I think today’s a good day to hear the story of Jonah.
You might remember Jonah from Sunday school as the guy in the whale. He’s probably one of the most familiar bible characters, especially with children, because of that part of his story. His story makes for, well, great story, but I wonder if we sometimes lose the point of the story in the telling.
Thing is, it’s a story we need to hear, I mean really “hear,” right now. It’s worth reading and it’s only four short chapters. It’s a whale of a tale.
Briefly, it goes something like this. Jonah’s a Hebrew prophet. God tells him to go to Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s enemy, the Assyrians, and prophesy to them that God intends to punish them for their wickedness. But Jonah doesn’t want to, so he runs away and gets on a boat. He ends up in a giant fish for three days. Rescued by God, he goes to Nineveh where he tells them that God will destroy the city in forty days. Hoping to stop it, the people instantly repent. When God saw that they repented, God decides to not destroy them.
Jonah’s mad about that. He tells God that this is exactly why he didn’t want to do it: he knew that God would forgive the Assyrians. They’re enemies. He wanted to see them punished. He goes and sits on a hill to see if they keep to their repentance. And probably to sulk a little. In a closing exchange with God, God challenges his anger and lack of concern for the people of Nineveh.
That’s the end. But is it? We’re left hanging: what’s Jonah say to God next? What’s he do next? Do the Assyrians truly repent? Have they really changed their ways? Does Jonah learn from this experience? Do we? There’s lots to wonder about.
Here’s what I think’s worth reflecting on in our world today. First, Jonah is the constant beneficiary of understanding, compassion, care and forgiveness from everyone, including the sailors who didn’t want to do him any harm, to the Assyrians who listened rather than imprison an enemy, to God who kept calling and forgiving and caring. But Jonah has none for the people of Nineveh. They’re his enemy. Even when they repent, with a willingness and enthusiasm Jonah’s likely never seen, he’s still unwilling to see them as anything but an enemy that should be destroyed. There’s no understanding, compassion or mercy for them.
I think that’s precisely the point of God sending him: Jonah needs to learn to love his enemies. That doesn’t ignore the rightful consequences of their actions or the need for justice. But it recognizes that the long process of healing, reconciliation and restoration begins with repentance, and requires compassionate engagement and mercy.
Second, the story’s not just about Jonah. Sure, the Assyrians seem unrealistically quick to change their ways. Perhaps the author of the story is even exaggerating for effect. It’s rarely that simple and the reality is that it can take a lot of work. And Jonah was their enemy. But maybe it’s worth considering that Jonah touched them somewhere deep down, that it was time for them to change their ways and they knew it. Perhaps they, collectively, began to realize that this isn’t who they really are and their behaviour needed to change. That, too, is a long journey that begins with repentance, and requires compassionate engagement and mercy.