by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The readings for Sunday, November 11, 2012:
Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10 (4:1-11)
Optional Reading: Luke 18:3
If we've ever felt ineffective in our ministry and witness--and who hasn't?--the book of Jonah is the book for us. The book of Jonah, while comic in many ways, has a serious message.
God can take the work of any of us and use it for the good. And even if we're the flailing, trying to escape God type of person, God can work with that too.
Jonah is a reluctant prophet, at best. He refuses to do the task that God gives him and almost brings destruction to those around him. But notice how the men on the boat are converted by his actions. Even as he's trying to avoid his mission, he provides a witness.
Why is he so reluctant? Fear for his life? Perhaps. But modern readers have likely lost sight of the fact that Jonah is sent to one of the most brutal regimes the ancient world has known. Jonah may feel that they don't deserve to hear God's message of repentance. Why would God, the God of Israel, reach out to the Assyrians?
Jonah doesn't preach his message in the great poetry of the other prophets. His message is short. Even after spending his time-out in the stomach of a great fish, he's still lukewarm about his task. And again, despite Jonah's efforts, the people repent.
We might expect Jonah to be happy. Again, Jonah pouts. And if we read to the end of the book, we see a God who explains, but we don't know how Jonah responds.
Popular imagination tells the tale that because of his time in the fish, Jonah changes his mind and commits, but throughout the book, we see that Jonah does not. Jonah roots for destruction.
On the other hand, we see a portrait of God who is committed to grace, who worries about the most brutal and depraved, who worries even about the cows.
The book of Jonah is full of important reminders for us. I wonder about the symbolic message of the great fish. We think of time-outs as a discipline option for misbehaving children, and it does function that way here too. But it also gives Jonah time to think and consider. Even if it doesn't convert Jonah permanently, it gives him a safe space where he can quit running.
We see Jonah being forgiven again and again. God has a vision for Jonah, and even though Jonah tries everything to escape or undermine that vision, God welcomes Jonah after each repentance.
Once again, we see a message of grace and redemption, no matter how bad life has become, no matter how bad we have become. God extends multiple chances to dictators, to wayward prophets, to cattle--and to us.