Prophet Gone Bad: Reflections on Jonah 3:1-5

Lectionary Reflections
Jonah 3:1-5
January 25, 2015

I do not know any other way to preach from the book of Jonah than telling the story itself. This is true for me for many reasons, but the primary one is that Jonah is precisely a story sermon. It was intended at its creation to be told in toto and never to be truncated into bits or parsed into themes or ideas. The narrator of this superb tale clearly had ideas in mind that he/she needed to express, but the means of that expression was story, not essay, not outline, not anything other than story. Instead of "three points and a poem," to name the old cliché of the sermon, the teller of Jonah gathered us around the writer's metaphorical knee and spun a whopper of a tale.

And this tale was never designed in any way to be taken as some sort of history, despite the continuous efforts of some to remind us of big fish swallowings off the coast of Australia, mighty contemporary storms in the Mediterranean Sea, vast ancient cities converted by wandering preachers, the proof of which may be found in obscure manuscripts unavailable to all but a few fundamentalist pedants. Give it up, please! Jonah is not and never has been any kind of history. It is a story, filled with surprise and humor and pokes of a sharp stick at would-be prophets who are called to proclaim a God of love and acceptance but instead announce that God hates everyone who is not like they are. In short, Jonah is literary satire, having a good bit of fun with prophets who go bad — and my, how prophets have a way of going bad!

If you would enjoy a detailed look at just how the book is in fact satire, please look at my article on Jonah in my recent book, >Telling the Whole Story. But if that is far too much information for your very busy eyes and ears, then in this brief article I will attempt to make the case.

Satire is characterized by several well-known features, but the most important of these may be described as follows: things are too big, too fast, too amazing to be seen as in any way true to the world we know. The storm of chapter 1 is so vast that the ship itself thought that it might break up. Yes, the ship itself thought! The minute that the prophet hits the water the storm ceases immediately. A "big fish" swallows Jonah at the behest of YHWH, and he lives among the gastric juices and recently ingested plankton for three days and three nights, praying mightily for a release. The prayer itself is self-serving, hypocritical in the extreme, and fully unaware of the story you and I have just been reading. After such a monstrous prayer, the big fish tosses its proverbial cookies, among which is Jonah. The prayer is so terrible that it is more than enough to bring on a fit of fishy vomiting!

Then Jonah finds himself head over heels in the sand, covered with fish spume, near the place he was called to go in the first place, namely the gigantic city of Nineveh. It is so vast that it takes the wretch three full days to walk across it. I live in an area of some 6,000,000 people, and I could easily walk across it in three days. Archeology teaches us that at its greatest time of population, the city of Nineveh had at most 150,000 people in it. Jonah's Nineveh is like no Nineveh in this world. He proceeds to preach on one street corner of the great and greatly evil metropolis, and by means of a five-word sermon, the entire city repents to a belief in YHWH, including their cattle, which are heard mooing to the Almighty.

That would be a grand story on its own; headlines would read, "Magnificent prophetic success; world's worst city repents!" But the tale does not end there. The repentance of the Ninevites and their cattle — far from making him happy at his missionary success, not to mention the astonishing power of his preaching — makes Jonah furious! He wishes he were dead, since the prospect of worshipping in the same pew with a repulsive Ninevite, those just repentant folk in the city dancing and singing for joy at their newfound faith, fills him with disgust. Better death than a world of Ninevite friends is Jonah's motto. But YHWH will have none of it. God sends to Jonah a little bush to protect his sorry head from the howling winds and blistering sun, and, finally, Jonah loves something beside himself — his lovely little plant! But then God sends a nasty worm to eat the roots of the plant, and the very next morning the plant is dead and again Jonah wishes he could follow his bush right into the ground.

And God then springs the point. "You love a plant which you did nothing to help it grow and nothing but watch it die. Shouldn't I love and pity Nineveh, the vast city, filled with 120,000 people who hardly know right from wrong, not to mention all those cows?" And the answer is of course, "Yes!" God should and will love Nineveh, and so should Jonah and so should we. The end.

1/19/2015 5:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.