This Week’s Passage: Jonah 4
Highlights: The sailors repent, the whole city of Nineveh repents, but the hero of the story, Jonah, never actually repents nor asks forgiveness, unless it is what happens after the story ends. The open ending allows each reader to writer his or her name in the epilog, extending pity on those who would turn from righteousness.
I. Establish the text
C. Other texts for Year B for 2nd Sunday in Lent
- First Reading Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
- Psalm Psalm 22:23-31
- Second Reading Romans 4:13-25
- Gospel Mark 8:31-38
D. Brainstorm: What questions/thoughts come to mind?
1 Need to recap what Jonah found displeasing.
2 What is Jonah quoting?
3 Jonah had been an instrument of grace to people who merited death. People who might now live to kill again.
4 When do we get angry with God?
5 Had they really repented? Or was their change of heart merely for show? A political expedience?
6-8 Did Jonah interpret the bush first as God offering Jonah a kindness then arbitrarily taking that gift away? How do we find God’s actions inexplicable?
9-11 Recast Nineveh as the supporters of a tyrannical dictator, men who would starve or slay their neighbors, their family. Might the bush then be winning lottery ticket swept away by an unexpected gust?
E. Reconsider where the text begins and ends: What got chopped out?
- The well known fish story, Jonah’s whale-belly prayer, his reluctant prophecy to Nineveh and their repentance have been omitted. These must be recapped for the congregation.
II. Literary Study.
A. What is the history of the text? Who wrote it? When? In what social context? What Historical/Religious/Sociological factors influenced its writing?
- Although placed in the canon among the prophets, its style evokes a timeless moral lesson.
C. Review syntax/meanings of critical words, phrases, idioms
- This passage contrasts anger and pity.
III. Question the text.
A. Observe the passage from the perspective of its characters.
Told as omniscient third person. The author knows both the mind of Jonah and the mind of God.
God teaches Jonah an important lesson.
Jonah refuses to repent of his anger for Nineveh and for God. The abrupt ending leaves the reader hoping Jonah might yet turn to God.
B. Are there any unusual details? Un-named characters? ‘Pointless’ description? Meanings of names of characters? What does a literal meaning of natural metaphors imply?
A bush growing tall enough to provide shade over night would be miraculous. Its death in a night less so.
C. What is the center of gravity of the text? Where was the author heading? What question did the author intend to answer? What is the emotional center of the text? What music would it call for?
- Center of Gravity: God’s mercy is broader than our mercy.
- Emotional Center: Who would we deny grace? When might we accuse God of injustice by excessive grace?
- Music: “In Christ There Is No East Nor West”
D. Look for conflict: stated or implied.
- Mercy or justice for Nineveh and the injustice perpetrated upon the victims of Nineveh.
- Conflict with God for seeming arbitrary in distributing discomfort.
E. Is there anything you wish the author had included in the passage? Why do you think this was not a part of Scripture?
- What happens to Nineveh? Does their repentance last? – Absent to allow the reader to infer that they return to their old ways, as do many who quickly repent.
- What happens to Jonah? Does he repent? – Absent to allow the reader to hope that Jonah might see the light and turn to the ways of God.
- As narrative, this book needs two more chapters: an action chapter where Jonah repents of his anger against God and celebrates grace with the Ninevites; and a meditative chapter where Jonah returns to Jerusalem to offer appropriate sacrifices in the Temple alongside a representative of Nineveh. This would resolve the tensions created in fourth and first chapters. — The unresolved tension begs readers to resolve theses tensions in their lives for Jonah.
F. How will this text be heard by individuals in the congregation, including the preacher?
- Absent the context of Nineveh causing mayhem beyond justice, we might question Jonah’s anger.
IV. What do the commentaries have to say about the text?
Phyllis Trible (The New Interpreter’s Bible, “The Book of Jonah.” Abingdon, 1996.) attributes each chapter to separate traditions perhaps stitched together by an editor, as each could stand on their own as separate messages. The fourth chapter relates to the earlier chapters only by the name of the prophet and the city. She translates verse 1 as “And it was evil to Jonah, an evil great, and it burned to him.” Thus contrasting with verse 3:9 where God had turned “from the burning of his nostrils.” In discerning Jonah’s reason for fleeing Nineveh she asks if the reader can trust the reason he gives in 4:3. She reflects that God asked Jonah to reflect on his anger, neither affirming it nor condemning it, but pressing Jonah to consider what he will do with his anger.
Johanna W.H. Bos (Knox Preaching Guides: Ruth, Esther, Jonah. John Knox Press, 1986) attributes the popularity of this book to the myriad of theological issues presented and that “Jonah is everyone.” She supposes that Jonah’s “story could have been over at the end of chapter three, but it has a sequel, or second plot. Jonah is not left out of God’s concern. The prophet has some turning to do.” She suggests: “We are not asked to make a judgment on him, we are asked to make a judgment on God.” She concludes: “The pity shown to Nineveh became the cross that shines in the world’s darkness ate the blazing sun which smote Jonah’s head.”
V. With respect to the hearers (including the preacher), What does this text want to say and do?
Those times when my sermons were best received,
when parishioners came up and said: “I felt you were preaching directly to me,”
were those times when I was preaching to myself. — Rabbi Chet Diamond
A. What is the theological meaning of the verses?
The sailors repent, the whole city of Nineveh repents, but the hero of the story, Jonah, never actually repents nor asks forgiveness, unless it is what happens after the story ends. The open ending allows each reader to writer his or her name in the epilog, extending pity on those who would turn from righteousness.