FISH AND BITTERNESS

Jonah 3-4; Mark 1:14-20

Jennifer Hosler

Jonah and the whale. It’s a story that you might have learned in Sunday School. Jonah’s story is fairly well known to Christians—and it’s probably one of the most familiar scripture passages to people who do not go to church. It’s memorable because some parts are pretty dramatic. If you asked a person on the street what the story of Jonah was, you’d probably get this answer: “Jonah was a guy who got swallowed by a whale.”  A little less likely but still probable, someone might say, “Jonah was a prophet. He disobeyed God and was swallowed by a whale. He repented and got a second chance.” Each of these answers do illustrate part of the book of Jonah, but when we read the four chapters closely, the message of Jonah is much more complex.  The book of Jonah is a story about a big fish – but it’s also a story about bitterness.

Running Away from God’s Call to Ministry

Where would you go if you wanted to run away from God? This is a question that King David asked rhetorically in Psalm 139. It reads, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol [the place of the dead], you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (vv. 7-10). As David prayed and wrote his psalm, he said, “God, I can’t go anywhere that you won’t find me.”

In Jonah Chapter 1, we see the LORD calling Jonah to serve Him. “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah… saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” (vv. 1-2). If Jonah was like other prophets, we’d expect to read, “So Jonah went to Nineveh…” But instead, verse 3 says, “But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.” This is the part that, culturally, we know pretty well. Jonah runs to Joppa and gets on a ship heading to Tarshish, a place on the other side of the Mediterranean from Israel. Jonah heads down into the bottom of the ship and falls asleep. As he sleeps, a terrible storm begins.

Many people in the Ancient Near East thought that gods had certain geographic boundaries. The power of an Ancient Near Eastern god could only go so far. Leave a country’s borders? Then you leave that god behind. Different from the other deities of Ancient Near Eastern religion, the LORD, Yahweh, had revealed Himself to be the God across borders, as the One who made the land and sea. Fleeing to Joppa wasn’t going to separate Jonah from the presence of Yahweh.

While Jonah was busy sleeping, the ship’s crew were busy praying, each to their own god. The captain came down and said to Jonah, “How are you sleeping?! Get up and pray to your god!” Jonah joins the crew, who perform an ancient ritual called casting lots. It was kind of considered a spiritual way to draw straws, to learn answers from the divine. The lot falls to Jonah and the crew cries out, “Who are you? Where are you from? What do you do? Why is this storm about to tear us apart?” Jonah replies, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship Yahweh, the God of heaven, the one who made the sea and land.” Apparently Jonah had mentioned earlier that he was running away from his God – but the sailors didn’t know exactly who that God was. Now they do and the soldiers are terrified.

The ship’s crew ask Jonah what should be done and Jonah replies, “Toss me into the sea. I’m the reason for all of this mess.” The sailors didn’t want to kill Jonah, so they tried hard to row back to shore. They had no luck. So they prayed to Yahweh, asking for forgiveness for what they were about to do. The sailors picked up Jonah and tossed him overboard, into the sea. The storm ceased. The ship’s crew rejoiced, made sacrifices, and praised Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. Meanwhile, Jonah sank into the depths of the sea.

But that, as we know, is not the end of the story. In Jonah 1:17, we read “But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Then, in chapter 2, we read Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance.

Now here is where the stories from Sunday School get fuzzy from the biblical text and when popular understandings miss the mark on what really happened to Jonah. First, it’s good to note here that the Hebrew words are “great fish” rather than a whale. While a whale isn’t completely ruled out, they are pretty generic words for giant fish. Second, it’s is often described that Jonah was delivered from the fish after he repented. Rather than being some type of punishment, the fish is actually Jonah’s salvation. Jonah gives thanks for being delivered while he is still in the belly of the fish. As we read together during our responsive prayer, Jonah praises Yahweh in chapter 2 because he has been saved from drowning. Jonah had surrendered himself to God’s will by asking the sailors to toss him overboard. By the time that Jonah is in the fish’s belly, he knows that God has given him a second chance and he is thankful. Chapter 2 ends with the fish vomiting Jonah up onto dry land. At that point, the story resets to the beginning. “The word of the LORD came to Jonah…” (3:1).

A Second Chance

At some point or another, most of us have probably yearned for a second chance, another chance to redo a task or to relive a day. As I thought of Jonah’s second chance in chapter 3, I was reminded of the movie Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day is the story of an arrogant weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who travels from Pittsburgh to Punxsutawney, PA. Phil the weatherman has been tasked with covering Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog with the famous shadow. Weatherman Phil mocks the event and really just wants to get back to Pittsburgh. As fate would have it, the news crew is forced to spend the night in Punxsutawney because of a snowstorm. Phil wakes up the next day—and the next day and the next day and the next—and it continues to be February 2nd: Groundhog Day.

First, he uses the time loop for mundane or meaningless exploits—gorging on food, driving recklessly without consequence. He then tires of the sameness of every day and tries killing himself… many times, to no avail. Eventually, Phil starts to find meaning in authentic human relationships, especially with his female producer. He also begins using his knowledge of the day’s repetition in order to help people, since he knows what will happen when and to whom. It is only when Phil comes out of his narcissism and arrogance—only when he begins to look outward and consider the needs of others—that the cycle eventually breaks.

