But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’ But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long. Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you. Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication. In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me. There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours. All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
In our gospel Jesus teaches his disciples to pray – to pray to God that they might not be brought into a time of trial and to pray that they might forgive others as they themselves have been forgiven. This must mean that God asks us to pray his mercy for others because we are those who have been shown such great mercy. We are to pray for those whom we consider, in our own view, to be undeserving of God's forgiveness because it never was about our view in the first place – and what a difficult lesson this is for Jonah – our reluctant prophet.
Jonah is a short book, just four chapters long, which needs elevating from its toddler church status to the levels of profundity it deserves. Jonah is significant for what it reveals about the human condition and for the ways in which it points to Christ. In chapter four, Jonah is so jealous that the mercy of God would fall on the Ninevites, whom he considers so undeserving of the love of God, because of all that they have done. Jonah is so angry he would rather die than watch the restoration of this people occur through God's steadfast love. He becomes depressed and God has to teach him to take the wider view. In his being provided with the cover of a sheltering bush in the heat of the mid-day sun that is then suddenly taken away, Jonah can for a moment understand a people without the cover of God who have fallen into not knowing their left hand from their right – who have fallen into such confusion because of their lack of guidance. God is willing to give this people another chance because ultimately each of them is his child, made in his image and worthy of his mercy and love.
We do not know whether Jonah ever recovers, we leave the story with God speaking and we do not access the inner thoughts of Jonah, we are only left with a prophet, angry, because his standards were not God's standards, and as readers, for that we feel profoundly grateful. We are sinners in need of God's bigger view.
We can read Jonah Christologically, in other words as a book about Christ. Jonah is a book full of reversals which point to the one who would finally reveal God's mercy on the cross for all those who give their hearts to him and hand over to him their transgressions, so that on the cross he might erase them from God's memory, reconcile us to God and free us from shame and guilt so that sackcloth and ashes can be replaced with praise.
Is it sound to read Jonah Christologically? Yes, Jesus himself does so in the twelfth chapter of Matthew: "Just as Jonah was for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Ninevah will rise up... because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah and see something greater than Jonah is here!"
Where is Jesus in Jonah? – well, everywhere. In the first chapter of the book, Jonah has taken to the oceans to escape the call of God and the storms whip up and the crew protest – "What are you doing sound asleep, Get up, call on your god?"Familiar? Another crew of another boat in the gospels of Jesus will call Jesus awake from his sleep and he will call on God and the waves will settle as the storm is stilled. In the story of Jonah the significances roll on, Jonah will sacrifice himself to placate the wrath of God just as Christ will pay the price for the sins that separate us from God and lay down his life for the sake of us, his friends.
In Jonah the crew have exclaimed 'Do not let us perish on account of this man's life' and of Christ, John will tell us in chapter 3 and verse 16 that God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life. What Jonah couldn't do, Christ will do and secure the safety of everyone who puts their faith in him.
In our psalm today, the prayer therein echoes the cry of the Ninevites as they put on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their hopes in God: For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you. It is echoed by Jonah: For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing
God came in Jesus Christ to show this ultimately on the cross, relenting from punishing us and taking justice upon himself in the form of his Son. As the Father turned his face away, Jesus dealt with this for us – we are those from whom God's cover is never taken away, we exist every day underneath the shadow and in the shade of his provision so that even when we sense life's scorching rays (for there are times in life that burn) we are never without the steadfast love of the Father through the Son, there is nothing we can do that will turn the Father's protection away from us. This has all been made possible because one man was sacrificed for Ninevites everywhere, those even to this day, those whom we might consider undeserving, even every single one of 'undeserving us.'
The story of Jonah teaches us that it never was about what we consider anyway – the book of Jonah is God's way of asking us to be careful how we pray. Are my prayers to you, my Father, overly concerned with what suits me? What is God's perspective? You can bet that it is always bigger than mine will ever be. Amen.
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us your gift of faith that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to that which is before, we may run the way of your commandments and win the crown of everlasting joy; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.