wishes he was dead. God rebukes him and asks why the plant was important to him. God then goes on to say just as the plant was appreciated by Jonah so he loves his people of Nineveh and would have been devastated had they died. Slowly Jonah begins to realise the extent of God’s love and mercy and there the Book ends. A somewhat abrupt and inconclusive end but and ending in which we are left hoping that Jonah grows up and appreciates the fact that love changes everything.
God chose to be merciful and generous just like the owner of the vineyard who chose to treat all the workers equally, regardless of when they began work. Who when asked why simply says because he can and chooses to do so. So it is with God, he chooses to be loving and merciful to Nineveh and her people, as he does with Jonah and as he always does with us too.