by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
27 August 2023
On the Day of Atonement every year, Jews read the entire Book of Jonah at their worship service. The reason is explained by Baruch Levine, “The story of Jonah epitomizes the power of repentance, and serves to reassure the worshipers that God’s arm is extended to receive them.”
Two weeks ago when I preached about the far more familiar story of Jonah and the whale, one of the themes we drew out of the book was God’s “lavish love.” That God pursues Jonah out of affection for wanting the best for Jonah. And that this book reveals the breadth of God’s mercy and grace, because God keeps offering opportunities for salvation to everyone in the story.
Barbara Green, whose commentary is guiding me into a better understanding of the Book of Jonah, points out this theme of repentance. She writes that for Judaism, repentance is understood to be “coded into the universe for our participation.” Part of the very fabric of creation.
In this book, Jonah first repents of running from God’s call to mission, and then, very dramatically, the entire city of Nineveh repents of their sins and is offered the mercy of God.
Which then makes Jonah angry.
Why exactly is Jonah angry? What is he angry about? Is this anger tied to why he fled from God in the first place? Did Jonah really not grow and transform that much during his three days in the belly of the whale?
Barbara Green asks a provocative question—“If Nineveh is reprieved, is ‘Nineveh’ the issue, or ‘reprieve?’” Is Jonah angry specifically that God has forgiven the Ninevites, those awful enemies of Israel? Or is Jonah angry that mercy and forgiveness are aspects of who God is?
The answer to those questions is not immediately clear. Would Jonah prefer that the Ninevites get theirs or would Jonah prefer that God not be so nice? Maybe he wants a more wrathful, warrior God?
Should this sound like something no one would want, did you see the report this week from Russell Moore? Moore used to be the head of the ethical and political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, but had a major, public falling out with the SBC in recent years. This week Moore told NPR that he has begun to encounter people on the Religious Right who have decided that Jesus is too weak and too liberal. They especially don’t like the Sermon on the Mount.
Is Jonah’s problem similar? Maybe. Again, the book isn’t fully clear, but we can ask our questions and explore the possibilities.
Barbara Green draws attention to the way St. Jerome in the fifth century interpreted this story. Jerome thought everyone in the story had some good intentions, so he wasn’t super hard on Jonah. He believes Jonah’s flight from his call and subsequent anger are because Nineveh is the enemy of Israel, and he doesn’t want to be the agent of their salvation, because he knows ahead of time that God will be merciful, because God is just like that. She imagines Jonah thinking:
I could have come to Nineveh preaching God’s views gently, and no one would have heeded;
And yet if I preached a God of harshness, it would not have been true!
St. Jerome’s conclusion, paraphrased by Barbara Green is that “Jonah feels angry at being made to look, or feel, like a liar.”
Another interpretative insight she gains from St. Jerome is God’s handling of Jonah and his anger. God is “gentle and pedagogic.” Caring for Jonah. When Jonah’s so upset, God doesn’t show up and scold him, God asks questions. Barbara Green writes, “Jerome seems to understand that when one feels as bad as Jonah does and for the serious reasons he is sad, there is no need for reproof; to elicit insight is better.”
What Jerome sees in the Book of Jonah is a generous economy of relationships. And Barbara Green draws upon that theme in her own understanding of the book. What seems to be happening is God’s constant pursuit of Jonah to allow Jonah opportunities for growth.
And here at the end God is actively engaging Jonah to examine his own feelings. God asks a series of questions that provoke thoughts about the nature of relationships, what we feel entitled to, how wide we draw our circle of care. Also, what is the source of your anger Jonah?
Barbara Green writes, “In my reading God is prompting Jonah to locate more precisely the core of his frustration, more carefully to probe his desire.” She points out that often when she is angry, and especially when she isn’t fully sure as to why she’s angry, that anger can get misdirected onto someone or something that does not deserve the anger. Ever had that experience? I’m sure we all have. So probing the source of our anger is often a key step in integration and growth.
At the very end, Jonah is angry about the plant that shaded him and is now gone. God seems to point out that Jonah didn’t have a deeply invested relationship with the plant, yet its absence has really ticked him off. God wants Jonah to realize that God had a much deeper, longer, more invested and richer relationship with the city of Nineveh. And God wanted the best for them, despite their flaws. God also wants the best for Jonah, despite his flaws. God even cared about the animals, which is the last word in the book. God’s lavish love is revealed.
And, yes, God’s love is merciful. Even willing to change God’s mind about what was going to happen to the Ninevites. God is more interested in the relationship than in sticking with any pronouncements. The rules can be bent, broken, even discarded if they get in the way of relationships of love. Green writes, “The key thing is relatedness. If the creator loves all the creatures and longs for this company, then if and when they approach, God is happy to unbend from past pronouncements. In fact, God winks, I was there first!”
Jonah does not seem to have fully understood this about God’s love. Or at whatever level he did understand it, he doesn’t seem to have liked it. Jonah needed to learn who God really is and why this gracious way of being is good and right.
