Friday, January 30, 2009

Sitcom Jonah: More than a Book about Nothing

The story of Jonah is another of my favorite stories of the Bible. It only occurred to me recently how funny this story is.

In fact, it occurs to me that The Book of Jonah is the great sitcom of the Bible. You’re meant to laugh at Jonah and the events in his story.

The show that comes to mind is Seinfeld. I know it sounds crazy, but I really think this parallel works.

First off, Jonah is like the Seinfeld characters: morally questionable, self centered, and likable in a painful sort of way.

Picture Jonah at home in bed, when he hears God voice: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” I see the look of resistance and terror in his eyes.

I imagine him discussing it with his friend at the local diner. “God wants go to Nineveh. I can’t go to Nineveh...there’s got be a way out of this.”

His friend says, “If you could only go somewhere where God isn’t.”

“Wait a minute,” Jonah says, “maybe you got something there.” He looks deep in thought. “Where would God not want to go...TARSHISH! I’m GOING to Tarshish Jerry!”

His friend mutters, “Yeah...this is going to work...”

So Jonah books passage on a boat. He’s sleeping peacefully below, pleased with himself over his brilliance to get away from God, when a huge storm blows up. All of the sailors are praying to their gods, in a state of panic, until someone finds Jonah below and wakes him up and brings him above deck. “You,” the captain shouts, “Call on your God to come and save us!”

All eyes turn to Jonah. “Yeah. Well, I’d like to help, but you see, there’s a little problem with that plan...”

So they all stand on deck, trying to figure out what to do. They know Jonah is the problem, but aren’t sure how to handle things. Now, I can picture this next scene one of two ways:

“OVERBOARD!” he yells, “throw me overboard!” he says, like it’s a stroke of genius.

--snorts-- “Well, you could always throw me overboard.” Dead silence and glances follows. “I’m all know I’m joking, right???!!!”

So over the side goes Jonah.

Now comes one of the best lines of the Bible. “God provided for a great fish to swallow up Jonah.”

Provided, huh? Jonah’s bobbing up and down in the water, thinking this is about as bad as it gets...and gets swallowed by a whale. (Perhaps that’s how it was first referred to as a fish. Jonah, like George, always gets them confused.)

So Jonah’s sitting in the belly of the whale:
First day: “Not good...this is really not good.”

Second day: (stubbornness kicks in) “I’m making this work God! You’ve not got me yet!!!

Third day...Jonah asks forgiveness, and God has the whale deposit him on dry land.

And the final comedic touch:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:1)

Nice of God to come to Jonah a second time.

So here comes Jonah into Nineveh. His clothes have deteriorated...partially digested. His skin is bleached from the enzymes of the whale's stomach. He's got some seaweed still matted in his hair. And then he cries out:


Is it any wonder that the people of Nineveh believed in the power of God??? :)

We’re supposed to see the absurdity of the story. Yet like all good comedies, within the craziness of the story there are important life lessons to discover.

Imagine that God calls you tomorrow.... Imagine God calls you not to something that seems plausible, but something that seems absurd and beyond your abilities: like to go to Jerusalem and tell the Jewish and Palestine leaders to stop their violence, repent, and create equal space for each other...despite the fact that you have no credentials or expertise in this area.

What God called Jonah to do was that unbelievable...and must have felt completely unattainable. It was even worse for Jonah, in that the city of Nineveh...the Assyrians... were the great enemy of the Hebrews. Not only would Jonah have reason to fear for his life: deep down inside he did not want the Assyrians to have the opportunity to repent and be spared.

My hunch is that if I received this type of message from God, I would convince myself that I dreamed it...or maybe I’d dismiss it as absurd...or perhaps, like Jonah, I’d run away...or simply convince myself that it just doesn’t make sense. My experiences of 36 years of life in this American culture that values individualism over all else has already convinced me that I’m not significant enough to invoke that scale of change.

Even the incredible hope and optimism of the last week isn’t enough to change the sense that we are like Jonah: unable to change the big picture...and resistant to any attempt to do so.

Now, it might be true: I might never find myself in the position to “change the world.” My deepest held values may be compassion, grace, and community...but my values seem insignificant when compared to people who have authority, power, and wealth. The alternate route is one of security...the road that says I cannot change the world, but I can make a decent living for myself and for my family.

I can tell myself that I still have a good heart, that I still have good ideals, and I could even help a few people here and there...and I’m pretty sure that the casual observer would considered my life “successful.”

But a funny thing happens on this road...just when you think your closing in on happiness; you realize that your true values remain out of reach. The deep longings we have remain unfulfilled because of so much pain and suffering of others...and the realization that we’ve ignored the very essence of our highest calling: to love one another as we love ourself.

We are thrown overboard, and end up in the belly of a whale.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mk 1:15)

Jesus’ initial message mirrors God’s message in Jonah: it’s as “big picture” as you can get. No master plan, no perfect formula, and precious few details. But a real sense that the time is now...that God’s plan is one of compassion, grace, and community, and that we are invited to leave our fears behind in the things that we’ve been told give us “security”...and strive for a world that values justice, truth, forgiveness and love.

My brothers and sisters: this is the road that will feed our souls...and yes, we will change our world.


Carrot Khan said...

Interesting that you should touch on individualism and credentials.

I think people who believe in the Divine do believe that those with the "proper authority" can speak with Him (Him being loosely used to personify the Divine) - duly recognized holy men of variety flavors (Pope, Dali Lama, etc). Anyone else speaking with the Divine is either judged pretentious, huckster, or mentally ill.

I don't know why duality exists.

Just a Few Things about Scott ... said...

Read your sermon ("Favored and Saying Yes") on the church website. Interesting that your first non-inauguration-related post on this blog was on on a similar topic -- that being our response when God calls.

Would have liked to hear your thoughts on the final chapter of the book when Jonah sits down and has himself a nice prolonged sulk over the Ninevite's response to God's call.

Kurt said...

The text last week was Jonah delivering the message to Nineveh. I'm saving the final part (Jonah's pouting protest) for another time, but Seinfeld-wise it sounds like Elaine to me...

Anonymous said...


I enjoyed this post very much. I commented to the folks here at St. Luke's what a stitch this story really is.

At the end of the day we don't get what we deserve, but instead what God chooses to give us. That, as it did to the Ninehvites, ought to give is great comfort.

Stay warm---