As a child, I was always excited when the topic of Jonah came up in Sunday school. As a kid I did not know every story in the Bible, but I knew the Jonah story, forwards and back. Having two brothers, I suspect that my parents may have spent more time with that story to teach the three of us that we need to listen and do as we are told because no matter how hard we try to not do it, we’ll still have to. But that is only speculation. The thing about Jonah is that there are a couple very important things that go on, that are actually far more important than the fantastical things that often become the story’s focus.
One thing that is very evident is that Jonah is a brat. I know that is brash, but there is no way around it; Jonah is a brat of the first degree. He is headstrong and so self-righteous that he refuses to do what God is asking. This is important for what eventually happens in the story.
There is an interesting play that is going on between Jonah and the people of Nineveh. Jonah is perfect, at least in his mind (the brat thing). The people of Nineveh are admittedly sinful and lost. God picks Jonah to go and tell the people their fate, but Jonah who has such contempt for their sinfulness does not even want to go. And the fantastical journey commences.
The pericope that we have this week picks up here as Jonah, having no other way out, commences to give the decree to the people, a rather harsh decree mind you. Interestingly, the story takes a turn in that the people are very quick to repent. As the scripture says, this quick repentance is surprising even to God, so much that he changes his mind.
In the NRSV it uses changes his mind, but the Hebrew actually could be translated as a change of heart. The connotation being that God felt sorry for the people of Nineveh and had some level of regret concerning his decree, so much so that he chose to spare their lives, giving them a moment of grace.
This does not make Jonah happy, and if we were to continue the story we would see Jonah’s sad demise because he was so into himself that he could not open up to the fact that people can change and that God recognizes that and can change too.
As you think about worship this week, think about times in your life when you have lost your way, maybe so much so that you could not even realize it and needed someone to let you know. Now ask yourself if you listened and made the change? Did you completely stop your ways and repent, or did you keep doing things the way you always have?
Or think about if you have ever had the moral indignation for someone that you could not see any redeemable value in them? That you thought they were so far gone they deserved whatever punishment they could get. If God called you to extend them grace, would you, could you?
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen