Gleanings from the Text
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Jonah is a deeply comedic story. It has not always been read that way. Often its interpreters have been preoccupied with discussing the relative plausibility of its “fish story” or, worse, reducing its message to the virtues of inclusiveness and tolerance. According to Matthew, Jesus heard in this story a word of judgment on those who were pestering him for a sign (Mt.12:38 ff.). He claimed that “the people of Nineveh” were, in their day, both more theologically acute and penitentially stricken than “the scribes and Pharisees,” even though “something greater than Jonah is here!” (Mt.12:41)
So what is so funny about Jonah?
Perhaps it is God’s persistence, a divine trait that makes for outlandish humor in a world that thinks it is in control of things. But here it is “the word of the Lord” that comes to Jonah, even “a second time.” (3:1) And as this passage makes clear, it is God who initiates the action, who speaks to both Jonah and the whale (!), as if they were both equally suitable instruments for God’s purpose. And the comedy is not just that God speaks to whales and recalcitrant prophets, or even that God will go to absurd lengths for this purpose, but that it is God’s mercy, not God’s judgment, that represents the most lethal threat to the serious plans and principles we contrive to keep the world in its place.
Food for Thought
The problem is that our serious plans and principles (as well as our cowardly betrayals) keep being interrupted by “the word of the Lord.” We would prefer that God were more silent, reclusive, distant. But God keeps intruding, calling us again and again to speak an impossible word. And the sea is large; the city vast; the corruption well-known. What is the use of such a pointless errand? It takes three days simply to traverse the city, just as it took three days of being hidden in the belly of the beast. Three days. So, each day, Jonah dutifully prophesies, preaching a word of judgment that he has no expectation the Ninevites will heed. In truth, Jonah is not worried about the Ninevites. He expects little from them, as his “sermon” indicates. What he is fearful of is what he should fear, and that is that God’s mercy might well prove greater than the Ninevites’ sin. That is the joker in the deck, the great intrusion that Jonah knows he cannot control.
Sink Your Teeth into This
So Jonah preaches for three days. And of course, the Ninevites repent, and worse, God changes his mind and decides not to destroy them. So? So what is this comedy about? In part the comedy is about the absurdity of trying to run away from God’s grace, but that is only part of the laughter this story invites. It is also rubs our faces in the ridiculous means of God’s grace. If God wanted to forgive the Ninevites, why send this prophet on a fool’s errand; why the burlesque of the whale; why this utterly uninspiring “preaching” (“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”). Later in this story, Jonah is full of that resentment that knows it has been made a fool of, a begrudging of God’s generosity equal to anything the laborers in the vineyard are capable of. And of course, he is right. God does not play fair. Never has. Which is why Jesus offers Jonah’s sign to the Pharisees in Matthew 12, and finally offers himself as that fool, who is swallowed up for three days, only to be raised to save a world, which God, unaccountably, has chosen to love. The gospel, Flannery O’Connor says in one of her stories, burns away our virtues, which is why it is so shockingly funny and why it takes the divine comedy to save Jonah and the Pharisees and the rest of us from our terrible seriousness.
Thomas W. Currie is Dean and professor of theology at Union-PSCE Charlotte
An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Currie served as a pastor from 1976–2001. He has taught courses in theology and homiletics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and in extension programs in Houston and Midland, TX. He has a particular interest in the theology of Karl Barth and in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. He is the author of several articles and four books, including The Joy of Ministry (2008).