Most people know something about Jonah and the big fish — a whale, as the common interpretation goes — that swallowed him. Everyone knows that story, right? The important question to ask, I think, is how can we find the grace in this epic fish tale?
Jonah earned his nickname — “The Reluctant Prophet” — because when God called him to go and preach to the city of Nineveh, he really didn’t want to go. Nineveh was a very large city (a three days’ walk across) and God was asking Jonah to travel throughout that city, calling on the Ninevites to repent, to turn around, to change direction.
The reason Jonah didn’t want to take on this role was simple. The Ninevites were horrible people. The worst of the worst. Their cruelty was legendary. In fact, they had the reputation of being almost inhuman because of the terrible things they did — like skinning people alive, to name just one. It’s really easy to see why Jonah didn’t want to have anything to do with the Ninevites.
For Jonah, there was also another issue. In his mind — and in the minds of just about everyone else — the Ninevites were undeserving of God’s favor. More to the point, Jonah would have said they were deserving of God’s wrath.
Clearly, these were people who needed smiting.
So Jonah just flat refused to go. In fact, he got on a boat that was headed in the opposite direction — “Away from the Lord,” the text says. Then, when a massive storm arose and it became clear to everyone on board that it was Jonah’s fault (he did refuse God’s direct command, after all), they threw him overboard.
As the story goes, Jonah was then swallowed by a big fish, and he stayed in the belly of this giant fish for three days. (Imagine the smell!) Then, as if that weren’t enough of a clue, the fish vomited him up on the shore.
So Jonah decided it was probably time to go to Nineveh.
As he entered the city he cried out, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” Oh, how Jonah relished the thought! The idea of Nineveh being overthrown was delightful to him. It was exactly what they deserved. And then, the Ninevites did the very thing Jonah was afraid they’d do.
They repented. They turned around. They changed directions.
So, what was that reluctant prophet to do? Jonah knew very well what would come next. When God saw that the Ninevites had ceased their evil behavior, God would be gracious. They’d be forgiven and offered the very grace they didn’t deserve.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Jonah was furious! He said, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.” (Jonah 4:2) Jonah was, to put it mildly, disturbed. He then became snarky and dramatic: “At this point, Lord,” he said, “you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:3)
Then Jonah went out and sat down east of the city and sulked. He watched and waited to see what would happen to the city. Here’s what happened next:
Then the Lord God provided a shrub, and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”
God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”
Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good — even to the point of death!”
But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:6-11)
The story ends with a repentant Nineveh and an unrepentant Jonah. He completely missed the point. The writer doesn’t want us to miss the point and remain unrepentant, however. The grace of God extends far beyond where we would draw the boundaries.
That’s what made Jesus offensive to the citizens of Nazareth when he began to preach in the temple. They wanted to throw him off the hill because of his extension of grace beyond their comfort level.
It’s this stretching of God’s grace that is beyond our comfort level, grace we don’t like, and even grace that makes us cringe that most clearly defines God’s grace. Instead of Amazing Grace, a term we are all familiar and comfortable with, sometimes Disturbing Grace is a more accurate term. It’s that aspect of God’s grace that stretches us way beyond where we want to go. Every time we try to place a limit on God’s grace, it always stretches further.
So the challenging questions of this story we all must ask ourselves this week are:
Are there people I think are not deserving of God’s grace? What would God say about that? Have I ever been angry at God for extending what I think is undeserved Grace? Is God’s grace sometimes not fair? When in my life have I seen God’s grace stretch far beyond where I thought it should end?
I look forward to digging a little deeper into this unusual idea of grace as we continue our Listen for Grace Lenten series this Sunday with “The Reluctant Prophet: Grace is Disturbing.”
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster
The Lord’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.” So Jonah got up — to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord.