Jonah is a picture of a reluctant servant. His response of reluctant obedience is centered in his attitude toward the people of Nineveh. That he shunned his privileged position as God’s spokesman is clear by his aggressive response to ignore God’s call—he ran in the opposite direction.
We can understand Jonah’s tension when we review the circumstances of his day. The Assyrians were a cruel people who maintained control over Israel. We might say in sympathy for Jonah it is no wonder he was reluctant and rebellious to respond to God’s assignment. While we can sympathize with him, the fact is, Jonah was blinded by his own prejudice. He judged the Ninevites and condemned them as worthy of annihilation and unworthy of God’s mercy.
If we use our imaginations we can feel his experience of the intensity of his feelings. He had an overwhelming emotional conflict of strong tension and anxiety. For those of us who remember the movie Jaws can feel the sheer panic he must have experienced in the fish. I have no doubt he lived the rest of his life with these nightmares. His experience must have changed him.
God’s call came a second time, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” Even though he was loathe to respond, still he went to Nineveh. Upon arrival he preached the world’s shortest sermon, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” The message was powerful resulting in guilt, shame, and despair. I suggest to you this miracle is far greater than the others in the story. This city with upwards of a million people, ALL turned to God.
Poet Randall Jarrell (1914–1965) was an American poet noted for his acerbic, witty, and erudite criticism. He captures Jonah’s deep crisis of faith and struggle to respond to God’s call on him in his poem Jonah.
As I lie here in the sun
And gaze out, a day’s journey, over Nineveh,
The sailors in the dark hold cry to me:
“What meanest thou, O sleeper? Arise and call upon
Thy God; pray with us, that we perish not.”
All thy billows and thy waves passed over me.
The waters compassed me, the weeds were wrapped about my head; The earth with her bars was about me forever.
A naked worm, a man no longer,
I writhed beneath the dead:
But thou art merciful.
When my soul was dead within me I remembered thee,
From the depths I cried to thee. For thou art merciful:
Thou hast brought my life up from corruption,
O Lord my God. . . . When the king said, “Who can tell
But God may yet repent, and turn away
From his fierce anger, that we perish not?”
My heart fell; for I knew thy grace of old—
In my own country, Lord, did I not say that thou art merciful?
Now take, Lord, I beseech thee,
My life from me; it is better that I die. . .
But I hear, “Doest thou well, then, to be angry?”
And I say nothing, and look bitterly
Across the city; a young gourd grows over me
And shades me—and I slumber, clean of grief.
I was glad of the gourd. But God prepared
A worm that gnawed the gourd; but God prepared
The east wind, the sun beat upon my head
Till I cried, “Let me die!” And God said, “Doest thou well To be angry for the gourd?”
And I said in my anger, “I do well
To be angry, even unto death.” But the Lord God
Said to me, “Thou hast had pity on the gourd”—
And I wept, to hear its dead leaves rattle—
“Which came up in a night, and perished in a night. And should I not spare Nineveh, that city
Wherein are more than six-score thousand persons Who cannot tell their left from their right;
And also much cattle?”
Randall Jarrell points out Jonah’s demeanor was one of total self absorption. The “I,” “me,” throughout the poem reveals Jonah is all about himself. Even when he recognized God’s mercy, it was a “mercy for me.” The poet reflects on his condition with phrases like, “my heart fell; for I knew Thy grace of old” and “it is better that I die.”
Here is a lesson for us. Reluctant obedience causes us to deceive ourselves to think God is pleased with our effort. We assume half hearted obedience is good enough. Fact is, incomplete obedience is the same as disobedience. As I define it, obedience is doing what I’m told, when I’m told to do it, with the right heart attitude. God works through us, even when we are reluctant, just as he did for the Ninevites through Jonah. But in responding the way he did, he missed God’s blessing. He sacrificed the best for the good.
Another challenge to us is Jonah’s ethnocentric judgment of his enemies. We need to gain God’s perspective on all the peoples of the world. That perspective includes his command to to love our enemies.
Jonah’s tension was never truly resolved. Like hanging chads the story concludes with unresolved dialogue. Pondering the message of Jonah I ask myself how many times and ways, have I reacted as he did. The Lenten season leads me to repentance of attitudes and actions that were not completely obedient.
A prayer to offer our God:
“In this Lenten season, help us to see our half hearted and incomplete obedience. Lead us to repentance we pray. May we catch your heart for all peoples, to learn to think your thoughts after you, to show love and compassion as you do. Help us to take the yoke of responsibility to spread the Gospel as you commanded all disciples, to go to all peoples and set aside all prejudices. We repent of our selfishness. In the name of our blessed Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen”