by Pastor Stephen Abraham
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I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity (Jonah 4:2b).
Since my seminary training, I have loved this strange little book nestled in the minor prophets. Popular culture can’t get past the fish/whale. What I can’t get past is the folly of the reluctant hero and the contrast between our prejudices and God’s compassion.
Let’s recap: Jonah detests the Ninevites. They were the hated enemy. Yet God commands Jonah to preach to them: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me’ (Jonah 1:2).
Most stories have a hero, but Jonah is not one of them! He hates Ninevah and doesn’t want to give it a chance to repent and be spared, so he disobeys God and boards a ship going the opposite way. A storm blows up. Jonah comes clean to the crew and knows that to save them, he has to sacrifice himself by being thrown into the sea. So he goes over and gets swallowed whole by the fish for three days and nights. In chapter two, Jonah prays an amazing prayer of repentance and is vomited back up onto dry land.
Surely, he is now a changed man! Surely now he will be the hero of the story! Read Jonah 3:1–4. What I find amusing here is that Jonah appears to do the bare minimum! There is no explanation about why Ninevah will be overthrown, what their sins are, or even who the people are to repent to!
It is the most reluctant preaching of all time! And yet (much to Jonah’s dismay), it works!
Jonah 3:10 says, ‘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’.
And now we come to today’s reading, Jonah 3:10–4:11. So let’s get this straight. Jonah holds onto his prejudices, tries to get his own way, gets ‘caught out’ doing the wrong thing and has to come clean, prays for forgiveness and is spared, obeys God but does the bare minimum of what God has called him to do. The whole city, including the animals, repents and is saved. And then, like an impudent teenager in a huff, Jonah is upset that God spared his enemies who repented – never mind that he himself has directly disobeyed God, repented and been spared!
When I read Jonah, I am so amused at its humorous insight into human nature. It is like this book was written with me in mind! When I look back on my litany of mistakes, messes I’ve gotten myself into and even my own prejudices, I too can see the comedy – a history of my vanity and bad choices – and God at work despite all of my nonsense!
What a relief that we have a God who forgives us and is a ‘gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love’.
Almighty God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, thank you for your patience with me. Show me the error of my ways. Forgive me and set me on the right path. Help me to show your grace and mercy to those around me. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
Stephen Abraham is a retired Lutheran pastor and musician who served as a school pastor and church planter in Mawson Lakes, South Australia. Stephen retired early due to a spinal injury, leaving him largely housebound with chronic pain (documented by Lutheran Media on its Messages of Hope YouTube channel in 2014). When Stephen can, he still preaches, takes school chapels and serves his local church. He also writes and records personal songs, worship songs and Christian meditations, which he shares on his YouTube channel (youtube.com/StephenAbrahamMusic).