In this third and final blog on Jonah and love, we explore how to bring the text forward, building on last week’s focus on the world BEHIND the text. This is the linchpin of Bible Study, the ‘so what’ question? “So what does this have to do with life today?” If we don’t apply the text, we’re just reading history. But if we employ it, we can change history.
Jonah prompts us to probe the difference between ‘religious truth’ and ‘historical truth’, because of its fantastical elements like the fish swallowing and spitting up a man. If it’s not about an actual event, then what is the parable’s ‘religious truth’ that has made it one of the Old Testament’s most popular books for generations?
Jonah is classified as one of the prophetic books, and placed in the canon there. Yet its four chapters are more allusive than dogmatic. With so many details unknown, the text raises more questions than it answers. Could this have been the writer’s intent since he even ends the book with questions?
Then God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?’ (NLT, Jon. 4:9)
Exasperated at Jonah’s continued jealous and narrow-minded response to the Ninevites’ change of heart, God again questions:
…Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (NRSV, Jon. 4:11)
The reader is left filling in gaps with answers to the many questions raised. In fact, identifying these is a valuable way to explore what otherwise looks like a simple parable on obedience (or not) to God. Here are a few, and please add to this list for what Jonah prompts you to consider more deeply, sharing through the “comments” section below):
- Why did Jonah initially avoid God’s call and flee to Tarshish? (What is the state of thought here that is a major alert to us?)
- How could Jonah sleep while the storm was raging and the sailors working so hard to survive? (What ‘storms’ are raging around us while we sleep comfortably in our ‘boats’ or lives?)
- Where is Jonah seeking comfort and where is he uncomfortable? (Where do we seek comfort and where are we uncomfortable?)
- Did he really repent when in the fish, a fact we might assume but the text doesn’t indicate clearly? (If not, what does that mean about our inner motive fulfilling our mission?)
- What did he tell the Ninevites that caused such an immediate repentance? (Who are the ‘Ninevites’ of our lives and how do we communicate with them?)
- If God is all about justice, why were the Ninevites forgiven instead of punished? (What is the nature of God revealed in Jonah? How do we think of God in terms of the balance between justice and mercy?)
- What is the relationship of Israel to the outside world?
It is this final question that is the giant ‘so what’ to me about Jonah. What is my relation, as a Christian today, to the ‘outside’ world, the world that isn’t of my church family or even Christian family?
This was brought home sharply while attending a Presbyterian minister’s friend presentation about his recent trip to Syria. Joining several other ministers in Lebanon, they went by military escort to Homs, a city I had visited and loved when traveling there ten years ago. Their mission was to bring prayer and support (since no other aid is allowed at present) to a city that has been under siege for years. Seeing the bombed out images of Christian churches, learning more of the thousands forced to flee their homes– now refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere–is heartbreaking if we leave it there.
But this minister, along with thousands of other Christians worldwide, is NOT having a ‘Jonah moment’, thinking only of his own comfort and biases. He knows, as do all who take up this call, that we must answer for those in the Middle East through active prayer and whatever specific additional steps come, to meet their needs. Jonah also tells me I have to equally pray and forgive those who have perpetrated their exodus.
Jonah demonstrates how all-encompassing God’s love is, and therefore how inclusive ours must be. The thousands of Christians forced to flee their homes in the Middle East after 2000 years, hope we’ve learned its lessons well.