Rooting for the Anti-hero (Jonah)

Scripture Focus: Jonah 4.1-4
4 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 

Reflection: Rooting for the Anti-hero (Jonah)
By John Tillman

Most lessons I heard about Jonah in my youth over-emphasized the positives of the story to make Jonah into a reluctant anti-hero who started out in the wrong direction but did the job in the end. (This usually meant stopping before chapter four.) 

In this version, we sympathize when anti-hero Jonah flees to Tarshish because he fears the Ninevites killing him. Then we cheer for his willingness to die to save the sailors. However, this version of the story conceals the truth. Jonah made no heroic sacrifice. He was willing to die to ensure his enemies, the Ninevites, died. Saving the sailors was a side-effect.

Jonah spent three days praying in the fish, a monster of the deep. Hopeless, Jonah had nothing other than the ability to call on God. He imagined sacrificing to God in the temple and proclaiming, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” Then, salvation came. God commanded the fish to return him to dry land.

Jonah preached God’s message for three days traveling through the belly of Nineveh, a monster of a city, not just in size but in nature. Scripture doesn’t give us Jonah’s entire message, but the summary isn’t exactly inspiring: “40 days and it’s over!

In seminary, our performance group created a short play about Jonah. The piece was geared for comedy, but we portrayed Jonah as distinctly unheroic. The actor portraying Jonah “preached” to Nineveh in an annoyed, angry, and unsympathetic monotone. But the message took hold anyway. “Salvation comes from the Lord.”

Jonah was angry when God relented but not surprised. He tells God, “I knew you were too soft and forgiving. That’s why I didn’t want to come.” Jonah’s hatred of the Ninevites was intense and based on his bitter life experience. He’d seen God judge them before and wanted to see it again.

God will have mercy on whom he has mercy. If we are honest, there are times we find ourselves, like Jonah, disagreeing with God about the “whom.” We all have a Nineveh—a person or group we have a hard time loving, evangelizing, and accepting. Jonah wasn’t wrong in his assessment of Nineveh’s blameworthiness, but he miscalculated the measure of God’s mercy.

When God has mercy, is it right for us to be angry? Who do we root for in this story?

It’s not Jonah. And it’s not us. Don’t underestimate God’s mercy. “Salvation comes from the Lord.”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations. — Psalm 67.1-2

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Jonah 4 (Listen 1:56)
Psalm 78.38-72 (Listen 7:12)

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Read more about When Ninevites Believe
God holds out hope for Nineveh and, in some cases, may entrust us to take the gospel to them. May we be faithful.

When Ninevites Believe

Scripture Focus: Jonah 3.3-5a
3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God…

Reflection: When Ninevites Believe
By John Tillman

Jonah didn’t want Nineveh to turn. He wanted them to burn. After preaching through the city for three days, Jonah climbed a hill and watched, hoping to glory in destruction, not mercy.

Jonah had practical reasons for fear, hatred, and despair. He feared their reaction. He hated them for their evil deeds. He despaired that they would ever change or repent.

But the Ninevites believed, and Jonah couldn’t believe it.

Unexpectedly, the people he feared violence from turned from violence to fear God. The people he had given up to wickedness gave up their wickedness and called on the Lord. The people he hoped would suffer for the suffering they caused experienced repentance and mercy.

I have Ninevites in my life and probably you do too. They are the people I’ve given up on. People whose reactions I fear. People who’ve harmed me. People I long to see fall under God’s justice.

Don’t forget that our enemies are loved by God. Jonah was sent to minister to those who had traumatized his country. Nineveh wasn’t just a random evil city. It was the capital of the Assyrian Empire that had been raiding Israel’s borders for decades. Jonah was unable to see them as God saw them, with compassion and sympathy.

Don’t expect God to deal with evil in the way we want him to. Jonah had prophesied against Assyria before. On that occasion, God used a wicked king of Israel to deliver his suffering people from the wicked Assyrians. (2 Kings 14.23-27) Jonah’s experience with Ninevites was as enemies on the battlefield, and he wanted God to treat them as such.

Jonah’s story tells us that it is a long, difficult journey to see those who’ve caused harm repent. There are storms. There are monsters. There are prayers from the depths. There is anger. There is suffering. There is questioning.

God goes with us through every bit of that journey. He lets us feel our feelings and rage our anger. He treats us with mercy we don’t deserve and then turns around and treats our enemies the same.

We don’t have to deny or hide our feelings about Ninevites. However, God holds out hope for Nineveh and, in some cases, may entrust us to take the gospel to them. May we be faithful.

