Devotional for Tuesday, April 21
Jonah 1:1-3 (NRSV)
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
The story of Jonah is, in some ways, quite complicated, full of nuanced references to long-dead cultures and employing ancient humor we don’t always get.
Its main point, however, can be boiled down in a song in a children’s cartoon. Ever watch Veggie Tales? When my kids were small, they watched certain episodes repeatedly. I still get this song stuck in my head when I see a reference to Jonah:
Jonah was a prophet
But he really never got it
Sad but true!
And if you watch him you can spot it
He did not get the point!
In short, God told Jonah to go preach to a people Jonah did not like, an enemy. Jonah preferred they be destroyed. So he tried to go the opposite direction.
Whether you learned it from a flannel board presentation or a cartoon, if you were a child raised in church, you know the next part: Jonah wound up in the ocean, swallowed by a whale. (Yes, the Hebrew word can be translated “great fish,” but the Israelites also didn’t use modern taxonomy to distinguish between fish and whales.) Three days later, the whale (or great fish, or sea monster—it was a whale on my flannel board) spit Jonah out on the shore, and the prophet started walking toward Nineveh, where he was supposed to be.
From Jonah’s perspective, here’s the worst part: The people of Nineveh actually listened to him. They repented of their wickedness and turned to God, who relented from destroying them.
“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?” Jonah complained. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; 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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
The story ends with a sullen Jonah sitting outside the city, waiting for something bad to happen to Nineveh. God tried one more time to teach the prophet a lesson about compassion, but Jonah’s response is not recorded.
I think the story is open-ended because we are supposed to put ourselves in Jonah’s place. Are we going to respond appropriately to our compassionate God, so compassionate that he came among us in flesh to die for our sins?
In particular, how will we respond when we hear specific instructions from God, those moments when God tells us, “Do this now!” I think most of you know what I mean. We don’t need a thundering voice from heaven to give us instructions. Often, we simply have a sharp, clear thought, and we know God is sending us in a less-than-desirable direction.
“Speak to that person.”
“Ask the right questions.”
And deep down inside, we also know that Jonah-like squeamishness is not allowed. We must get the point!
Lord, when we hear from you, may we always travel in the right direction. Amen.