Jonah 3:1-7a, 8-10, 4:1-4
Stories matter. They define meaning for us. More than relaying facts and figures, they tell us what is true. But more importantly, the full story matters. Without the full story, we only get half the picture. Truth is only partial, if a partial truth can be considered truth at all.
A pastor colleague of mine once shared a conversation with a friend who talked glowingly about growing up in Atlanta and how the 1950s were the best time to be a young person in Atlanta. That assertion stuck with her because, while she had no reason to doubt her friend’s experiences, she could not help but wonder if everyone who grew in Atlanta in the 1950s would necessarily agree. She wondered, for instance, if a person of color would’ve felt that the 1950s were a golden age in Atlanta. Or if a girl with dreams beyond being a housewife or teacher or secretary would recall the 50s with such fondness.
Our blindness to the full story, and our eagerness to accept part of the story as normative for everyone, can be a troublesome thing.
Take our scripture today, for instance. I wonder how many are actually familiar with the full story of Jonah, beyond what we read in children’s Bibles or are taught in Sunday school. I’m betting it’s not many of us. In fact, if I’m honest with you, even I wasn’t all that familiar with the second part of the story, the part that Rebecca read just a minute ago.
No, the part we know well, the part we think is the full story, goes something like this: Jonah is a prophet who is called by God to speak God’s word to the Ninevites. But he doesn’t want to, so he goes in the opposite direction. While on a boat, a whale swallows Jonah, and he spends days and nights in the whale’s belly – where he eventually sees the error of his ways and repents, at which point the whale spits Jonah back up and all is well. End of story.
Except that is not the end of the story.
So before we get to the rest of the story, let’s settle a couple of things first.
First, it’s important to say that the story of Jonah is just that: a story. It is fiction, made up. It is a fish tale to end all fish tales. But – it is not fake news. Because it tells a deeply important truth, which we’ll get to in a little bit.
Second, for the record, there is no whale in the story. I know it goes against everything you were taught in Sunday school, but nowhere in the entire book of Jonah does it mention a whale. It does, however, talk about a “big fish.” A slight detail perhaps, but details are important, as we’ll find later.
And third, the context is critical to understanding the truth this story seeks to share. Because even though it’s fiction, it is set in real life. Jonah was written around 400 BCE, hundreds of years before Jesus, during a period when the Jews had returned to Israel after exile in Babylon. And they were not the same people they had been before they left – and one of the significant differences was an overall narrowing of their theology. In other words, the prevalent belief was less that Yahweh was “God of the Jews” and more that Yahweh was “God of only the Jews.”
Enter Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, a nation known for its brutality and hostility to Israel. To the Jewish people at the time, Nineveh was a place of terror and trouble. It was the last place a Jewish person wanted to be.
So now our sweet little children’s tale takes on a whole new feel, doesn’t it? God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh, a city that hates people like him. On top of that, the message he’s commanded to give is to “cry out against them,” meaning Jonah is supposed to walk into a place that despises him and proceed to tell them how horrible they are. I mean, what could go wrong with that?
Is it any wonder that Jonah heads off in the opposite direction?
So fast forward through the big fish and the belly and the throwing up part, to the end of the story, the part we don’t usually hear about, the part that is the real reason Jonah is written in the first place. God comes to Jonah again and commands him to go to Nineveh again, and this time Jonah does it. And hard as it is, Jonah goes to Nineveh and “cries out against them,” warning of impending doom if they fail to repent and change their ways.
And then something unexpected happens – the Ninevites actually listen. And lo and behold, the message takes root in their collective hearts. They put on sackcloth and pour ashes on their heads. Sackcloth was a coarsely woven fabric made of goat’s hair. Along with ashes, it was often worn as a sign of grief and repentance, an external demonstration of an internal condition. And if it sounds like a horribly uncomfortable thing to wear, that’s because it was. Which was kind of the point. The irritating coarseness of the burlap-type fabric grating on human skin was an ancient way of engaging deep remorse and repentance.
And these Ninevites, down to a person, grabbed sackcloth and ash like it was the latest fashion craze. Even the king got in on the act, donning his own sackcloth and ash, decreeing that everyone in the kingdom do the same – animals included! – and turn from their evil ways, in the hope that the God of the Jews would change God’s mind.
