From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
Jonah 2:1 (NIV)
In the film classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart plays the leading role of George Bailey. Stewart, with his easy-going manner and “aw, shucks” charm, was the perfect person to play the role. George Bailey is a character referred to as an “everyman” because he’s a basic human archetype to whom every viewer can relate.
Late in the film, as he feels his life unraveling, Bailey stands on a train trestle and talks to God. “I’m not much of a praying man,” he says as he begins to address the Almighty. It’s a great line because it reaches those viewers who are not religious. Religious people know all about prayer and will identify, but for the non-religious viewer, it makes both Bailey’s character and prayer accessible.
In today’s chapter, we find Jonah, the runaway prophet, trapped in the belly of a giant fish. The chapter records the prophet’s distressed prayer from his precarious predicament.
What I found ironic as I read the chapter this morning was the placement of the prayer in the story. Jonah is not a George Bailey, for whom prayer is reserved for life’s foxhole desperation. Jonah was a prophet of God. It was his life. It was his job. Prayer, study, and the proclamation of God’s word was his daily preoccupation. Jonah didn’t pray when God told him to go to Nineveh and preach to the Assyrian people. He didn’t wrestle with God on the subject or seek guidance, clarification, or the grace to help him understand the command. He simply, and defiantly ran the other direction.
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. A generation before Jonah the Assyrians had waged a bloody war against his nation. A generation later they would do the same. The people of Nineveh were Jonah’s enemies and the enemies of his people. Jonah’s struggle was not what God was calling him to do, but those to whom God was calling him to do it.
Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the better part of a year studying the Jesus Movement of the first century in the Book of Acts. One of the major themes in the book is the racism that surfaces between different groups of believers. Those of Jesus’ followers who were Jews from Palestine discriminated against those who were from Greece. Those Jews who were from Greece discriminated against believers who were non-Jewish Gentiles. It was a hot mess, but it pointed to a heart issue that is present in Jonah as well.
In asking Jonah to preach to the Assyrians, God is proclaiming that He cares about the Assyrians. He wants the Assyrians to repent of their ways and turn to Him. God is, in fact, demonstrating the very message His Son would preach a few hundred years later:
“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Matthew 5:38-48 (MSG)
Jonah now becomes the everyman archetype of his people who loved taking pride in being “the people of God” and “God’s chosen people” but had no interest in sharing the love or favor. Jonah doesn’t want to go to God’s enemies because he wants nothing to do with their repentance. He is like the Prodigal’s dutiful, hard-hearted older brother, only this time the father is asking him to go find his lost brother and see if he’ll come home.
Jonah is so adamant in refusing the call that he’s not even willing to pray and ask a few questions or to try and understand God’s heart in the request. But having barely survived a storm at sea, having been thrown overboard by non-Jewish sailors (who repent and turn to God), and having been swallowed by a giant fish, Jonah finally prays.
This morning I find myself standing in Jonah’s sandals. I have been a follower of Jesus for almost forty years. How willing have I been to show love for those who hate me? Jesus repeatedly points out, in His sermon on the Mount, that He doesn’t want His followers to do the easy thing (like loving the homers who love you) but the hard thing (reaching out to the evil Assyrians of Nineveh). Am I even willing to consider how I might have settled into the former while conveniently ignoring the latter?
Jonah is an everyman, a character with whom we can relate. In the quiet this morning I confess I find myself relating to him more than I care to admit. I am called to love, even those I would much rather ignore.