Jonah: the Reluctant Prophet
I keep thinking of Jonah as The Reluctant Prophet which certainly was – but so was Jeremiah and so was Isaiah and especially so was Moses.
What Jonah was – and the Godly Play people nail it with this title – is The Backwards Prophet:
- He was meant to go to Nineveh, so went the other direction to Tarshish;
- He was meant to tell people what God had said he refused to say a word;
- As a prophet he was supposed to be close to God, but everything Jonah did was with the goal of getting as far from God as possible;
- He was meant to be getting people to respond to God and change their ways, but then he got mad when they did.
In a tidy story, there would be a final scene where Jonah’s eyes and heart and whatever else were opened to the transforming and compassionate love of God, and he realized what a gift he had been able to show Nineveh on God’s behalf and went back to that great city and they threw him a ticker tape parade that lasted three days.
Or maybe he would experience that transformation and then live quietly in a hermitage on his hill, keeping a watchful eye on the city, being consulted by the King on ethical matters and awaiting further instructions from God.
But this is the Bible which is not long on tidy stories so we don’t know what happened with Jonah. He point is not to live happily ever after but to show us that God changes things and then to represent for us the person who hates change, even when they are part of it, even when it is good, even when it averts the destruction of 120 000 people who do not know their left hand from their right and also many animals.
Because in a story of transformation –
- The sea from stormy to calm;
- The sailors from pagans to God fearers;
- The fish from eater to saver;
- The people of Nineveh from lost to reconciled;
- The King from full of himself (I assume) to humble;
- The domestic animals from property to creatures of faith –
With all that change around him, only the agent of transformation remains unchanged. As far as we know.
In the film The Darkest Hour towards the end Winston Churchill says, “A man who cannot change his mind, cannot change anything.” It turns out he was quoting George Bernard Shaw.
Jonah messes that theory up because he changes everything but does not change his mind. He knew this was a bad idea in the beginning and as far as we know he is just as sure it was a bad idea at the end.
How many of us live through change stubbornly refusing to like it, accept it, or even see it as it happens all around us and changes even us?
Most of us – like Jonah – dislike change. There are a few people who love it and they’re called the Early Adapters or sometimes Bandwagon Jumpers. But most of us resist it – at least at first.
Eventually we might come around, but just because we do doesn’t mean we like it. And just because we get used to it and forget that it didn’t used to be that way doesn’t mean that we like it. It’s more that we forgot we didn’t.
Our resistance to change comes from many things – one of them is simply a preference for the familiar, even when it means that we are living with some kind of pain whether spiritual, physical or psychological. It’s easier to do the work of squashing what we don’t want to deal with than it is to look at it and discover what new lease on life might come out of it, what seas might be calmed, what might stop giving us a bellyache.
Or maybe we had a bad experience – we’ve seen what they do with the prophets and agents of change, we’ve tried to be open and gotten eaten up in the process.
And maybe there’s just nothing wrong with things the way they are. I’m sure Jonah had a pretty good life.
But more was possible. More is possible.
And the thing is – this faith of us? It’s built on change. Three of the four narratives of the adult ministry of Jesus start by harking back to the prophet Isaiah (How can I be a prophet? I am a man of unclean lips and I come from a people of unclean lips.) who spoke of a God who would flatten mountains, raise up valleys, and smooth out the rough roads. Immediately followed by “Change your direction! The Imperial Reign of God is here!” and a call to change priorities, self-image, relationships and understanding of what and who God cares about most. An invitation to trade our worry for trust, our separation from God and one another for reconciliation and our sense of doomed inevitability for an appreciation of possibility. And the promise that if we can do that the Kindom of God can come so close that we’ll be able to taste it.
We never see Jonah embrace that kind of possibility. He worries about how it looks, about whether God will believe in a God who follows through on promises when it could look like the follow through is actually a failure, who knew he was right all along and it was a dumb idea to reach out.
He sees all the people of Nineveh, their king and their livestock, trust God’s compassion and faithfulness as they put on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their desire to draw close to a God who is not even theirs and turn a doomsday saying into a whole new future.
He sees all that and sits there complaining about his bush. That he had nothing to do with. Instead of getting exciting about the new possibilities that this God of his has set the stage for.
Of course it’s ridiculous. But that’s God for you – always up to something that will blow your mind.