Beyond the Lectionary Text: Jonah 1-4

by Joel Schreurs



Comments and Observations

Some years ago, Will Smith played a character named Robert Dean in the movie Enemy of the State. Dean unwittingly ends up possessing a surveillance tape that a high ranking government official does not want him to have. This official is not sure who Robert Dean is, or how he ended up with the tape. But he is determined to do all he can in those pre-iPhone days to find out. He taps Dean’s phones, puts bugs in his blender and alarm clocks and light fixtures, hacks into his computer so that he can peek at every email he sends and every website he visits, and puts tracking devices on his vehicle and in his shoes, wristwatch, and belt buckle. Robert Dean is caught in his own Orwellian nightmare. When he finally tries to shake off the men who are hunting him, it seems they know every move he makes the moment he makes it (which, of course, they do!). For the desperate Robert Dean, it seems that there can be no escape. There is nowhere he can run. Nowhere he can hide.

To Jonah, it’s a plot-line that would have sounded all too familiar.

Of course, Jonah should have known better than to try and escape his Pursuer in the first place. As chapter 2 demonstrates, he clearly knows his Psalter well. So we can presume that he’s read Psalm 139 a time or two. He knows–or at least, he should know–that there is no escaping the presence of the one who is not only the God of Israel, but the God of land and the sea (1:9). But that doesn’t stop him from trying. When God tells him to get up and go to Nineveh, he immediately turns on his heel and stomps off down to Joppa so that he can buy a ticket for a ship headed to Tarshish–a city twenty-five hundred miles in the opposite direction. Jonah flees to the margins of the map–even when he knows that his odds of escape are not good–because he also knows that God he who wants to send him to Nineveh is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:1-2) and he cannot stand the thought of God using him to extend that compassion, grace, and abounding love to the people Nineveh. Undoubtedly, if God had given him the same assignment he gave to Nahum (see Nahum 1:1-2), Jonah would have leapt at the chance. But when Jonah senses that he is being sent to Nineveh on a mission of mercy, he wants nothing to do with God–or his plans.

Not that most of us would blame him. After all, as the capital city of Israel’s greatest enemy, Nineveh was the heart of a ferocious beast. The Assyrians had never heard of the Geneva Conventions. Their armies (who would eventually conquer the Israelites and drag them into exile) were infamous for the cruel and grisly treatment of their enemies. When they captured people in war, they were known to gouge out eyes and tongues and sever hands and fillet and burn people alive. They were an evil and violent people–and everybody knew it. God knew it (1:2). Their king knew it (3:8). And the people of Israel knew it—first-hand. So it is no wonder that Jonah resisted his assignment. It is no wonder that he wanted to see Nineveh reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble. It is no wonder he wanted to see them get a taste of their own medicine. These people were his enemies–and he wanted to see God give them what they deserved.

In the end, “what they deserve” is exactly what God will not give to the people Nineveh. But the delicious irony of the story is that it is also God refuses to give to Jonah. Even when Jonah flatly disobeys the call of God on his life, even when he refuses to extend God’s love and grace to his enemies, even then, God refuses to give him what he deserves. Instead, the God who refuses to give up on Nineveh refuses to give up on Jonah. He pursues his rebellious child into the depths of the sea and into the belly of the whale. He is is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, …[and] relents from sending calamity”–to Nineveh, and to Jonah.

For those of us who are too often like Jonah, for those of us who find ourselves resisting Jesus’ call to “love our enemies” and to forgive those who hurt us, not just seven times, but seventy times seven, this is powerfully good news. The One who died for us while we were still sinners–while we were still his enemies–continues to pursue us with his grace again, and again, and again.

As people who have been pursued–and captured!–by grace, may our prayer be that we will learn to extend that grace to others!

Textual Considerations

Questions to Ponder

Illustration Ideas