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Proper 20A 1st Reading

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Danny Quanstrom

The Unrepentant Prophet

Have you ever wished your life could have been like someone else’s? Have you ever gone through the same steps in life only to end up in a different place than someone else? Have you ever wished your work bore the same reward as someone else’s?

I think if Jonah had been pals with Nahum there would have been a twinge of prophetic jealousy. You see, we New Testament folk pay attention to Jonah because of the mercy and grace and unmerited compassion of YHWH. I’ll always remember Rev. T. Scott Daniels preaching on Jonah: “Wouldn’t it be great if Jonah ended at chapter 3? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the grace of God in 3:10 were the final word?”

But, I think Jonah would have desired the prophetic opportunity of Nahum. In a brief poem, Nahum tells of God’s wrathful destruction of Nineveh. Nahum provides an oracle that is nothing but utter desolation for Nineveh. From the very beginning of Nahum we read, “The Lord is slow to anger but great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty” (Nahum 1:3).

This is what Jonah was expecting! Jonah was desiring a God who takes vengeance and rages (Nahum 1:1-2). But that is not what Jonah gets…

Instead, YHWH sees the repentance of Nineveh and has a change of mind. God spares Nineveh. God repents of the destruction God intended.

Wouldn’t it be great if Jonah ended at chapter 3?

Unfortunately we have this final episode in the narrative, chapter 4. But to grasp chapter 4 we need to understand the first 3. While chapter 1 is a brief prologue telling what will happen, chapter 4 is a dark epilogue. Let’s recap: YHWH sends Jonah to Nineveh. Jonah goes the wrong way, to Tarshish. On the verge of shipwreck, the sailors ask who Jonah’s God is and plea to YHWH. Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard. He’s swallowed by the great fish. Upon arriving at Nineveh, Jonah does half of his job, going halfway into the city proclaiming that Nineveh will be destroyed. Nineveh repents in sackcloth and ashes. YHWH doesn’t send the destruction that had been spoken of by Jonah.

You might think that after such remarkable and magnificent experiences Jonah would be filled with awe and delight… Wrong! Jonah would have preferred that Nineveh be burned to the ground than be spared. Because of God’s relenting, and then because of the withering of the tree, Jonah decides that he’d be better off dead than alive. “Whatever happens contrary to Jonah’s will, be it destructive or salvific, tremendous or trivial, impersonal or personal, he would rather die than live with it.”[1]

It should be noted, as I am no Hebrew scholar, I’ve chosen to omit specific language characteristics. But anyone preaching Jonah this week should find a resource that dives into the original language to catch what the writer is doing. Worth observing in this chapter is the constant use of the word “evil,” the anthropomorphised calamity described as “nostrils,” and the things that God “appoints.”

And as much as this is frowned upon in hermeneutical endeavors, Jonah is a prophet who can, or maybe should be, allegorized. As Jonah doesn’t fit our Biblical categories, perhaps it reads well as an allegory for the covenant people of God. Perhaps Jonah is the personification of the covenant people; concerned with the razing of her enemies rather than the repentance of her enemies.

This is, after all, what the book of Jonah is about: repentance. Throughout the story all the main characters repent; the sailors, the Ninevites, even YHWH! But Jonah is the unrepentant prophet. Jonah is the one who makes it to Nineveh by way of being thrown overboard and the great fish. Jonah is the one who either doesn’t believe he needs to repent, or simply doesn’t desire to repent.

This story serves as a reminder to the covenant people of God that sometimes mercy isn’t fair. Jonah reminds the covenant people that YHWH can show compassion to those YHWH chooses.

We see this in our Gospel passage as well. As the owner of the vineyard is free to distribute grace to those he chooses, so is YHWH free to change course and offer life where death was expected.

Sometimes we’re Nineveh; sometimes we have deviated so far from faithfulness that we need to hear how destructive we have become. But our passage isn’t about Nineveh. It’s about Jonah.

And, unfortunately, sometimes we’re Jonah… Sometimes we’d rather see our enemies destroyed then brought into right relationship with God. Sometimes we get so turned inward that we’re blind to our call. Sometimes we get so familiar being “the people of God” we think repentance is either unnecessary or beneath us.

Jonah is a reminder that God’s people aren’t those who don’t need to repent, but are those always repenting.

May it be true in our churches today.

[1] New Interpreters Bible, v. V, p679

About the Contributor


Hastings Church of the Nazarene

Danny Quanstrom


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