Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Jonah

Leaving Us with a Question: Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A — September 21, 2014


On the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 21, 2014, this sermon was offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day, RCL Proper 20A, Track 2, were Jonah 3:10-4:11, Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, and Matthew 20:1-16. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)


Jonah and the Gord VineLet’s talk about Jonah. When I say something like “Let’s talk about Jonah,” I have to be more specific. I have to tell you whether I mean “Let’s talk about the Book of Jonah” or “Let’s talk about the character of Jonah portrayed in the book” or “Let’s talk about the Prophet Jonah.” In this case, I mean all three: let’s talk about the book, character, and the prophet — although, to be honest, the prophet’s name really isn’t Jonah; we don’t know the prophet’s name — and that, I hope, will be clearer in a moment.

So, first, the book. The Book of Jonah tells a story from about the end of the 8th Century BCE, but it was written 300 or so years later in the late-5th or early-4th Century BCE. It is addressed to the people who have just returned from the Babylonian exile, who have come back to Jerusalem under the leadership of the priest Ezra and the governor Nehemia. Under Ezra’s and Nehemia’s oversight they are rebuilding the Temple, reestablishing Jewish worship, and (very likely) canonizing the Torah (the five books of Moses).

This is the social milieu within which the book is written. The story in the book, however, is set about 350 years before, around the year 700 BCE. Back then, Judea and its capital had been a vassal state under the Assyrian empire. It was under Assyrian rule that the “ten lost tribes of Israel” were lost. Under a particularly ruthless and brutal king named Sennacherib, the Assyrians became rather unhappy with the Judeans, and laid siege to and sacked Jerusalem in 701 BCE.

We know a lot about the Assyrians because they kept really good records. In the 1800s archeologists discovered the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh (that name should ring a bell!) consisting of more than 30,000 cuneiform tablets recording Assyrian history. In addition, the Assyrians were fond of illustrating their history, particularly their military victories, with sculpted and brightly painted bas relief murals. In one of the royal dining rooms of Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, for instance, there still exists such a sculpture depicting the siege of Lachish, another Judean city captured and destroyed at the same time as the siege of Jerusalem. We know from this mural and from other records that Lachish fared much worse than Jerusalem; its leaders were tortured to death and the town was leveled. That mural in Sennacherib’s dining room shows (in rather graphic detail) the Jewish leadership of Lachish being flayed alive by Assyrian soldiers.

So that is the setting of the story: it was written shortly after the end of the Babylonian exile and set at the time of the brutal Assyrian siege of Jerusalem and Lachish. However, the story of Jonah is not history. It is set in historically verifiable places — Israel, the Mediterranean Sea, and the city of Nineveh — at an historically verifiable time — about the high point of what is called the “Neo-Assyrian Empire,” but it is not itself history. It is, in fact, a work of fiction.

How do we know that? Well, there are several indicators, but let’s just look at a few glaring examples. First, not in the part we read today but in the first chapter, Jonah tries to escape his commission from God by fleeing to Tarshish (about which more in a moment). Instead of traveling northeast to Nineveh, he books passage on a ship heading west, and what happens? You know the story: a big storm kicks up, the sailors become frightened and convinced that some god is trying to kill them, they determine that it’s Jonah’s God, and they throw him overboard. The storm comes to an end and Jonah is swallowed by a “big fish” in whose belly he survives for three days. That ought to be the first clue that we are dealing with a fanciful tale: there are no fish (or other animals) native to the Mediterranean Sea big enough to swallow a human being and, if there were, it would be physically impossible to live three days inside one. (Certainly, I’m not suggesting that God could not have provided a miraculously big fish equipped as a mini-sub; I am suggesting that it’s unlikely.)

The second hint is the description of Nineveh. We read in Chapter 3 that “Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.” (v. 3) But we know from archeology that that’s just not the case! The city of Nineveh was not quite 1900 acres, which is a little less than 3 square miles. It was, maybe, 1-3/4 miles across. You can walk that in under 40 minutes.

The third clue to the fictionality of this story is in the meat of the story itself. Just before the portion we heard today, the king of Nineveh, ruthless and brutal Sennacherib, in response to Jonah’s prophetic proclamation that the city would be destroyed in forty days, rises from his throne and issues this decree:

By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish. (3:7-9)

If there had ever been such a decree or such a nationwide fast in Assyria, it would have been mentioned somewhere in those 30,000-plus tablets in the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal. But it’s not. There’s not the slightest bit of evidence that such a thing ever happened.

