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Preaching: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The first issue in developing a sermon from the lectionary text from Jonah is whether to focus the sermon primarily or entirely upon 3:1-5 and 10. The difficulty of limiting the sermon to the selected text is that the episode described there is shaped by the larger narrative and is rightly interpreted only in terms of the way it fits into the whole story. The second pit-fall is that Jonah is a masterpiece, and it is daunting to enlarge upon such a well-wrought piece and run the risk of producing only a pale reflection. As to the question of the type of sermon to develop, since the text should inform the sermon form and Jonah is a short story, why not a narrative sermon? Indeed, the preacher will hardly be able to avoid bringing in the whole story, a story so rich in suggestive detail that the trick will be to maintain focus and stay within the limits of time.
Jonah, like Job, is a man caught up in a quarrel with God. The crux of the quarrel comes clear only at the climax of the story. Because of that, every critical passage in the story yields both nuance upon a set theme (like the theme of a call from God refused) and a bit of misdirection which allows the climax to heighten the meaning of the critical moments. In addressing the theological issues of his time by means of satire, the writer has produced a masterpiece that disarms the hearer's defenses by the twin means of story telling and humor. The medium does not detract from the utter seriousness of the quarrel with God—or does so only if the reader fails to grasp the seriousness and profundity of Jonah's objection to the way God runs his world.
A host of classic themes is embraced by the story—the call of God, the call refused, the flight from God, the self-destructiveness or death wish of the human soul in the face of life's frightening mien, the universal compassion of God, the oneness of humanity, compassion as the essence of piety, repentance, and the anthropomorphism of a God who repents or changes God's mind. The satire is evident in comic exaggeration, irony, dissonance, and contrast.
The fun starts immediately when Jonah is informed that he is to go to "Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it." For a Hebrew prophet to "cry against" a pagan people from the safety of his own community was nothing new. To be sent to do so to the faces of the Ninevites themselves on their turf has the makings of dark comedy. The little dog can taunt the big dog from behind his own fence, but what if the fence suddenly breaks? Told to go to Nineveh, Jonah abruptly, without forewarning or explanation, darts off in the opposite direction, a comic image in itself.
Seeking to escape or protect himself from the divine call, Jonah heads for Tarshish. On the way he shelters in a pagan ship among pagan sailors. Taking shelter will prove to be a somewhat subtle but key theme in the story. Within the ship's hold, Jonah falls into a deep sleep. (That part of the church building between chancel and main entrance where the congregation sits is called the "nave," after the Latin for ship, and is sometimes seen in prophetic preaching as a good place to hide from God.)
When the ship is imperiled by a fierce storm and Jonah is identified as the culprit, he makes his first of three statements of faith which are solidly orthodox but which emerge as parody in the light of his contradictory behavior. In a contrast that throws Jonah's obstinate disobedience into bolder relief, the pagan captain and sailors are appalled by Jonah's rebellion. They exhibit exemplary decency and compassion in attempting to spare Jonah's life, and they pray, offer sacrifices and promise to serve Yahweh. By accident, Jonah has converted the whole ship to God.
Thrown overboard, Jonah is swallowed by a huge fish with innards so accommodating that Jonah lives inside for three days and nights and offers a psalm of lament. The escape from drowning by being unceremoniously swallowed by a big fish within which he composes a psalm is comic exaggeration and, as the commentaries observe, makes use of a well-traveled folk tale.
Jonah's lament is his second pronouncement of faith, evoking the temple which, along with Tarshish, the ship, and the fish's belly, is to be understood as a shelter of hopeful resort in his view.1 Once again, in his psalm, Jonah's piety rings phony as he refers to the heathen who worship idols and thus forsake "loyalty" (RSV) or the "mercy" (KJV) of God, while he himself is in flight from the call of God. Indeed, one of the motifs of the text is Jonah's move deathward. He prefers death to submission to God's purpose, yet another shelter.
The experience of a swallowing by a monster is symbolic of an initiatory death. Coming forth from the belly that held him is symbolic of birth or rebirth. The expectation is that Jonah has died to his previous life, has returned to a germinal mode of being, has learned wisdom in that passage, and is prepared to emerge into a new life.2 Whether this will prove to be so remains to be seen. God speaks to the fish, and it vomits Jonah onto dry land, presumably on the way to the fulfillment of his call. If the narrator had not intended comedy, there were other Hebrew expressions he could better have used for Jonah's exit from the fish. The satire continues.
In the portion of the text chosen for the lectionary, God speaks a second time, and Jonah goes as bidden. Once again there is comic exaggeration. Nineveh is huge—a three-day journey across—and Jonah, an alien, has but to speak a few words (in Hebrew?) predicting the wrath of God and the whole city from king to the last commoner responds by repenting forthwith. With a change of mind God decides not to destroy Nineveh after all.
Only then do we learn the nature and extent of Jonah's quarrel with God. His third and last statement of faith is that this is exactly what he feared all along. He knew of God's hesed or mercy. He knew if the Ninevites repented God would repent of his intention to destroy Nineveh. Jonah would prefer a world in which the justice of God predictably and relentlessly followed transgression with inescapable punishment. The Assyrians were a mortal threat to Israel, and their idolatries and cruelties were legendary. If God made a practice of showing mercy and ultimately sparing those most richly deserving of just punishment, then God would be, to Jonah's mind, an unpredictable and even capricious God. What meaning would remain then to the Hebrew people's long suffering at the hands of their neighbors, if, in the long run, God did not make their enemies pay for their wicked ways? The world would be a place in which Jonah no longer would wish to live. Jonah's initiatory death and rebirth seem not to have taken fully.
Furious at God, Jonah finds yet another shelter while he waits to see what will happen to Nineveh. Against the heat of the sun he builds a booth which is sheltered in turn by a plant which grows up in a day. These frail shelters fail as well. A grub kills the sheltering plant, and a fierce hot wind overcomes Jonah in spite of his booth. Tarshish, the ship, the fish's belly, and the booth all prove to be death-like shelters—no safe havens from the perils of life or from God.3 For a reluctant prophet, "All things betray thee, who betrayest Me," as Francis Thompson said. Perhaps the writer has in mind also the Temple in the time of the Zadokite priesthood which exalted the temple cult.4 A people shelters itself in a temple which doubles not just as a sign of the presence but also as a shelter against the One whose mercy is not just for the sheltered but also for those deemed outside the pale.
For Jonah, the death of the plant is the last straw, and in response to God's question he insists that his indignation is utterly appropriate. God has the last word. If Jonah can have pity for a mere plant with which he had nothing to do, how can God not have pity on a great city within which there are more than 60,000 souls who don't know up from down, besides all the cattle? Parallels in the New Testament would be Jesus' parables of the Prodigal Son and of the employer who paid those who came to work at the end of the day as much as those who had worked all day long. Grace, as someone has said, is only rightly understood when it is offensive. The ultimate lesson and mark of spiritual maturity is pity. One is reminded of the legend of Parsifal, the errant knight whose discovery of the same insight in the court of the fisher king was the lesson of his whole pilgrimage.
James H. Slatton
1. James S. Ackerman, “Jonah,” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 234-243. I am indebted to this excellent study for a number of observations in this article.
2. Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries (New York, et. al.: Harper and Row, 1960), pp. 218-228.
3. Ackerman, op. cit.
4. Ibid., p. 242.