Jonah is regarded as a Biblical prophet, and in fact his very name means “Dove of Faithfulness,” but a prophet of God is precisely what Jonah DOES NOT want to be. That is not to say that he could claim ignorance of God’s will, for God’s word came to him clearly: “Rise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.” Remember, Jonah resides in Palestine. And Jonah knows what God wants him to do: head east. So what does he do? He immediately books passage on a ship headed for Tarshish, a settlement located in the far west coast of Spain, the westernmost point of Europe. By this action Jonah signals that while he knows God wants him to go one way, he intends to go as far as possible the opposite direction. Jonah intends to distance himself from God’s will and way by running away from God.
But running away from God is not easy. Jonah is a God-haunted man, a God-hunted man, and he knows that even as he embarks on this journey intended to distance himself as far from God’s will as possible, he cannot help but feel the will of God within him like a sandspur in his soul. God’s Spirit impresses upon Jonah that he is being incredibly selfish. In rejecting God’s will, Jonah is not only limiting his own spiritual potential, he is putting thousands of lives at risk. Jonah knows this. Jonah doesn’t care.
Jonah the prophet resolves to act like an anti-prophet. But taking a ship headed in the opposite direction of God’s intent for him does not allow him to escape God’s haunting of his thoughts. In fact, when a storm besets his boat, Jonah acknowledges the tempest as sent from God precisely for the purpose of changing his attitude. Jonah stubbornly resolves to retire to his cabin to sleep. Yet, while he remains passive, the pagan sailors do everything in their power to save him. Indeed, the pagan sailors act more piously than the prophet: they are the ones who pray for deliverance; they are the ones who jettison cargo to keep the ship afloat; they are the ones who, when a game of chance identifies guilty Jonah as responsible for the storm, exert themselves more strenuously in Jonah’s behalf. They are God-haunted men, too. But only the prophet knows the solution. “Take me up,” says Jonah, “and throw me into the sea.” Take me up and throw me into the sea! It’s a solution the pagan sailors clearly do not want to take. But unlike Jonah, they are wise enough to know better than to resist the clear will of God. Praying to Jonah’s God for forgiveness, they hurl his prophet overboard.
“Throw me into the sea!” That Jonah would think to say such words is the subtle miracle of this story. All people think about with regard to Jonah’s story is of God’s miraculous action in appointing a great fish to preserve Jonah’s life. But the subtle miracle of the story is that Jonah, a self-absorbed, anti-prophet, saw, if just for a moment, the need to surrender himself totally to God. For just a moment this stubborn, selfish man feels the need to acknowledge God’s voice. When he bids the sailors, “Throw me into the sea!” he does not know if God will be willing to save him. In fact, he suspects God will probably let him drown as punishment for spurning the divine will. But he bids the sailors, “Throw me into the sea,” because for just a moment he is not thinking of himself. When he says, “Take me up and throw me into the sea,” he knows that while he may not save himself, he, at least can save the lives of those pagan sailors who had risked their lives to save his. For a moment, Jonah lives for someone besides himself. Momentarily, for once in his life, Jonah thinks of the welfare of others, and he, the dove of faithfulness, surrenders control of his destiny to God. And God sends a great fish to rescue him.
In the belly of the great fish, Jonah prays like the prophet he is supposed to be. He prays, “Thou didst bring up my soul from the Pit, O Lord my God. . . . When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord and my prayer came to Thee.” The God-haunted, God-hunted man, acknowledges that God haunts him in behalf of Jonah’s own best interest. He recognizes that God really seeks what is best for him – even if he doesn’t want to acknowledge it. This God-haunted man knows that God is summoning him to be his best self.
Likewise, when you and I feel God-haunted, when we feel God seeking to elicit from us a response, maybe to surrender our lives to Christ, maybe to make a profession of faith, maybe to splice our lives into the life of this community, maybe to invest our time and talents more whole-heartedly in God’s Kingdom, when we feel such a summons, and try to resist, we know deep within us that God is calling us to embrace our best self. God is summoning us to do that which is best for us — and God will not stop haunting us until we respond.
When I was trying to get a handle on Jonah’s life and his profoundly ambivalent relationship with God, I couldn’t help but think of the story of Francis Thompson. Francis Thompson was born in 1859 to a wealthy English Roman Catholic family, and his parents desired him to become a physician, a vocation which he abhorred. Yet, dutifully obedient to his family’s wishes, he took the medical school entrance exam three times – and failed all three times. In shame and frustration, he escaped into the London slums. He tried a variety of professions, failing at all of them. He became addicted to drugs, became utterly destitute, and finally collapsed in a gutter, only to be rescued by a compassionate prostitute, who put him in the care of a friend who eventually placed him in the company of a Franciscan monastery. This friend began to publish poems that Francis Thompson had scribbled on scraps of paper. One of those poems is regarded as one of the most powerful and best-known odes in the English language. It is called, “The Hound of Heaven.” His words could have come straight from the mind of Jonah:
I fled Him down the nights and down the days
I fled Him down the arches of the years
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Jonah has fled God “down the nights and down the days.” But the hound of heaven forced him to abandon his plans to flee God’s will, and he surrendered himself to God and experienced God’s deliverance. So we know how the story ought to proceed from here. Having made the point that Jonah is a hard-headed fool who required a great trauma to bring him to his senses, the story ought to end with Jonah’s coming to see that everyone’s life — his life, the pagan sailors’ lives, the Ninevites’ lives – is a precious, fragile gift from God. The story ought to end with this self-absorbed anti-prophet recognizing that just as his deliverance was important, so, too, was the deliverance of other suffering people, including the inhabitants of Nineveh. He should joyfully fulfill his role as being an instrument of God, the good Parent of the Universe who pours out love upon all creation. But Jonah doesn’t. Having experienced God’s most miraculous form of deliverance, Jonah goes right back to being a stinker. Yes, Jonah complies with the God’s request to go to Nineveh and preach. But his sermon, while admirable in brevity, is remarkable for its gracelessness. He walks the length and breadth of Nineveh preaching a one-sentence sermon that is less a sermon than a wish: “Forty days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed!’ Then having delivered this message of imminent divine annihilation, Jonah scurries out to a nearby hill to watch the brimstone fall.