So, there you have it, a little bit of fiction, a short, satirical story (and it is short — only four brief chapters) plunked down in the middle of the Bible’s records of prophecy. But that’s OK; through the medium of this short satire a theological truth, a prophetic message is nonetheless conveyed. The prophetic import of the Book of Jonah, however, is not to be found in the words of its principal character, as is the case in most of the prophetic record. The prophetic message of the Book of Jonah is in its principal character himself, not in what he says, but in what he does and in what he represents. The Book of Jonah is prophecy the same way that Hosea’s marrying a prostitute was prophecy, the same way Micah’s wandering the streets of Jerusalem naked was prophecy, the same way Jeremiah’s failure to mourn his wife was prophecy. The people of Israel and Judea saw their one unfaithfulness reflected in Hosea’s spouse, their own shame in Micah’s nakedness, their own bereavement in Jeremiah’s loss. And the people of 4th Century Jerusalem recently returned from the Babylonian exile, would have recognized themselves in the character of Jonah.

In his book And God Created Laughter (Westminster John Knox: 1988), Presbyterian pastor and Professor of Religion Conrad Hyers, wrote this about this character:

Certain details of the comic caricature of Jonah, for instance, are more apparent in the Hebrew. No doubt these allusions were clearer to the people who first heard or read the story.

The opening words of the book of Jonah are a case in point. “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai.” Innocent as these words may seem, in Hebrew they contain two important allusions that are central to the comedy that is to follow. Jonah means “dove,” a metaphor sometimes used for the people of Israel, as in Psalm 74:19. Now the image of the dove brings with it a trail of associations that — as the story indicates — are the opposite of what Jonah (Israel) really is.

The dove is associated with hope, as in Noah’s sending out a dove to find land after the flood. Yet this dove (Jonah) behaves in a most contrary manner: sent out to warn of impending destruction, he refuses lest the judgment be averted. The dove is also associated with the theme of escape from troubles and evils, as in Psalm 55:6, “O that I had wings like a dove.” Yet this dove (Jonah) tries to escape from his mission in the hope that Nineveh cannot possibly escape from doom. The dove is further associated with love, as in the Song of Solomon, in which the beloved is dovelike: “My love, my fair one . . . my dove” (2:13,14). Yet this dove (Jonah) has not only no love for the Ninevites but not a penny’s worth of sympathy or pity. Jonah is no dove at all; he is a hawk. Perhaps the only Hebraic association that is directly applicable to Jonah is that he is “like a dove, silly and without sense” (Hos. 7:11). Certainly, flightiness and silliness aptly describe Jonah’s behavior throughout the story.

The other ironic allusion in the opening words is contained in the phrase “son of Amittai.” Amittai means “faithfulness.” A second contradiction with which the story is to deal is announced at the start. This “son of faithfulness” is completely disobedient. His response to the divine command is totally contrary to it. “Dove son of Faithfulness” flies off in the opposite direction lest he become the bearer of the least olive leaf of hope, love, and salvation. (pp. 99-100)

Prof. Hyers mentions Psalm 74 as one instance in which the dove is a symbol for Israel; others are found in the Prophets Hosea (7:11) and Jeremiah (48:28). Surely, this short story’s first readers would have recognized this.

They would also have recognized Israel in Jonah’s tendency to do the opposite of what God had commanded and would have seen allusions to their own worship and liturgy. Prof. Hyers mentions two examples from the sacred poetry of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. Another is found in Psalm 139:

Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast. (vv 6-9, BCP Translation)

In the story, as I mentioned earlier, Jonah is told to travel to the northeast to Nineveh. Nineveh still exists: today it is called Mosul, a city in Iraq with which we have all become familiar because of current events and recent news coverage. To get there from Jerusalem, Jonah should have traveled north to Damascus, then east to Baghdad, then north again to Nineveh, a journey of about 865 miles. Instead, Jonah tried to go west about 3,000 miles to Tarshish. Tarshish is the Hebrew variant of the Greek city name Tartessos, a city in Spain. Today, it is called Cadiz. Located on the Atlantic coast of Spain, to the west of the strait of Gibraltar, it was as far to the west as someone in the ancient Middle East could imagine going! Once one sailed past the Pillars of Hercules, there was nowhere to go, except to drop off the edge of the world. It was truly, in the words of the Psalm, “the uttermost parts of the sea.” And yet, even by going there Jonah could not flee from the presence of the Lord, even there God’s “right hand held him fast.”

So . . . we know now that the Book of Jonah is a short story, perhaps a satirical or humorous one, relaying through the medium of fiction a theological truth. We know that the people of post-Exile Jerusalem would have recognized themselves in its principal character, Jonah. Jonah is called a prophet but, in truth, he’s more like a missionary. Prophets were usually commissioned to speak to God’s own people, whereas Jonah was commissioned to convey the message of God’s justice to a foreign people. When prophets were commanded to speak to foreigners, it was usually to those living in the territory of Israel or Judeah; Jonah is commanded to travel almost 900 miles to the foreigners’ own country to convey God’s message. Try as he might not to do so, he ends up having no choice and eventually preaches to the Ninevites as God requires. And, unlike most prophets, he is actually listened to! The Ninevite king issues that decree that all the people and animals will fast, and they do so.