Barbara Green writes at length summarizing these points:
God has designed for Jonah a ministry the prophet needed to undertake. God’s survey turned up evil in Nineveh, but not simply that. The prophet and the pagans share a need for God’s gentle instruction, each distinctively. Jonah, assigned, acts out his resistant reaction not once but a number of times. But God persists, pursues, not in angry determination but in anxious love. While God woos Jonah, others benefit as well. There are plenty of God’s gifts to go around. Care for one creature can splash over onto others. Lavish love. . . . Jonah cries to God, who responds. Jonah emerges changed from his experience. But conversion is never really complete; there are always more possibilities to explore. So Jonah, re-commissioned, preaches, effectively, successfully; but he is not satisfied. As is now his integrity, he speaks up his feelings about God’s qualities that seem troublesome instead of comforting. And God, attentive and patient, helps him push for additional insight.
And, so, Barbara Green concludes that the central insight of the Book of Jonah is about how we are all related—God, people, whales, plants, etc. And God is pursuing Jonah in order to teach him, to provide him opportunities to learn, to push him to new insights. So she identifies that this story is about “the gradual and painful stages of humanization.”
Which may also explain the abrupt and inconclusive ending. Because the journey to our full and best humanity is on-going. We always have more to learn, more changes to make, more realizations to repent for, more insights to probe.
Around the same time I was reading Barbara Green’s commentary on the Book of Jonah, I also read Randy Woodley’s new book Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview in which he encourages a decolonization of Christian teaching and informing it instead with Native American values and wisdom. Some of his themes aligned with Green’s take on Jonah. Woodley writes:
We are all simply human beings, imperfect but learning from our mistakes. Those mistakes make us human. And being human by climbing out on a limb in order to reach others is the most spiritual state of being in which we may find ourselves.
Woodley proclaims that in order to heal from the wounds of the colonial past we need to undergo a process of “rehumanizing.” This process involves listening, gaining awareness, lamenting together, making restitution through reparations, and finally memorializing the past by telling the history. This is a process of openness and vulnerability, both of which Woodley says we see modeled by Jesus and the Creator. He calls the Creator “the most vulnerable being who exists.” So if we are going to be more like the Creator, then we must open ourselves to vulnerability that brings healing.
He adds to this that we must also learn to let go of control. Part of the healing is letting go and not wanting to control everything. It seems to me that Jonah had a problem just going with the flow of God’s grace. Part of what he has to learn is that he isn’t able to control everything.
A key principle of this rehumanizing, according to Randy Woodley, is to not treat people as objects in our own agenda. If we love people, we must respect their dignity.
I was struck by this way of framing a core ethical principle. Woodley’s words resonate with what I’ve learned in my philosophical training, but I think with clarity he states it directly and simply—don’t treat other people as objects in our own agenda.
And it seems to me that’s part of what Jonah’s having to learn in his journey too. The sailors, the Ninevites, the whale, the plant—all of these deserve their own dignity and respect, all of them have their own relationships with God, God cares for them, they don’t just exist as characters in Jonah’s story.
As a second key principle Randy Woodley teaches us that our responsibility is to keep harmony. Harmony is a key indigenous value, and Woodly believes it resonates with the Hebrew idea of shalom. Our responsibility as the Creator’s human children is to keep harmony—inside ourselves, with other people, with the land around us, and with the animals. While the dignity of each of us must be respected, we are also all interconnected, such that what one of us does affects others. So we must be aware of this in our actions, so that we are always respectful, loving, balanced.
This rehumanizing calls us to take risks, so that we might develop better and healthier relationships. And together we will become more fully human.
So, like Jonah and the Ninevites, we are being called to repentance by a merciful God, who pursues us, with lavish love, offering us more opportunities to become fully human.
This summer we’ve gotten in some Good Trouble, as we explored these ancient stories of prophets, rulers, and God’s compassion and justice. In these stories we’ve discovered teachings about courage, integrity, humility, and conviction. They’ve lifted up the importance of critical questions, of listening to a myriad of voices, and also standing firm in the face of coercive power. We’ve explored autonomy, agency, liberty, and dignity, and the ways those values intersect with contemporary concerns, especially the ways that abusive political power continues to threaten core aspects of our humanity. We’ve learned that compassion is power, and words can change the world. And we’ve talked about the meaning of history, how the way things turn out depends on the choices we make and the actions we take.
And, in all of this, God is on our side. When the ruler is a tyrant. When those in power are corrupt or incompetent or even insane. When chaos seems unleashed, and terrible monsters are on the prowl. With us in the fiery furnaces and lions’ dens. With us when we are uncertain and afraid, stuck in the belly of a whale.
God’s justice and God’s power and God’s compassion are on our side. Pushing us to new insights, pursuing us in love, standing with us in danger. And always working for our deliverance, salvation, and healing, so that we might be strong, courageous, and free.