God’s glory is best seen in his mercy. May we be able to celebrate when Ninevites believe.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
God looks down from heaven upon us all, to see if there is any who is wise, if there is one who seeks after God. — Psalm 53.2

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings

Jonah 3 (Listen 1:31)
Psalm 78.1-37 (Listen 7:12)

Read more about The Maddest Prophet, The Saddest Prophet

Imagine a Ukrainian prophet commanded to take a message of mercy to Moscow and you might have an inkling of what Jonah felt like…

Read more about When God Has Mercy…Will We?
Jonah held his bitterness so deeply that the depths of the sea couldn’t wash it away and the sun couldn’t burn it away. How deeply will we hold on to ours?

The Maddest Prophet, The Saddest Prophet

Scripture Focus: Jonah 3.10
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. 

Jonah 4.1
1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.

Reflection: The Maddest Prophet, The Saddest Prophet
By John Tillman

Imagine a Ukrainian prophet commanded to take a message of mercy to Moscow and you might have an inkling of what Jonah felt like being told to preach to Nineveh. It’s no wonder he was angry.

In some ways, Jonah is the maddest and saddest prophet. He is madder than the most vitriolic of scripture’s prophets and sadder than even Jeremiah the weeping prophet.

Jonah doesn’t want a savior. He wants a weapon. But God won’t allow himself to be weaponized.

The Maddest, Saddest Prophet
God’s word, Jonah didn’t care for
The people he hated, therefore
He started out with a detour
Down the road to the seashore
Sailors didn’t know they were in for
Finding what God had in store
He had mercy.

In the storm, Jonah’s waking
To a mess of his making
On a flight of his taking
In a ship that was shaking
Sailors’ knees they were quaking
Very soon they’d be sinking
They were desperate.

Jonah’s crimes he confessed
Sailors reacted, distressed
To save him they do their best
Nautical skill and finesse
But couldn’t escape unless…
Jonah’s God they addressed,
“Please forgive us.”

They toss him in. Jonah’s sinking
Gulped down by a fish, stinking
Of God’s temple, he’s thinking
God’s mission he is accepting
Rebellion he is rejecting
Out of the depths, he is getting

He sets out upon his trek
His obedience is correct
The message he won’t neglect
But doesn’t want its effect
to blossom. He wants a wreck.
God’s love he doesn’t respect
He is bitter.

He should have railed against sin
For Nineveh’s violence to end
But he knew God might give in
If repentance were to begin
He thought mercy might kick in
He thought God’s love was a sin
He was angry

It didn’t sit right with him
Forgiveness was just for him
Not for the Assyrians
That’s why he sailed on the wind
He thought God’s purpose to bend
Hoped they would die in their sin
He was vengeful.

He hates that wrath was undone
He longed to see destruction
He didn’t want grace to come
He’s mad that God’s will is done
God leaves him there in the sun
He doesn’t get a “well done”
He is alone.

May we promote repentance
Rather than long for vengeance
May we be love and joy-filled
Not revengeful and rage-filled
May we reshape our preference
Increasing love and acceptance.
For the gospel

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the whole earth. — Psalm 96.1

Today’s Readings
Jonah 3 (Listen – 1:31)
John 15 (Listen – 3:20)

This Weekend’s Readings
Jonah 4 (Listen – 1:56)John 16 (Listen – 4:14)
Micah 1 (Listen – 2:46)John 17 (Listen – 3:40)

Read more about Abandon Human Vengeance
Vengeance breeds hatred, and hatred fuels vengeance. This pattern is not new, but it is accelerating.

Read more about When God Has Mercy…Will We?
Do we desire mercy for ourselves but not our enemies?…our leaders, our tribe, our institutions but not those who oppose us?

Who Tells Your Story?

Scripture Focus: Jonah 2.1
From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2 He said: 
“In my distress I called to the Lord, 
and he answered me. 
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, 
and you listened to my cry. 

“You have no control. Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” — Hamilton, by Lin Manuel Miranda

Reflection: Who Tells Your Story?
By John Tillman

We’ve been pretty hard on Jonah in most of our writing. How could we not?

He gave a pass to Israelite corruption but condemned Nineveh. He thought God was wrong to be merciful to his enemies and was so mad about it he wanted to die. His prayer from the belly of the beast (from today’s reading) is beautiful, but even that was mostly self-focused. After his miraculous escape from the fish (and perhaps resurrection), he obeyed only the letter of God’s command. He hoped the message of repentance would fail. His heart longed for destruction rather than mercy.