And what happens? God relents. Instead of destroying the city as the wicked and sinful Ninevites deserve, God pardons them and Jonah gets righteously angry, and this is where we entered the story in today’s lesson, at the very end. Jonah says to God, “See? I knew this would happen!” In the words of the text, “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.”

Jonah is so angry that he just wants to die. “Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” This is when God does the thing with the bush which grows up overnight, provides Jonah with shade the next day, then dies leaving Jonah on the following day to withstand the desert sun and heat. This just makes Jonah madder, so he repeats his death wish, “It is better for me to die than to live.” God, using the plant as a teaching tool, replies, “You are concerned about the bush . . . should I not be concerned about Nineveh . . . ?”

And, guess what? That’s the end of the story! God, in good rabbinic fashion using what we call “the Socratic method,” teaches Jonah — who is really the people of Israel — by leaving him — and them and us — with a question.

Jonah and the Israelites want God to be fair. These Ninevites, these Assyrians, are terrible, brutal, despicable people; they attacked and conquered God’s Chosen People; they flayed human beings alive; they decorated their dining rooms with color pictures of this being done. If God were fair, God would wipe them out; that’s what Jonah (and Israel) want. Instead God says, “Shouldn’t I rather be compassionate and merciful?” And leaves them — and us — to contemplate that question.

Whoever the nameless prophet who wrote this little story was, he was brilliant, because there is only one answer to that question just as there is only one answer to the question Jesus poses in gospel parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Hired at different times of the day, some at first light, others throughout the day, and the last just an hour before quitting time, they are all nonetheless paid the same wage. When those who worked all day complain, when they want the owner of the vineyard to be fair, the owner (God!) replies, “Shouldn’t I rather be generous?” And Jesus leaves his disciples — us — to contemplate the question.

Of course, we don’t want God to be fair! If God is going to be fair to “them” (the Assyrians, the later workers, whomever), God is going to be fair to us, too. Is that what we want? Wouldn’t we rather that God be compassionate and merciful and generous?

The good news is that that is what God is. Amen.


A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!


Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

God Is A Nag! – From the Daily Office – October 16, 2012

From the Book of Jonah:

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Jonah 1:1-3 – October 16, 2012)

Jonah Going the Other WayJonah’s a fool! Trying to flee “from the presence of the Lord.” As if! This lesson today is an interesting contrast to Sunday’s Eucharistic Lectionary reading from Book of Job (Job 23:1-9,16-17) in which Job was bewildered and confused because he felt unable to find God: “Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!” (Job 23:2) Jonah, on the other hand, would be perfectly happy never to find, or be found by, God.

If one is trying to avoid God, one might take C.S. Lewis’s advice:

Avoid silence, avoid solitude, avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your own grievances. Keep the radio on. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully. But you’d be safer to stick to the papers. You’ll find the advertisements helpful; especially those with a sexy or a snobbish appeal. (Christian Reflections, Eerdmans: 1967, pp. 167)

None of this will work, of course. As Job and Jonah both found out, God finds us. We don’t have to worry about where God is and we can’t avoid God; God knows where we are.

For a long time I avoided the call to ordained ministry: “No, I’m happy as an active lay man,” I would tell my bishop when he asked (yet again!) about entering the priesthood. But God, as the Book of Jonah makes perfectly clear, does not take “No” for an answer. I finally gave in. God pursues you! God wears you down! God won’t let you get away!

There are often times when I wonder why God was so insistent, when I think I’m really, really bad at this parish ministry stuff, when I am sure that God, the church, and I made a horrible mistake. But even at those times I know that I could not be doing anything else, that if I tried to leave the ministry and do something else God would chase after me again as God chased after Jonah.

I’m pretty sure that God chases after everyone. Everyone has a calling to some job, some task, some ministry in this life, and this Book of Jonah witnesses that God will pursue us until we do it. Jonah was a fool to think he could flee God! God simply won’t let go. I’ve always thought this book could be summarized in one short sentence: God is a nag!


A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!


Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Fasting Is a Given – Sermon for Lent 4B – March 18, 2012

Revised Common Lectionary for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; and John 3:14-21

Continuing our series of sermons in answer to parishioner questions, today we will explore fasting. A member of the congregation asked, “What is fasting and why do we do it?”

The simple answer is that fasting is going without some or all food or drink or both for a defined period of time. An absolute fast is abstinence from all food and liquid for a period of at least one day, sometimes for several days. Other fasts may be only partially restrictive, limiting particular foods or substance. The fast may also be intermittent in nature; for example, Muslims fast during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan which is intended to teach Muslims patience, spirituality, humility, and submissiveness to God. Fasting as a spiritual practice is common to all major religions. Mahatma Gandhi once noted:

Every … religion of any importance appreciates the spiritual value of fasting … For one thing, identification with the starving poor is a meaningless term without the experience behind it. But … even an eighty-day fast may fail to rid a person of pride, selfishness, ambition, and the like. Fasting is merely a prop. But as a prop to a tottering structure is of essential value, so is the prop of fasting of inestimable value for a struggling soul.

In the Bible, the people of God in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures fasted for a variety of reasons:

  • They were facing a crisis. For example, the prophet Joel called for a fast to avert the judgment of God. (Joel 1:14, 2:12-15), and the people of Nineveh, in response to Jonah’s prophecy, fasted to forestall God’s judgment (Jonah 3:7).
  • They were seeking God’s protection and deliverance. For example, King Jehoshaphat in the Second Book of Chronicles proclaimed a fast seeking victory for Judah over the attaching Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chron. 20:3).
  • They had been called to repentance and renewal. The Psalmist, for example, in Psalm 109 cries:
    O Lord my God,
    oh, deal with me according to your Name; *
    for your tender mercy’s sake, deliver me.
    My knees are weak through fasting, *
    and my flesh is wasted and gaunt. (vv. 20,23)
  • They were asking God for guidance. Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai before he received the tablets on the mountain with God. (Deut. 9) St. Paul did not eat or drink anything for three days after he converted on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:9)
  • They were humbling themselves in worship. The Book of Acts reports that it was with “fasting and praying” that the members of the church in Antioch “laid their hands on [Barnabas and Saul] and sent them off.” (Acts 13:3)

So fasting has a long and venerable history in all religions including our own. Indeed, Jesus assumed that his followers would fast. You may remember the lesson from Matthew’s Gospel which is always read on Ash Wednesday in which Jesus admonishes the disciples:

Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

In this passage Jesus doesn’t say, “If you pray … if you give … if you fast” but rather “when you pray … when you give … when you fast.” He simply expected his followers to do so. Did you know that fasting is mentioned more than 30 times in the New Testament? For a Christian, then, fasting is not an option. It should not be an oddity. Fasting, according to Jesus, is just a given.

During this season of Lent when we “give something up,” we are engaging in the spiritual discipline of the fast. We do so in remembrance of and in solidarity with Jesus during his forty days in the desert. We do so in remembrance of and in solidarity with our spiritual ancestors, the Hebrews, who spent forty years in the desert, often without food or sustenance. In today’s reading from the Book of Numbers, for example, “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’” God’s wrath, of course, was kindled against them because of their complaining, but they were humbled by their privation. When we “give up something” (whether it be food or drink or some other thing that we enjoy), we are fasting and our fasting is a reminder of our own humility and own hunger for God. By refusing to feed our physical appetites, what St. Paul in today’s epistle lesson calls “the passions of our flesh” or “the desires of flesh and senses,” we become aware of our spiritual hunger.

The Baptist preacher and author John Piper, in his book A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer, encourages fasting with these words:

If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. God did not create you for this. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food and the dangers of idolatry, and to say with some simple fast, “This much, O God, I want you.” (Pg 23)

Fasting is a way to bring into view those things we may need most to set aside but of which we are often unaware. In today’s lesson from John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that in the coming of the Son, “light has come into the world” and then says:

All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3:20-21)

In his book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Quaker theologian Richard Foster commends fasting as a way of bringing things to light:

More than any other single discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David said, “I humbled myself with fasting” (Ps. 69:10). Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we know that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ. (Pg. 48)

But when we fast, we must not delude ourselves into believing that the fasting itself is earning us any “brownie points” – it is not through our good deeds, including our fasting, that we earn salvation. Indeed, we cannot earn salvation. St. Paul reminds us of that forcefully in today’s epistle: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)

Thinking that the act of fasting itself could earn God’s reward was condemned by God speaking through the Prophet Isaiah:

[You say,] “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (Isa. 58:3-8)

So fasting is a spiritual discipline, but only when done with the proper prayerful attitude, the proper religious understanding – when done “in secret” as Jesus said in the Ash Wednesday reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Fasting is not so much about food, as it is about focus. It is not so much about saying “No” to the body, as it is about saying “Yes” to the Spirit. It is not about doing without; it is about looking within. It is an outward manifestation to an inward cry of the soul, a surfacing of those things that need to be brought to light, not to be condemned, but to be saved.

Let us pray:

Support us, O Lord, with your gracious favor through our Lenten fast; that as we observe it by bodily self-denial, so we may fulfill it with inner sincerity of heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men, Collect for Friday after Ash Wednesday, pg. 34)