The tale of Jonah is one of the first we learn in Sunday school as a kid. It’s a story of adventure. Jonah doesn’t listen to God, so he gets swallowed up by the whale. He was afraid, but that’s okay, because he repented and saved the people of Nineveh! We think of the Biblical prophets as keepers of the faith, brave people who proclaim the Word of God. But really… Jonah wasn’t any of that. He was kind of a crummy prophet.
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, land of the biggest enemies to Israel. It was a wicked city, serving false gods, set to destruction by the one true God. Jonah didn’t want this job. Who wants to preach to doomed people who will probably spit at and mock some foreign prophet? So Jonah runs away. We like his story, because we relate to this. We don’t want to do the strange and scary things God asks fo us, either. Like Jonah, we think we can run and hide from God.
But Jonah had a responsibility. Being a prophet wasn’t some side gig; it was to be his life, his sacred duty. I don’t know how he came to be a prophet. Maybe his parents dedicated him to God; maybe God called him. Either way, he didn’t embrace it. It wasn’t until he spent a few days in a giant fish that he decided to listen. Despite all our images and paintings of this event, I doubt they were cozy accommodations. I don’t want to speak for Jonah, but I’d rather preach to my sworn enemies than hang out with whatever gunk is found in the belly of a sea creature.
So it’s a happy ending: Jonah finally obeyed God, he prophesied to the people of Nineveh, and they repented! God didn’t destroy them. But we don’t learn the rest of the story in Sunday school. It’s not a happy ending, really. He did his job, but he hated these people. They were the wicked enemies of Israel! He knew God would forgive them if they repented, but Jonah didn’t want that. He wanted them to suffer for their wickedness, and he’d rather die than see them forgiven.
Here’s where it hits too close to home. Here’s why Jesus tells us to “love our enemies:” because we don’t want to. We go out and preach the Gospel, but we preach to people we like. We tell the Good News to our friends, but don’t share it with people we disagree with. Or the friend we had a falling out with. Or strangers who look and act different than we do. We want to punish our enemies for being our enemies, and like Jonah, run away in hopes God will forget that He gave us a job. Jonah probably didn’t march the streets of Nineveh proudly prophesying. He was probably angry, only saying the words because God told him to, just like we promise to pray for those who annoy us and then don’t.
After Nineveh’s repentance, Jonah leaves the first chance he gets. Though God has forgiven these people, Jonah hasn’t. He finds a comfortable spot outside the city, so comfortable that God provides a plant to offer him shade. It’s the only time Jonah is happy in this entire tale—sitting outside the city, in the shade, alone. But his happiness is short-lived, because God destroys the plant, and now Jonah is angry at the plant. He spends a lot of time angrily whining.
And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” —Jonah 4:10–11
That’s how Jonah’s story ends: in bitterness. But even the people of Nineveh, wicked though they were, are God’s people. He offered them a chance to repent, because they didn’t know any better. But Jonah doesn’t understand that. He wants to leave them in their misery, and later, Jonah himself just wants to be in misery, too.
Isn’t this what we do? When something good happens to someone we don’t like, we cross our arms and refuse to be happy for them. Our responsibility isn’t unlike Jonah’s. It’s our duty as children of God to proclaim His name, even—maybe especially—to people we don’t like. Jonah seems like a whiny child, but so are we. God sometimes asks difficult things, but it’s easier to do it than run away. God going to find us, like He did Jonah, and we’re going to do it anyway. If Jonah had listened, the task still would’ve been difficult. He still wouldn’t have wanted to do it, but he made it worse by running. He probably sat pouting in that fish for three days before praying to God to just let him out, fine, he’ll do it. But the resentment had already settled in.
I don’t know what happened to Jonah after God took away his comfortable shade, but I don’t imagine he changed much. Did he ever prophecy again? Did he ever do anything gladly? I don’t know. But I certainly don’t want to be like Jonah.