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?