God’s lesson to his reluctant, pouting messenger


People of the Book: Jonah

There are times in our lives when God’s word seems distant and muted, when the fork in life’s road that radically confronts us seems equally terrifying as each divergent path to the left or right stretches forward into the wooded tangles of an unknown future. Yet, there are other times when God’s claim on our wills and hearts comes to us with clarity and austerity, resonating within our very bones what is the right, if not easy, thing to do. The latter was the case with Jonah, when the word of the Lord came to him commanding that he “go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it.”

Jonah heard, understood, and subsequently bolted for Tarshish, in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh. He, like us, feared the consequences of obeying despite the sometimes crushing personal cost. Also like us, he eventually comes to see that his diagram for his life does not always match the Real one.

Jonah’s sentiments toward the Ninevites are expressed by Rahner’s words, that every Christian sometimes feels as an unworthy servant of a demanding Lord: “You have equipped me with Your word, Your truth, Your sacraments. And You have attached these things to my ministry in such a way that they penetrate into the inmost regions of free souls only when these souls accept me, only when they take me along in the bargain. Can men really recognize You in me?… I realize that You have sent me, that I am a Your messenger – maybe a very pitiful one, but for all that still Your messenger, a man sent by You and stamped with Your ineffaceable seal…Your grace remains pure, even when it is dispensed through my hands. Your Gospel is still the good tidings of great joy, even when it’s not particularly noticeable that my soul is exulting in God my Saviour. And Your light continues to shine forth, changing the dark death-shadows of our earth into the brilliant noonday of your grace, even when this light has to find its way to men through the cracked and dusty panes of my tiny lantern….In Your service there are no office hours after which a man can close up shop and be his own master again.”

In his attempts to escape God’s plan for his life, Jonah fruitlessly tries to flee and ends up cast overboard and thrashing in the tumultuous waters of the deep, until he is swallowed by a large fish and spends three days in the darkness of its cavernous belly, in a typological prefiguring of Christ’s three days in the earthen sepulcher. The beast spews him up on the shore, and so the Sunday school lesson ends with colorful pictures of whales and wet togas and palm trees and Jonah happily frolicking on a beach.

Yet, it is at this point that Jonah’s narrative takes on even more crucial meaning for adult contemporary readers. He does relent and go to Nineveh, preaching God’s justice and coming wrath. And the Ninevites, traditional enemies of the Jewish people and their God, respond by repenting in sackcloth and ashes, and refusing food and water, from the king to the cattle (poor cows, I always felt for them). Because of their humility, God spares the city from destruction.

Jonah, the reluctant messenger, now bitterly resents God for forgiving such a motley crew of heathens. He storms out of the city and pouts over the failure of the scenario to unfold according to the way he thinks it should have; that is to say, with fire and brimstone.

God provides a gourd tree to give Jonah shade during his self-absorbed tantrum. When the tree withers and dies under the searing heat of the sun, he becomes even more irate. God asks, “Are you angry over the plant?” to which he responds “Angry enough to die” (Jon 4:9). This feeling is one that epitomizes the worship of the tiny and Napoleonic ego at the expense of anything beyond the self. C.S. Lewis describes it in terms of the nursery, “the self-will as it was in childhood: the bitter, prolonged rage at every thwarting, the burst of passionate tears, the black, Satanic wish to kill or die rather than to give in.”

It is in these moments of utter self-centeredness, of a proverbial hunger strike against God and others that harms no one but the self, that the depths of evil are confronted directly, and then (it is hoped) overcome through Love.

God tells Jonah that his anger over something so insignificant and fleeting displays his shortsightedness. How can he invest his heart in a plant that grows and dies so easily, and more to the point, in fanciful visions of the future that do not reflect the will of the Almighty? Are not the Ninevites worth more than Jonah’s selfish retributive “justice” and desire to have his way? Will not God bring all things to completion in Himself in the way He sees fit?

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.