In Chapter 3, Jonah uses his second chance to accept the LORD’s call. He travels to Nineveh, “an exceedingly large city,” and starts to preach the message God has given him.  Jonah declares, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be over thrown!” Jonah has only covered a third of the city when the message spreads and the people of Nineveh believe. The Ninevites repent and everyone begins to fast. The king of Nineveh hears the news. He also puts on mourning clothes and calls the people to fasting and repentance. Upon seeing the people’s sincerity and repentance, God relents and does not bring down the city of Nineveh.

Not Good News

While this is good news for Nineveh, this is horrendous news to Jonah. Jonah is exceedingly angry. The Hebrew wording here is stronger than the NRSV’s “he became angry.” Jonah was boiling mad, burning with anger. He prays to the LORD saying, “I told you so! This is exactly what I said and why I ran away to Tarshish. …for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (paraphrase plus 4:2). Jonah can’t stand the fact that the people of Nineveh received God’s grace.

So who are the people of Nineveh? When reading most bible passages, it is important to know about context. Places or people groups are listed and these names aren’t thrown in for the heck of it. Quite frequently, understanding the historical context is crucial to understanding how to apply scripture to our lives.  Nineveh was one of the most important cities in Assyria. Assyria was a big empire that thirsted for more and more power. They invaded other nations, requiring payment and allegiance. If that didn’t work, the Assyrians overthrew a nation’s defenses and took people enslaved into exile.

While the book doesn’t give us specific indicators in order to date it, Nineveh and the Assyrians would have certainly been known to the original Israelite audience of this book. Depending on when it was written, Assyria would have either been a brutal power threatening Samaria (the northern Kingdom of Israel) or it would have been the country that destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel completely. Thousands were taken into exile by the Assyrians. Both the original audience and Jonah would have associated deep pain and hatred with Nineveh.

Jonah is full of bitterness toward the people of Nineveh. God’s deliverance of them is so overwhelmingly wrong to Jonah that he decides he’s had enough of God’s grace. Jonah declares, “And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). The LORD responds, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah leaves the city to sulk. He sets up a Sukkah, a traditional booth like those used for the Festival of Booths, when the Israelites were to commemorate their time in the wilderness. In an odd turn of events, the LORD sends a plant to grow up to provide Jonah with better shade. Jonah is pretty thrilled about the plant—until the LORD appoints a worm to munch on it. The plant withers and Jonah is devastated. Again, Jonah asks that the LORD would take his life. He says, “It is better for me to die than live.”

This, my friends, is where God delivers the clincher. The main point of the book isn’t at the big fish; it’s here. The LORD asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” Jonah says, “Yes. Angry enough to die.” The LORD responds, “You are concerned about a plant, which you had no part in bringing into existence. Shouldn’t I be concerned with Nineveh, a place with more than 120 thousand people, not to mention many animals?” And this is where the book stops.

Jonah was happy to receive God’s grace and redemption when the LORD gave him a second chance. Jonah didn’t drown—and praised God! But when others repented and received the grace of God, he was infuriated. Jonah’s bitterness caused him to miss the point of his calling and his message. His calling was to proclaim the LORD’s message to a broken and violent people. That message, Jonah knew, was full of grace, mercy, and love.

Called to Bring Good News

Calling is not something exclusive to Old Testament prophets, as our gospel passage illustrated today. Jesus began proclaiming the Kingdom of God—and proceeded to call Simon, Andrew, James, and John to join in His work. Interestingly enough, the passage is another “fish” passage. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says. The message from God that Jonah brought and the message that Jesus passed onto His disciples—and us, the church—is that God is interested in every single person on this earth. Our Creator God wants to free us from our hatred, our violence, our selfishness, our greed, and even our bitterness.

Like Jonah, we are not just called to benefit from grace and mercy. We are called to proclaim love and grace and mercy to all people, even our enemies, near or far. As agents of God’s reconciliation, we are called to be concerned with the lives and welfare and hearts of every human being.

How do we learn from the story of Jonah? Are there people whom we think don’t deserve God’s care? Are there people whom we think don’t deserve our own care? Who are the objects of our disdain or bitterness? Perhaps we are disdainful of the local wealthy elite, maybe rich neighbors who we think are overly entitled. Perhaps it is the homeless, “those people” who can’t get it together or who just trash our church. Maybe the objects of our disdain are Muslims or undocumented immigrants or people who are gay.

Sisters and brothers, our call to continue Jesus’ ministry begins in our hearts. The Kingdom of God has no room for bitterness. We are called to follow Jesus, who teaches us how to fish for people, who teaches us how to live lives marked by healing, hope, reconciliation, and love. Being agents of God’s Kingdom involves extending a God-given love for all people, those who annoy us, we find offensive, those we hate, and those we are scared of.

As we go through this week, let us be prayerfully attentive to those whom we brush off or sneer at, at those whose struggles we rejoice at, at those whom we mock or ridicule. As we do this, let us confess our bitterness and our disdain, so that we might grow to share God’s concern for all people. AMEN.

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