Lectionary Readings for Sept. 21, 2014. Jonah 3:10-4:11, Ps 145:1-8, Phil. 1:21-30, Matt. 20:1-16
It's funny to me that the story of Jonah and the whale is one of the favourites of Sunday School, taught to children and accompanied by great pictures from the imaginations of artists. As a child, I thought the story was kind of ridiculous. I wanted to believe it, but it didn't make sense. The adults in church taught the story in such a serious way that my choices seemed to be either to accept it as factual truth, or lump it into the same category as Santa and the Easter Bunny. Put it into the category of "weird things adults say to hide the truth."
As an adult I've had fun studying this story. I've come to love it for it's humorous style and it's message.
The style is stand-up comedy. Really. This was meant to be told/read out loud with expression and drama and characterization. I imagine people gathered around a fire, laughing and enjoying the telling. The book is entirely narrative. Unlike other prophetic books, there are no long oracles, it's just story with an important message. The characterization of Jonah is hilarious. He is a caricature, an unbelievably obtuse individual. The idea that he (especially as a prophet) tries to run from God is absurd. Then he's dense and insensitive enough to fall asleep in a boat during a storm. (Note: when Jesus sleeps in the boat it was because he trusted in God and was not afraid. Jonah is very different!) He shows a flash of courage when he finally, after much interrogation, admits that he's at fault and offers to be thrown overboard. The courage of the sailors, however, is at least as admirable! For the sake of one, Jonah, they try desperately to get to shore, risking their own lives until there is no choice but to toss him into the waves.
Then the fish-wow that's funny. Finally, forced into a corner (of an intestine) Jonah prays. It's stinky and the idea that Jonah gets vomited onto the shore is funny. Finally he does what God asks, but only because he wants to see Ninevah destroyed. When that doesn't happen, he is petulant, a tantrum-throwing little child. He doesn't even want to live if Ninevah is spared. What a contrast to the sailors who worked so hard to try to save this one sorry excuse of a prophet! Here the one prophet is willing to watch the death of thousands and unable to see past himself.
The message is great. God is in charge, we are not. We are to obey, think of the welfare of others, and rejoice in God's ability to save those we think cannot be saved. We have to be humble and able to rejoice in the good fortune and outcomes of others, even when it doesn't seem right or fair to us. (See Matt. 20:1-16, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard for a great parallel message.)
How might we hear scriptures differently if we read them the way they might have been intended? Try reading Jonah out loud as a comedy/drama. It's fun!
(a post script: Jonah is a whole story, a short story. It really doesn't make sense to read just the closing paragraph like the lectionary suggests. This is another way we miss the style of the story, and maybe some of the message1)