One of the most interesting books in the Old Testament is Jonah. Controversy and confusion have swirled around it for centuries. People have mistaken it for history. (It isn’t. It is a kind of Jewish literature called a midrash or instructive tale.) People have thought Jonah was swallowed by a whale. (He wasn’t. The text says it was a “great fish.”) And (what interests us here) people have assumed that Jonah’s reluctance to preach to Nineveh was because he, though tender of heart and desirous of the Ninevites’ repentance, was just too scared to go lest they kill him.
This last confusion is somewhat understandable. There is, after all, plenty of precedent in Scripture for reluctant prophets and hostile audiences. Moses tries to talk the Almighty into sending someone else (“Who am I that I should go to Pharoah and lead the Israelites out of Egypt?” [Ex 3:11]) and in fact, dickers with God until He settles for Aaron as the guy who does all the talking (Ex 4:10-16). Likewise, people like Gideon and even Elijah have moments where they beg God to be spared the prophetic task since a) they are simply not up to the job and, b) they don’t think anybody will listen anyway (Judges 6; 1 Kings 19:1-4;14).
Yet Jonah is not at all like any of them. For where they at least desire the salvation of the ones to whom God is sending them (however unworthy those ones are), Jonah ducks the prophetic call and hightails it away from God, not because he fears the Ninevites will reject his message, but because he fears they will accept it. Jonah wants Nineveh to burn.
Such a rejection of God’s mercy is treated with a fair amount of humor by the inspired writer and we should pay attention to that. Jonah’s prophetic career is easy to view as a kind of broad comedy. Smart guy tries to outwit God. God gets smart guy into embarrassing jam. One can almost picture Jonah on the ship as the mariners figure out that he is the cause of the huge storm they are in. Slowly their heads turn and all eyes fix on him. “You mean, the God you are running from is not just some local baal of the hills but ‘the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land’ (Jonah 1:9)? That’s the god you’ve offended? And you used our boat to do it?” Jonah gulps hard. Little beads of sweat appear on his forehead. He licks his dry lips. He straightens his tie like Rodney Dangerfield and smiles weakly, “Well fellas. You could always throw me overboard, hahaha!”
Next minute, Jonah’s in the drink. And the minute after that, he is Pinocchio in the belly of Monstro, with plenty of time to think about what a smart guy he is. This is the stuff of great comedy and the sacred writer knows it. He wants us to laugh at Jonah and, if we are not intimidated by the solemn cadences of biblical language, we do.
Indeed, we laugh even harder when we realize that Jonah, like a sort of indestructible Wile E. Coyote, remains undaunted in his opposition to the Lord’s mercy even after this. Oh sure, he goes and preaches to Nineveh and, oh sure, they repent (drat!) but Jonah still doesn’t want anything to do with it. “I have reason to be angry!” he kvetches, “Angry enough to die!” (Jonah 4:9). He knew God was going to do something like this!
All this fury! And for what? Because God didn’t annihilate a city of men, women, children and dumb animals but took pity on them. “Sheesh!” we say, “What a bigot! Nyuk! Nyuk! I’m sure glad I’m not him.”
At which point, the sacred writer (not only of this text but of others) turns to us with raised eyebrow and asks, “Are you sure you’re not?”
We moderns think we are sure. We tend to be pretty confident that we are far more tolerant, open and so forth than the ancients. We read of the rage Jonah vented at Nineveh and congratulate ourselves over having “outgrown” or “advanced” past the tribal vindictiveness of an ancient semite. We carry about in our bosom a pretty serene assurance that if we were called upon to forgive the Ninevites, we would do it without having to take an educational detour through a fish’s digestive tract. We tend to chalk Jonah’s action up to the racist intolerance of the ancient world which we, thank goodness, have outgrown. Indeed, if there is any quality we moderns value above all else, it is tolerance.
But… though we may be more tolerant (itself a dubious proposition), are we any more merciful than Jonah? I doubt it.
I doubt it because I think we are confusing our blasé attitude toward evil with “mercy.” 50 years ago divorce and teenage pregnancy were a terrible tragedy. Now we are numb to them, not merciful. 30 years ago, abortion was a horrible desecration to the vast majority of people. Now we are “tolerant” (meaning, again, numb and forgetful of the overwhelming tragedy of 1.5 million dead children every year). 15 years ago the blasphemies emitted by certain sectors of pop entertainment against our Lord and our Lady still had the power to shock. Now we just accept it as “junk on TV.” Numbness again. And the idea of doctors killing their patients (which was scary just five years ago) is coming to seem more and more mainstream with every passing day. Indeed, so confused is our hyper-tolerant culture that we actually call such an act of murder “mercy killing.” And so we congratulate ourselves for being “merciful” when in fact we are simply too numb to call evil by name in most cases. We do not surpass Jonah in forgiveness, we simply lag miles behind him in even seeing there is a sin to forgive. In many ways, we have not advanced to a belief in real mercy, but retreated into a shallow refusal to confront evil.