Many scholars believe another scribe or chronicler wrote this book, perhaps using Jonah’s own accounts as a source and quoting Jonah’s prayer. However, early Jewish and Christian scholarship maintained that Jonah was the author.

What if this unflattering account of Jonah was written by him as an act of repentance?

Jonah is the only account in scripture in which the “title character” could be considered the villain. If it is written by Jonah, it is a remarkable work of confession. The text does very little to build sympathy for Jonah’s actions. Information could have been included about how wicked and evil Ninevah was, however, Jonah gives us none of that. If you researched the brutality of the Assyrians you might sympathize with Jonah, but the text itself makes no plea to nuance.

Lessons from Jonah go beyond “obey God” or “love all people.”

Academically, I lean toward the text being compiled/written by someone else but artistically and emotionally I hopefully believe that Jonah wrote it in contrition. Jonah is a great prophet to study in our age of outrage. We want people to see the nuance in our position and justify all of our worst takes and actions.

But what if someone unsympathetic told our story? What if we told our story with brutal, unflattering honesty? What if we dropped every attempt to justify our sins or dark motivations? Our story might sound a lot like Jonah’s.

However, Jesus writes us a new story filled with his righteousness instead of our sinfulness. Our story becomes Jesus’ story and his becomes ours. We can afford to be unsympathetically honest about our sins because Jesus is the anti-Jonah, giving his life in exchange for his enemies and considering such suffering “joy.” (Hebrews 12.1)

Confess your story. Then let Jesus tell his version of it.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
Your testimonies are very sure, and holiness adorns your house, O Lord, forever and forevermore. — Psalm 93.6

Today’s Readings
Jonah 2 (Listen – 1:20)
John 14 (Listen – 4:13)

Read more about Confession as a Crucible
May the flames of suffering that some may think will destroy us be used by your Holy Spirit to purify and strengthen us.

Read more about From the Belly of the Beast
When in the belly of one of the beasts of this world, may we turn to prayer…more powerful in the dark than it ever was in the light.

Waves of Mercy

Scripture Focus: Jonah 1.4-6
4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”

Matthew 8.24-26
24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

Reflection: Waves of Mercy
By Erin Newton

Jonah is the story of the “scandal of God’s mercy” (William Brown). As a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II, Jonah was sent to Nineveh to preach repentance. The Assyrian kingdom was notorious for their warfare and ruthless tactics. Ancient depictions from statues and reliefs show actions that would be considered war crimes today. It is no wonder Jonah wished for their judgment rather than their repentance.

On his path to avoid bringing peace to his enemy, Jonah finds himself aboard a ship tossed about by the chaotic sea. Turbulent waters are referenced on a number of occasions to highlight the presence of unrestrained chaos, threatening uncertainty, and the frailty of humanity. God let loose the waves around Jonah’s boat and the people were terrified. Jonah is fast asleep, oblivious to the threats and pleas of the crew around him. When he is woken up, they beg him to join in praying to any deity who will save them from their peril.

The mercy of God is shown in the calming of the storm once Jonah is thrown into the sea. The prophet, a unique chosen person by God, should have been the blessed recipient of God’s grace. Instead, he is swallowed by a fish entering into days of darkness (perhaps even death). The sailors, on the other hand, experience the immediate relief of chaos.

Another man was found sleeping in a boat during a violent storm at sea. When Jesus’ disciples were filled with terror at the possibility of their boat capsizing and drowning at sea, they made similar pleas as we see in Jonah 1. With a word, the waves are restrained and the waters are stilled. Jesus is not thrown overboard but would soon enter into days of darkness and death. This “sign of Jonah” would bring salvation to the enemies of God.

While the book of Jonah highlights the reluctance of a prophet to bring good news to a people he considered unworthy, the larger message is the scope of God’s mercy. It is a story about how we all wish to see vengeance and justice in our time. Yet, if we read the story with eyes focused only on humanity, we miss the far more important truth about God. He loves those we find repulsive. Those we label “unfit” for mercy are the exact people he calms the sea to save.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
The Lord is near to those who call upon him, to all who call upon him faithfully. — Psalm 145.19

Today’s Readings
Jonah 1 (Listen – 2:29)
John 13 (Listen – 5:06)

Read more about The Sign of Jonah and The Cross
Jonah’s emotional path is like a photo negative of Christ’s.

Read more about Prayer for Older Brothers
God, your mercy is a mystery to me.
I see the sins of others and I am scandalized.
How could such a one be accepted?