Four full years ago, I was sitting in a classroom every week, in a city I barely knew, weeping over the translated text from Hebrew to English in the book of Jonah. Most people warn you that you could lose your way in seminary, bogged down by the miniscule details that make reading God’s Words out to be a science, and yet, my faith grew deep and binding roots, transformed by the power of the artistry found in the parable of silly Jonah and his giant whale-fish-thing. Not more than two years later, I would teach through the same text of Jonah with a group of women as I sweat through my clothes most weeks in prep work and nervousness, hoping that I would give them any sort of tools to get to behold the beauty that I was regularly seeing myself by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Here I am, another two years later, hoping that by writing about the various things I learn in the text, there are further handles to grappling with what God is trying to say to His people not only then, but even now. Here I am, looking once again at the same text, and watching as God’s Word continues to speak things I hadn’t seen or understood before, reminded afresh that all is grace.
We first find Jonah hiding in the pages of 2 Kings, where we get the setting of where we find him operating out of, and the sort of guy that he might have been.
So as we read the book of his namesake, we have this in mind as to who he is. Within the first three verses, Jonah runs as far away as he can to what he is called to by God: to prophesy, not to his home in Israel, but to Nineveh, who had a reputation for the most evil, vile, cruel things that they do to people (check out Nahum for some of those fun facts). Not only that, but if you caught a glimpse of what Jonah was prophesying to his own people in the text above, it was their favor. Although Jeroboam II did evil in the sight of the Lord, some of the horrors that the people of that time followed after are found in the words in Amos, Jonah is the guy who is beefing Jeroboam up, as Israel is being “made great again.” As the religiosity of the Northern Kingdom of Israel became tied and linked to the worship of their King and land, so bred their nationalism, of which Jonah was clearly a part.
So we meet the true heart of Jonah, son of Amittai, as well as the thread woven all throughout these four brilliant chapters: when face to face with who we consider less than, we set ourselves up as the older brother (Luke 15:11-32), the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-25). We set ourselves up as the one in the right, the one better, the new judge and authority. As Jonah chooses this as his path, the author uses the language twice in the first three verses that he “went down,” finding himself further and further away until he ends up in the depths of Sheol. Setting himself up on a high seat above only made the gap between himself and God greater, though the facade certainly made it seem that this was the path that got him closer.
Yet again, in this short story, by verse 6, Jonah is being told to cry out to His God by those who are pagans, far from what he would consider as those chosen. It is the pagan that gives way to Jonah seeing his need to repent, helping all of us to see that what the Lord is trying to communicate to his hearers doesn’t just start once Jonah finally gets himself to Nineveh. It should be encouraging to all of us that in the midst of ridiculous, maddening sin, God does not give up. As we peg Jonah to be the older brother, all at the same time, he is also the younger brother.
We reach the floor of the sea as Jonah is swallowed up, the lowest of the low, further down than he had wished to go, and yet God’s grace is farther reaching. Before Jonah sings a song of repentance and salvation, we get to ask ourselves where we see these attitudes in our own hearts and lives, as the voices of ancient times do not sound so far forgotten as we would have hoped.
We live in a time that promises if you worship the government, you get security, provision, all you could ever want. Our white churches have found themselves bowing before thinking, running from any prophetic witness that not only calls them to see the injustice of those they wouldn’t normally associate with as they make look differently than they do, but also calls them to repentance as they have participated, whether knowingly or unknowingly, in such injustice. Blindly, we set ourselves up as moral majority while failing to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, consistently asking God, “who is my neighbor?” while calling the cops on them for being human. As many churches across America thanked God for Memorial Day, we continued to confuse the very narrative that the author of Jonah is trying to deconstruct: God is a God of the Nations. As many try to connect the two together in a haphazard way, we end up confusing our people further, and not actually helping them to see the glory of the Kingdom of God. There is a way to love this world with hands and feet on the ground while not being of it.
Truly, truly, we must ask our own hearts if we have forsaken the very gospel that has saved us, or have we not accepted the gospel for what it truly is?
Four years ago, I would not have been able to understand or write the things that I just did, and I have only recently been awakened to the sins that many have been crying out to the Lord for a long time. Two years ago, I would have called Jonah’s prejudice for what it is, without regarding my own. The text has not failed to continuously speak through His Holy Spirit to repent and believe, and He is gracious to bring me, to bring us, from the depths of our blindness and flat out running down and away from God into His grace.