Mark 1:14-20 and Jonah 3:1-5, 3:10-4:4.
The book of Jonah is one of the funniest satires in the Bible. It was written as a parable, a story to teach a lesson, much as the book of Job was. Jonah teaches us about the wideness of God's grace and the limits of human prophets.
When we hear the name Jonah, we think about the fish, right? Or the whale depending on who was telling the story. God told him to go preach to the Ninevites, and instead Jonah runs in the opposite direction. He ends up on a boat in the middle of a storm God sent, and in an effort to save the boat and the other people on it, is flung off the boat and eaten by a fish. He stays in the fish for three days until it finally spits it back up onto the beach and God says again “Go and preach to the Ninevites.”
Now, in order to understand why Jonah was willing to do anything other than what God was telling him to do, we have to know about about who he was sent to talk to. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. The word alone was a trigger for the first people listening to this story. Assyria is a by-word for brutality in the ancient world. The Assyrian Chronicles describe horrendous acts of torture which were employed to create fear and, thus, submission in the enemies of the empire. Assyria was more than an enemy; it was a brutal occupying force that forever changed Israel's fortunes. And Jonah is called out by God to go and prophesy to those people. Even if they didn't kill him for speaking, he still wanted nothing to do with their salvation.
Who would you not want to see succeed? Or, maybe more to the point, who would you like to see fail? See crash and burn in the most dramatic of ways? Who would you like to see God smite? Maybe it is someone who wronged you very badly. Maybe it's a political party you're opposed to, or an organization that supports everything that you're against.
When you hear Nineveh in this passage, that's the group we're talking about. That's who God calls him to go save. So when God came to him and told him to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent, Jonah got on a boat going in the exact opposite direction. Then when a storm threatened to topple the boat Jonah was on, Jonah told the captain to throw him overboard and kill him, rather than just tell the captain to turn the ship around and head for Nineveh. Yes, Jonah would rather die than do this, but as we learn, Jonah loves his drama.
It takes being stuck in the belly of a fish for him to finally relent, and even then it is only with reluctance. And so, when Jonah finally arrives in Nineveh, he walks one-third of the way into the city…and says what is only five words in Hebrew.
Five words. You can almost hear his thought process here “There God. I did what you asked. Happy now? I know it's not going to work so I'm going to find a good spot to watch the smiting now.”
Except, with those five little words Jonah becomes the most successful prophet in the entire canon of the Hebrew Bible. He turns an entire city to the ways of God. Everyone repents, from the king all the way down the the livestock. They wear ashes and sackcloth, outward signs of repentance in that day, and swear to change how they live from then on.
In response, God forgives the whole city, turning away from the plan to smite them all. Even beyond the bit with the fish, that's one of the most remarkable parts of the whole book. God forgives this entire city full of people who have murdered and conquered their way across the ancient world. They have tortured and brutalized the Israelites, God's own people, and God still forgives them when they repent. It's a scene of incredible, unexpected grace.
And Jonah hated it. The Hebrew reads roughly, "it was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and his anger burned." When he sees that the city won't be destroyed, he begins to rant. He even tells God: “that's why I ran away from your face in the first place. When I preach doom and destruction, I want doom and destruction. But here you are, so merciful, kind, and forgiving, it just makes me sick. I would rather die than see them forgiven!" He storms out of the city and finds a place in the desert to sulk.
At this point, it's important to realize that we don't have to be angels and saints for God to use us. Jonah was full of anger and prejudice and drama and despite even that God was able to use him to remarkable effect. So never think that you aren't good enough for God to use you too.
Going back to the story, God, in a living illustration, causes a bush to grow by Jonah's head, offering him shade from the sun and rest. But the next morning, a worm eats the roots of the bush and it dies and Jonah loses the shade. He responds with his usual level of drama, saying, “It is better for me to die than to live.” This is over the loss of a bush mind you.
God comes along and says “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
And that's where the story of Jonah ends. With Jonah sulking about the loss of his bush, and God saying, “How much more do I care about all of these people who I created?”
We never find out if Jonah got the point. We never know if the Assyrians went back to their old ways after their fear of smiting ended. We don't know what happens next. What we do know is that God has always had an amazing capacity for love and grace, because God even takes the time to explain why he forgave Nineveh to Jonah when he is sulking in the desert.
There are two ways of reading this book. One is with joy that no matter how badly we mess up, what we have done, we can still find forgiveness with God. God's capacity for love and forgiveness are bigger than our own abilities to mess up in the first place. God doesn't play favorites. And, no matter who the party or person is, God is always willing to extend grace and mercy.
The second is like Jonah, frustrated that God will forgive even the people we think God has no business forgiving. Because God forgives and loves even the people we think deserve it the least and there is nothing we can do about it.
So how do you want to live? As grumpy as Jonah, resenting God's forgiveness of the people you don't like? Or celebrating in the fact that our God's mercy is wide enough for everyone, even you, even me, and even Jonah?