To say that Jonah was a reluctant prophet seems to be an understatement. After all, having been selected by God to go to Nineveh to tell the people of God’s displeasure with them, he balked. Then he ran away aboard a ship. When a storm threatened the ship, the crew decided it must be Jonah’s fault and tossed him overboard. Three days in a big fish’s belly finally gets Jonah’s attention. His reluctance to go to Nineveh is still with him, but he decides he’d rather do that than find out what God has in store for him next if he resisted, so off he goes.
This past Sunday’s Old Testament lesson can be a bit hard to swallow (no pun intended). Belly of a big fish for three days: come on. A city that is three day’s walk across? How big would that be? At that time, a “day’s journey” was considered to be twenty miles. Let’s say it is square to make the math easy. Thirty-six hundred square miles. A city can certainly be that big, but the archeological evidence makes it clear that Nineveh was much smaller, probably something like three square miles. It was an impressive city, nonetheless. But, if we’re looking for facts, the biblical account isn’t providing them.
But then the story isn’t about facts in the sense we moderns understand them. For the writer of the Jonah story here are the facts he is attempted to communicate to his audience:
- Jonah didn’t want to go preach to Nineveh. Why? It is an environment hostile to him, a foreigner and the message is a terrible one.
- Jonah struggled with God’s claim on him for a long time. It was tough to deal with.
- Jonah finally, if somewhat reluctantly, accepts the claim and obeys.
- The people of Nineveh repent.
- God spares those who repent.
Now these are facts we can accept with no problem--I think. I may be speaking only for myself, but I’ve struggled against God’s direction for me. From the time I first felt as if I were being called to ordained ministry until the time I accepted that call was more than seven years. When I was told I was going to be a campus minister, I was very reluctant, since I didn’t know anything about being one. So I can identify with reluctance in being obedient. Too, Jonah was being told to go into a hostile environment to proclaim an awful message: clean up your act or be destroyed. Knowing what we do about what can happen to messengers of bad news, can’t we understand his anxiety?
God is incredibly patient with Jonah. He persisted in the face of Jonah's reluctance, never giving up on him. The, after Nineveh repents, Jonah is unhappy about God’s sparing them. God remains patient and tries to help Jonah understand what is really important. Maybe that’s the take away for us. When we are reluctant in all the ways we can be reluctant and for all the reasons we can be reluctant in our faithfulness, God will be nudging us and will remain patient with us. God’s expectation is that the consistent love shown to us will pull us from our petulance or rebellion and turn us back to the faithful life. I can identify with being “pulled back” too. What about you?