Jonah is my kind of missionary. Reluctant, withdrawn, stubborn. Never quite ready to go to Nineveh. All over the Bible, people are getting up and going. Abraham and Sarah move out on a promise and a prayer. Moses heads for Egypt with nothing but a shepherd's crook and Aaron to write his sermons. Elijah stands defiant, facing four hundred and fifty Baal prophets. But not Jonah. Jonah stands on the dock with tickets for Tarshish.
All over the New Testament people are getting up and following Jesus. Fishermen are dropping their nets, tax collectors are forgetting about credit and debit, and others are leaving their parents behind. A little man called Paul travels the Mediterranean spreading the Word. But not Jonah. Jonah stands on the dock with tickets for Tarshish.
Why is Jonah so attractive? I believe there are two reasons. One is that for Jonah there is some one thing that causes him to resist his call. And, two, despite God's redemptive liberation, Jonah never really changes. Certainly there is something that holds Jonah back and this endears him to us immediately, for there is some one thing that holds us back as well. For Jonah it's Nineveh. But what's the problem with Nineveh? Is it just that it is another foreign land? Certainly going to a foreign land is never easy. Neely McCarter, former dean and professor at Union Seminary in Virginia, was a southerner deep down and when he went to California to be president of Pacific School of Religion, he knew he was going to a foreign land. Sam Martin said he knew Neely had left Virginia when once he went to visit him in California and got into a car at the airport and turned on the radio and heard this announcement: "The Liberation Front will hold a rally for the Salvadoran Relief Fund in the Fidel Castro Park at 11:00 on Sunday morning." "Yes," said Sam, "Neely has left Virginia; he has gone to a foreign land!"
But Jonah's problem isn't with a foreign land, is it? Jonah's problem is with Nineveh, a city on the east bank of the Tigris River in Assyria. The Assyrians were not too popular in Israel because in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., they plundered Palestine looting and burning its cities and deporting its inhabitants. In 722-721 B.C., the Northern Kingdom of Israel passed out of existence as a result of Assyrian conquest. In other words, to the hearers of the Jonah story, Nineveh was anathema, the object of intense hostility. For perspective, imagine an African-American being asked to go preach to the Ku Klux Klan. "Go to Nineveh," says God. And Jonah says, "Anywhere, Lord; anywhere but Nineveh." So Jonah stands on the dock with tickets for Tarshish.
Jonah really is a narrow little man, a first-class nationalist who believed in Israel first. Jonah is a Zionist who will fight to the death for the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. He is one who sees Israel as the chosen people and the Gentiles can go to hell for all he cares. How unlike Peter, a Jew's Jew, who, after conversion, is on his way to Cornelius' house. Jonah would never do that. But let's not be too hard on Jonah, for here we can see the complexity of human nature. We all have our enemies. What is it for you? For Jonah, it's Ninevites. Will Rogers, who never met a man he didn't like, was out of step with the whole human race. Even Jesus had enemies. Certainly he said love your enemies, but I think William Sloane Coffin is right when he says, "Love them as enemies. Let's not be sentimental about this thing."
Jonah is the man of gentle prejudice. He is not killing Ninevites or discriminating against them. He just doesn't want to preach to them. But let's not be too hard on him. He was this way because in the context of our story the Ninevites had destroyed his family. Out of the rubble of the Holocaust he crawls; out of the ovens of Dachau and Auschwitz crawled Jonah, and God says to him, "Go preach my word to Nineveh." And Jonah says, "Anywhere, Lord, anywhere but Nineveh."
Now what happens next in this story represents a paradigm for believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition down through the centuries. It is the paradigm of sin, forgiveness, and the beginnings of new life, not new life itself, but only the beginnings of new life. Jonah is the quintessential human being, the classic model of the human species, for there is an ineradicable flaw in his character, one that he cannot erase on his own. It is his desire to control his own destiny and to determine who should and should not be punished. This characteristic is not only the mark of humanity in general, but of Israel in particular. Many commentators believe that Jonah stands for Israel because Jonah in Hebrew means "dove," and the dove was a symbol for Israel. Israel hadn't done what she was supposed to do. She had looked into herself too much. God had called Israel to be a light to the nations, but she had gotten off track. So God punished her. The Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and carried its inhabitants off into exile. Commentators believe that the sea monster or fish stands for Babylon here. Down into the depths of despair went Israel and Jonah--down into exile. Something that has happened to church after church down through the centuries because they forgot their mission.
But, like Israel, Jonah was delivered from the mouth of the fish, brought up out of the water in an almost baptismal-like experience. And God tries again with Jonah. What a word of grace and challenge all rolled into one! "Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, 'Arise, go to Nineveh . . .'" Were there ever any kinder words written anywhere? "And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time." Notice that God never lets up and never gives up on us. Grace and challenge, forgiveness and responsibility are intertwined. Our sin and God's loving call to action are seen in stark contrast here, set side by side, juxtaposed.
Now is the possibility for new life. But notice with Jonah it is only the beginnings of new life. No more. Not new life itself. Sin, forgiveness and only the beginnings of new life. Notice also that just as in our ministry and in our Christian lives, this is no Pollyanna story, no fairy tale. Jonah doesn't hop up now and say, "Okay, Lord, it's off to Nineveh I go." There is no dramatic turnaround as with Paul. Jonah is no "new creation" as Paul says in II Corinthians. I sometimes wonder about people who say they are born again. How much have they really changed? Look at Paul himself, "Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?" This is real human drama. Jonah remains in character, as if some Augustinian or Niebuhrian playwright has got hold of the story. Off he goes to Nineveh alright, but he drags his feet all the way. He goes reluctantly. There is a hint of thankfulness, but the order still looms large.
So off goes Jonah, half-heartedly, half-hoping that no one in Nineveh will listen and God will level the city with his mighty wrath. But, instead, the whole town comes forward singing, "Just as I am, without one plea," and Jonah doesn't know what to do with them all. Jonah wants God to blow the whole place sky high. "Punish them, Lord. I am the righteous one; they are the sinners." Jonah never could understand about God's great forgiveness. Like some preachers, he only saw God as a giant frown in the sky. He never quite understood that there is a wideness to God's mercy.
There are some who understand this, though. Those whose love for their enemies transcends human hatred. It is a love that is hard to comprehend. I suppose I will never completely understand Maake Masango, the black South African pastor whom I met when he was studying in the United States before the fall of Apartheid. I suppose I will never understand his forgiveness, his openness, as he headed back to South Africa, as he headed back to Nineveh and the probability of prison. Unlike Jonah, Maake Masango has a vision of the wideness of God's mercy that carries him beyond the natural hatred he could feel for the Africaaner. For his model is not Jonah, but Jesus, and his motto is not "Punish them, Lord" but "Forgive them, Lord" for they know not what they do." Jonah, like King Lear, remained a tragic character to the end. But you don't have to. The good news is this: in Jesus Christ you can become a new person altogether. For you see, you are made in God's image and, by God's grace made to open your heart to one another.
God bless you all.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, who commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, help us to repay evil with good. Lord God, who yourself prayed for those who crucified you, give us the spirit of meekness that we may overcome the malevolence of our enemies with a true love of neighbor. All this we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord.