The plot of Jonah is among the most familiar in the bible. God calls Jonah to go to Ninevah and proclaim their immediate destruction if they do not repent. Ninevah is the great capital of Assyria, one of the historical enemies of the Hebrew people. So Jonah doesn’t want to go, not simply because he wants to disobey God, but because he doesn’t want to go to Nineveh and entertain even the possibility that they might repent. He is offended that God is even interested in the opportunity.
So Jonah takes to the sea. But the sea is not a large enough place for Jonah to hide and God sends heavy seas until Jonah gets tossed overboard, spends two nights in the Great Fish bed and breakfast, and gets started to Nineveh.
Once in Nineveh Jonah utters his proclamation. There has never been a preacher on earth who has not wished for such rhetorical success. Immediately, from the very top echelons of power down to the last animal, there is total repentance. Jonah, however, differs from many preachers in that this repentance is bad news. Dang it, he says, I knew this was going to happen.
The story ends with a strange episode which is admittedly hard to relate to the rest of the story. Jonah is unhappy and God causes a plant to grow and Jonah enjoys the shade. But the very next day the plant dies, also at God’s hand, and Jonah is upset. God draws the relationship between the plant and Nineveh, and clearly states that this is the lesson Jonah is to learn? But what is the lesson?
First and foremost the story illustrates that God is the one in charge. God calls Jonah. Jonah resists but God persists and Jonah goes where God says. Jonah’s word causes the Ninevites to repent which effectively draws the circle wider. In the narrative world of Jonah, the Ninivites have become children of God. In Jesus’ day they would be the gentiles who heard Jesus and believed or the kind hearted Samaritan. And that would be the new answer to the question, who are your people? Jonah now knows that his people include his enemies, the Ninivites. Ouch. Such lessons are learned with difficulty.
So what of the plant? It, too, come and goes by Gods hand. While it is there, it becomes Jonah’s comfort zone. When it is gone, Jonah’s good mood goes with it. God’s question? Why do you care more about the plant than about living human beings?
So what can we extract from Jonah’s story to help us understand our circumstance today?
God determines the breadth of the community. From first to last God is in command of this story and it is God’s wish that the circle continue to expand. This insight should give us caution when we attempt to justify the our limits to Christian community by rejecting any person or persons for reasons other than their professed faith in Jesus as Savior.
We need to recognize our comfort zones. What plants do we rest under in our church life? When these things are removed, do we find ourselves more interested in arguing for the plant or the people? In other words, in order for the church to continue to grow and reach out to a diverse population, certain aspects with which we have grown comfortable might have to be changed or even removed. Are we going to care more for that than the modern day ninevites and their cattle?
This isn’t a third item as much as a recap. If it is true that Jonah’s story reached this form in the time of the Second Temple, it very clearly is offering a theological answer to the desire to purify the church by the removal of undesired elements, mainly in the form of undesirable people. Jonah’s story illustrates that it is not for us to decide what is pure and what is not. What is needed is repentance and the turning of the heart towards God. That is the standard of the community, whatever the religious or political powers claim at the time. And we must always be aware of those comfort things—be they music or worship style or clothing or whatever—that might take the place of our heart for evangelism and our imperative to break down the boundaries and draw the circle wide.