And then something even more unexpected happens – God listens! God hears the heart-felt cries of the Ninevites, God sees their authentic repentance, and God decides to spare each and every one of them.
And to this wonderful news of a nation spared from doom and destruction, to this very rare occurrence of a prophet’s success, Jonah responds by being absolutely, unequivocally, completely ticked off.
And this, my friends – this right here is where the story of Jonah really begins. Everything before it, all three chapters, has been building up to this moment.
And I love Jonah’s yelling at God; you can feel the anger just seething out of his pores as he says:
O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
It almost sounds like a compliment, but it’s not. Jonah is saying, “I knew this was going to happen!” This is precisely what Jonah had been dreading all along, because he knew the kind of God that God was – as The Message translation puts it, “sheer grace and mercy.” Which is part of the reason why he ran away from Nineveh in the first place. It wasn’t just because Nineveh was dangerous. It was also the real possibility that his message would be received and acted upon, and God would forgive them. And Jonah was nowhere near ready to see the same grace that had been extended to him in the belly of the big fish now extended to his hated neighbor.
And to Jonah’s tirade, God responds with a simple observation: Is it right for you to be angry? And the story of Jonah more or less ends with this question – a question that the writer very much wants echoing in Israel’s mind and in ours. The story of Jonah ends not with a man freed from captivity in a big fish, but rather an entire nation held captive by a question that cuts right to the heart of the matter: is it right for you to be angry?
We know the answer to the question, of course. We don’t need to say it out loud. Truth be told, we’re a little afraid to. It is unsettling, and even irritating, to contemplate the ramifications of the grace of God. A grace that feels oh so fine when it is directed at us but as coarse and uncomfortable as sackcloth when it’s for someone else – someone we do not know, someone we do not love, someone we cannot help but feel should be outside the realm of God’s grace, even though we know that nothing could be that far.
Like last week, when we looked at who the Samaritan might be for us today, we do the same thing here and equate “Ninevite” with anyone we view as godless, unchristian, unclean, disdainful. We look at the grace of God and tend to see only half the story – the half that has us being the grace-filled ones, the part of the narrative where we come out on top.
And perhaps the whole point of God’s question to Jonah and us is so we might come to see things the way that God does. For God takes in the full picture, the complete story. A narrative from beginning to end full of human beings with faults and flaws, but also one with the capacity for repentance and faithfulness because God’s grace is always there. And that grace is wider and deeper than anything we could possibly imagine – which is why it’s so irritating.
In fact, the most irritating thing about grace is that God is always pressing us to stop putting limits and qualifiers and exceptions on it. Writer Anne Lamott said it best when she wrote: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
There’s an old Hasidic tale about the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea as the waters came crashing down on the Egyptians. According to the Rabbis, the angels started rejoicing with singing and dancing; until one of them noticed someone weeping. It was God. They went to God and asked, “Why are you weeping when your people have been delivered from the hand of power?” And the Maker of the Universe replied, “I am weeping for the dead Egyptians washed up on the shore, for they are my children too.”
Tell me this, people of God: what would it be like if we, even if for a moment, could see the world through God’s eyes like that? Who would we see as in need of God’s grace? How might that alter our perceptions, our actions? Would it categorically change our understanding of who our neighbor is? Would we hear more loudly the cries of those seeking justice, like the cries that have come out of Louisville this past week? Would we be able to question our location in the structures around us, the ones that might benefit us at the expense of others? How far would we be willing to see God’s grace go?
Because if there is one thing we can assume in all of this, it is that the grace of God is always reaching further than we know. It is a full and complete story that’s being shared with us. The question is, and always has been, are we willing to hear it in its entirety?
Help us, God, to be irritated by your grace. For then we will know the fulness of your story, and see our place in it, along with everyone else.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, pg. 22.
 Albert C. Winn, “A Way Out of No Wat,” Journal for Preachers, date unknown, quoted in a sermon by Eugene C. Bay, “A Tract for These Times,” January 26, 2003.
Featured image from https://www.artmajeur.com/en/yamy-engelmeyer/artworks/5549137/arise-go-unto-nineveh-4-jonah-3-2