The funny story of Jonah- Part Two

This week we left behind the best known part about Jonah- his being swallowed by a large fish. Chapter 2 of the book of Jonah is mostly a long prayer, which we read responsively in church, just like we do with the Psalms. Some people say that this prayer was added after the fact in order to make Joanh appear like a better prophet. But it’s consistent with other parts of the story where Jonah says things that don’t match his actions. The hypocritical highlight of the prayer is in verses 8 and 9, where Jonah criticises people who worship idols as having forsaken loyalty to God, while saying he will sacrifice and make vows to God. If you remember from the first chapter, however, at this moment the sailers (likely the type of people Jonah is criticising) have become perfect converts and have already made vows and sacrifices to God in the proper Hebrew way. And I doubt Jonah’s in a very good place to be saying anything about loyalty to God at this point.

It leads to a question about prayer: do we actually want the things we pray for, such as peace, or do we just say we want it? When we thank God, are we truly feeling grateful? And do we ever prayer for others who we’ve judged as needing help, without recognizing the places our own faith needs care?

After the prayer, Jonah is, as one of our children put it, “barfed up” on the land and is again told by God to go to Nineveh. This time he listens! He preaches a message of destruction which is extremely short- only 5 words in Hebrew! Compared to the long poetic speeches made by other prophets, this is an absurd way for Jonah to act if he really wants to get his message across. But somehow, it works (maybe short really is sweet?)

The most evil city in the world hears the shortest sermon ever and has the most thorough repentance and turning around to God anyone has ever seen. The king orders everyone to fast and wear sackcloth and ashes and turn from their evil ways- even the animals! I tried so hard to find a picture of a cow wearing sackcloth, but it just doesn’t exist so you have to use your imagination! This ridiculous image just serves to show how fully Nineveh commits itself to repentance. A piece of midrash (story and tradition that supplements scripture) says that Nineveh was so good after this that if one brick was found to have been taken unjustly, the whole building would be taken down in order to return the brick to it’s owner. That’s some extreme justice! God sees how sincere Nineveh is, and forgives them, and does not destroy the city.

The joke of this chapter is that, particularly in light of the Hebrew words and phrases used, Nineveh’s response to God’s message is a direct comparison to the response of God’s people, Israel, to God’s messages sent by prophets and leaders over centuries. And Nineveh, this great wicked city, does a better job of turning away from evil and following God than Israel ever had.

This would be like seeing a terrorist organization turn around and create equality and justice to such an extent that there was no poverty or violence or lingering racism or sexism or prejudice of any kind. It’s a bit of a joke, but it also hits home with the question: “If they can do it, why aren’t we?”

The thing is that we often think that we are doing pretty well in terms of how much good we are doing in the world, whether as a country, as a church, or as an individual. This chapter of Jonah uses satire and exaggeration to make us reflect on whether we are really doing all we can to follow God’s way- or are we just resting on the comfort that we are doing “better than them”?

I hope, as you ponder these questions, that you all have a good week as we prepare to look at the last chapter of Jonah next week. How will Jonah react to the remarkable response to his preaching?

The funny story of Jonah- Part one!

Yesterday in worship, we looked at the beginning of the story of Jonah- yes, the guy swallowed by a whale. Jonah’s story in the Bible is short- only 4 chapters, but there’s a lot of interesting and funny stuff in it- even more so than someone being swallowed by a whale!

This upcoming Sunday, we’ll be looking at chapters 2 & 3 of Jonah, so if you missed part one last week, you can read Jonah chapter 1 on your own (there are several places you can read the Bible online if you need to) and here’s a bit of what we learned yesterday:

-The book of Jonah is meant to be satire. It’s full of jokes, people acting opposite to how they normally do, huge exaggerations. It’s not meant to be history, even though Jonah also appears briefly in the history book of 2 Kings. It was common at that time to write fiction with some factual references. The book is meant to throw people off their expectations and explore just what God’s nature is, and how we live and act in the world.

-Jonah is a pretty pathetic hero. His father’s name means faithfulness, so in the first few verses, he’s called the “son of faithfulness”, and then he runs away from God, jumping aboard a ship going in the opposite direction that God wants him to go. When a storm comes up and the sailors ask him what’s going on- he gives a response that is both funny and sad, considering his situation: “I worship the God who made the heavens, the sea and the dry land. And I’m running away from God’s presence on this boat.” Give your head a shake, Jonah! But it’s good for us to think about whether there are things God is calling us to do that we resist doing? Have we ever run away from doing the right thing? And are there times when what we say about what we believe is different than the way we act?

– Even though Jonah doesn’t act like a very good prophet, by the end of the first chapter, God has worked through him anyway, and won a boatful of converts in the sailors! They don’t want to throw Jonah overboard, but eventually they have no choice, and they pray to God first for forgiveness, and then in thanksgiving for being saved and in dedication to serve God from then on. Of course, the joke is that the sailors, who should have no knowledge of Israel’s religion, pray in the language of the ancient prophets, and know the proper rituals without being told! This would be like meeting a group of people in Africa who all of the sudden reveal how well they can curl, and how much they know about people like Duff Roblin and Nellie McLung. It’s a funny alternate world in the book of Jonah, but it brings some hope to us who try to serve God in this world. If God can work through someone as flawed as Jonah, than what can God do through us, even with our flaws and mistakes?

I hope you all have a good week, and stay tuned for Part Two this Sunday!

Blessings, Kristin

Happy Epiphany!

Today, January the 6th, is the day that we traditionally remember the visit of the Magi or Wise Men to Jesus. In reality, the Magi might have visited Jesus up to two years after he was born- remember, they were coming from the East, how far we don’t know, and they wouldn’t be travelling by any modern method! Whenever they arrived, they were seekers- they saw a sign in the sky that inspired them to leave their homes and search for this child that had been born- a child that would bring hope to so many.

Are we seeking anything in our lives? Meaning, hope, love, connection, rest? Perhaps, at the beginning of this new year, it is a good time for us to re-examine our lives and not necessarily make a New Year’s resolution, but decide to seek, to do something differently this year. Sometimes this means taking on something new, or perhaps getting rid of something old and making more space. It could mean do more of something, or less of something else. It could be an attidude or an activity.

Whatever this New Year brings you, and whatever you might be seeking or looking for, know that God is with you along your journey. Happy Epiphany, everyone!