Alas for Jonah, he discovers that the people of Nineveh are God-haunted people, too. The pagans of Nineveh bear God’s image just as he does. Everyone of them bears the divine imprint. And Jonah’s sermon, short and brutish though it was, inspires a communal wave of repentance. Everyone in that great city feels the weight of their moral failure, and everyone from the king on down casts themselves upon the mercy of God, who delights in their repentance and spares them. Jonah is incensed.
Jonah has real problems with the compassion of God. Sometimes, we do, too. Jonah believes that the Ninevites deserve annihilation. Yet God spares them. So, too, sometimes we live angry at God that God’s grace encompasses people that we believe should be outside the realm of God’s acceptance. We are surprised to discover that God doesn’t mirror our hate and our prejudices. Jonah exclaims, ”This is why I fled the call of God. This is why I ran away. I knew when God called me to preach to those Ninevites that God’s mercy would find a way to spare them. I knew that there was a chance that those evil people might repent, and God would grant them mercy. That is precisely how events played out. And I want to die!”
God doesn’t grant Jonah’s prayer to let him die. Instead, God sends Jonah the parable of the plant. Jonah’s values are not God’s values. Nineveh repents, God forgives, Jonah seethes. Nineveh repents, God extends mercy, Jonah wants to die. Yet Jonah stays outside Nineveh, hoping that God will change God’s mind and rain down destruction upon the city. Amidst the oppressive heat of that broiling Middle Eastern sun, God appoints a great plant to grow up over Jonah’s head and provide him with blessed shade. Jonah loves the plant. But then God appoints a bug to eat the plant, and the plant dies, and Jonah is once again exposed to the sun. Jonah then grieves over the death of the plant. God says to Jonah, “Do you understand how absurd you are? You grieve for a plant that you did not plant, you did not cultivate, you did not nurture – you just enjoyed it – and when it died, you grieved. Yet you would begrudge my caring about the fate of 120,000 people in Nineveh who bear my divine imprint, people to whom I gave the gift of life. You would grieve over a plant – but you wouldn’t grieve – or let me grieve — over the death of 120,000 folks? How warped are your values?”
Most of us know what it is like at some time in our lives to be God-haunted. If we are honest, we know that when God haunts us, God summons us to do that which we know we ought to do. We know that God haunts us because God summons us to do that which is best for us. Whether it is committing our lives to Christ, whether it is committing ourselves to this fellowship, whether it is committing ourselves to play a more profound role in support of God’s Kingdom, we know that God is haunting us to respond to the Spirit’s urging to do what which is best. How many of us are willing to summon our courage and surrender our lives to God’s haunting will and say, “Okay, take me up and throw me into the sea”?
Jonah’s ministry is unique. Jonah is the only Biblical prophet who never utters a prophecy. He alone among the Biblical prophets never issues any oracle directed at Israel or at other lands. He preaches one short sermon in behalf of God, and that is his sole divine function. But Jonah’s ministry was profoundly instructive for his own Jewish people. For after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, amidst the time of nation-building during the era of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Jewish people became very self-absorbed. Utmost value was placed on biological and doctrinal purity. The Jewish faith turned so exclusively inward that they came close to losing sight of the fact that God cared about the whole world. The Jewish faith almost lost sight of the fact that the entire human population bore God’s imprint and was equally God’s concern. Jonah unwittingly impressed upon his own people that God’s grace extended beyond them to the entire human family.
When I think of Jonah, I think of another God-haunted man, St. Augustine. Raised by a pious Christian mother, Augustine sought to evade God’s call by sampling every other philosophy on earth. But he finally came to this profound conclusion: “My heart had no rest until it found it in God.” Augustine surrendered to God’s call in time to became one of our faith’s greatest champions. Not so, Francis Thompson. By the time he came into the care of the Franciscans, he had wrecked his health so badly that he died shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, something in his poem suggests that the Hound of Heaven had finally claimed him:
“All which I took from thee, I did’st but take, not for thy harms,
But just that thou might seek it in My arms. . . .
Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, I am He whom thou seekest!”
So, too, God seeks us. God seeks us daily. God haunts us to seek the will and way of God, because God knows what is the best path for each of us to take. The question is, how will we respond to the summons?