By David Baumann
A Reading from Jonah 3:1-4:11
1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2”Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? 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. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6 The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
The book of Jonah is four chapters long. The first two chapters recount Jonah’s frantic flight from God and his being swallowed by the great fish and returned to land. This is the most familiar part of Jonah’s story, but his confrontation with Nineveh in the latter two chapters is more important. These chapters comprise the lesson for today.
Nineveh was once the world’s largest city and the capital of the vast Assyrian empire. It was often the enemy of the Israelites. Nahum bitterly denounced Nineveh’s corruption, and Isaiah and Zephaniah predicted its destruction at the hand of God. The end of the great city was, in fact, sudden, complete, and permanent. But in the days of its greatness, Jonah was sent to call its people to repentance. With its place in the history of the Israelites, it is not a puzzle why Jonah was loath to do what God said. The city was eminently depraved and its annihilation would have greatly pleased the godly.
It is a stunning event when the city truly repents at Jonah’s words — though the repentance was not lasting. But a reflection on Jonah’s attitude can serve us well, especially on this Ash Wednesday. Jonah’s personal hatred toward the foreign and depraved people was stronger than his desire to see God’s mercy applied to them. The conviction that God was merciful was something Jonah knew but did not like. At the end of today’s lesson, God teaches Jonah about his love and mercy; how Jonah responded is not told. We are left with the picture that God’s merciful love and its universality is bigger than we can imagine, and maybe bigger than we really want. What lesson is there for us today?
David Baumann has been an Episcopal priest for 47 years, mainly in the Diocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Springfield. He is now retired and has published nonfiction, science fiction novels, and short stories.
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Today we pray for:
The Diocese of Antananarivo (Church of the Province of the Indian Ocean)
Church of the Holy Family, Chapel Hill, N.C.