From the 2012 ForeWords archive:
The story of Jonah, as told in the Hebrew Bible book of the same name, is filled with one absurdity after another. And it’s not just the most famous part–Jonah being swallowed by a big fish (or whale, depending on how you like to tell the story) and later spit out on dry land safe and sound. Why, even Ninevah’s animals end up covered in sackcloth and ashes!
Normally Hebrew prophets were called to challenge their own people in Israel or Judah, usually bringing them to repentance. Here Israel/Judah isn’t even mentioned, and Jonah is sent to the last place any “son of Abraham” would want to go: the Assyrian city of Ninevah. Although cruelty and torture were commonplace among ancient peoples, the Assyrian empire was notable for exceeding even the standards of the time. It’s perhaps no wonder that Jonah initially ran in the opposite direction, fearing for his well-being and life. Why indeed would God want to show mercy to them?
But after his misadventures at sea Jonah finally ended up at the city gates:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. –Jonah 3:1-10 NRSV
Nowhere else in the entire Bible do we find such immediate and overwhelming success on a massive scale. Who knew? Well, perhaps God. And I suppose in an odd way this foreshadows the amazing immediacy by which 12 men suddenly followed Jesus when he called them to discipleship. That, of course, is the subject of this week’s Gospel lectionary reading in Mark.
Yes, this is a rather crazy story, and way too much energy and time has been expended over the centuries debating its authenticity. Is it true, people often ask initially. In our familiar, 21st-century, objective, factual way–no, of course not. Is it true, in the sense that it offers divine truth and insight. Yes, certainly.
We Christians often wax rather poetic when the topic turns to mercy and forgiveness, yet we generally turn much less enthusiastic when it’s all about forgiving and showing mercy to those we feel deserve judgment and retribution. In that sense, we’re just like Jonah.
Who might our contemporary equivalent be to Jonah’s Ninevites? I’ll leave that to each individual reader here. However, I recall the common response to the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces. There were jubilant celebrations throughout the USA lasting well into that Sunday night, followed the next few days by more sober assessments about the appropriateness of celebrating anybody’s death, even a cold-blooded terrorist like bin Laden. But what if–and here I know I’m stepping on somebody’s toes, if not tempting widespread righteous indignation–what if God has shown mercy even to…him?
As followers and disciples of Jesus Christ we are called to be agents of peace, reconciliation, mercy, and hope in the world. Can we draw a line anywhere in that, or like Jonah has God challenged us to a seemingly impossible mission?