But the problem is even worse than that. For even in those places where we do still recognize the presence of real evil, our culture is no closer than Jonah to being able to speak real mercy. We are as merciless and intolerant as the Reluctant Prophet to forgive those things we cannot excuse.
Consider, for example, our culture’s reaction to a monster like Wesley Allen Dodd who lured numerous innocent children to torture and a grisly death. What is our attitude toward a person like him? Tolerance? What is the attitude of our culture toward a pedophile? A breezy willingness to let bygones be bygones? What about an incestuous father? Nobody says, “Who am I to fault him?” What about a person who makes child porn films? Nobody (yet, at any rate) flashes a wry grin and says, “Don’t be a Puritan. It’s the 90s.” Likewise nobody thinks of the beasts who blew up the daycare in Oklahoma City as no big deal. In all these instances we are still capable of feeling toward these people something very much like Jonah felt when he contemplated what Nahum called “the bloody city, all lies, full of plunder, whose looting never stops!” (Nahum 3:1).
But are we (apart from grace) any more able to desire mercy for these people than Jonah was? I remember reading the account of Wesley Allen Dodd’s execution in the newspaper. As he was about to be hanged, he declared that while in prison he had received Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior and thanked God that he would be going to heaven. The witnesses to the execution hissed and booed him and one got the distinct impression from the press account that his words were the final impenitent outrage of a soulless creature. How could he be forgiven? What kind of God would forgive him? That animal killed children! Likewise, utter rejection greeted the attempt by Ted Bundy to atone for his crimes by videotaping a warning about the dangers of pornographic violence.
This gut sense of moral revulsion (and strong temptation to withhold mercy) which we feel against a Dodd or a Bundy must be clearly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story of Jonah. If we do not see the gravity of the evil of Nineveh, if we do not appreciate that for Jonah (and for the first readers of the book of Jonah) the legacy of the Assyrian Empire and of Nineveh was one of unbearable pain, we cannot grasp the shocking depth of God’s mercy. For Jonah, the sins of Nineveh–the mounds of human heads, impaled bodies, raped women, doomed slaves and shattered populations–were not long ago and far away. They were as real and unspeakable as the crimes of a Dodd today. And so God uses this extreme illustration to make a very stark point: if we do not recognize the Ninevehs in our own life (and God’s uncompromising demand that we both speak prophetically to them and forgive them divinely), then we have missed virtually the whole point of the story of Christ.
Of course, most of us do not have to face a Dodd or a Bundy. Our Ninevehs are not immense and do not take three days to walk through (Jonah 3:3). But as Jesus observed, our faithfullness in small and common things is quite as important as our faithfullness in huge and rare things (Matthew 25:21, 23). And the writer of Jonah is aware of this connection as well. Jonah was not embittered by the colossal crimes of Nineveh. Jonah had a heart of bitterness which was quite as bitter about small things as large ones. He couldn’t even cope with the loss of a little shade on a hot day without becoming angry enough to die (Jonah 4:5-9)! In the same way, Jesus tells parables which speak of people who are embittered, not by stupendous suffering in a torture chamber somewhere, but by picky little squabbles over money and who is top dog. No horrible crime is committed against the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son. He’s just ticked off because his brother seems to have gotten… mercy (Luke 15:11-32). Likewise, The laborers in the vineyard suffered no exquisite agonies from the KGB, they just got paid the wages they agreed to and are aggravated that the owner decided to be generous with his money to people who only worked one hour, while they worked all day (Matthew 20:1-15).
The Ninevites, the last minute converts like Dodd, the prodigal son and the 11th hour workers in the vineyard are all in the same boat. They are all recipients of God’s absurdly lavish generosity and love–a love out of all proportion and sense. But then, so are we and so was Jonah. The only difference is that we and Jonah, being respectable, tax-paying, upstanding members of the community can sometimes forget that. But the factory rejects, the scum of the earth and the death row inmates are less likely than we to give themselves a knowing wink in the mirror or chatter about what God owes them for being such goody two-shoes. They know what they are and they know what they deserve. And so they come with no pretenses and say, with the Good Thief, “Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your reign.” (Luke 23:43) And He, who desires mercy and not sacrifice, does (Matthew 9:13).
Which brings us back to the biggest laugh of all in this Old Testament comedy. Namely, that the God whom Jonah takes to be a cruel practical joker is laughing, not at Jonah, but right alongside him, not in mockery but in joy. For that God (whose name is Emmanuel or “God With Us”) thought much more highly of Jonah than Jonah ever suspected. To prove it, sometime after Jonah’s little educational adventure, that God was born of a woman, just like Jonah. And where Jonah had to put up with the loss of a little shade, that God bore homelessness, hunger, grief, betrayal, torture, and death–all for Jonah’s sake. He went down into the bowels of the earth for three days and three nights just as Jonah spent three days and night in the bowels of the fish (Matthew 12:40-41). And he rose up to make Jonah’s absurd escapade a sign, neither of human “tolerance” for sin nor of divine lust for vengeance against sinners, but of death to sin and of eternal life for Nineveh–and for us Jonahs if we’ll share it.