“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.’”
Two things strike me about the opening of this odd book, Jonah.
First is that the message is to “cry out against” Nineveh. It’s not calling the Ninevites to repentance; Jonah is not John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness. Jonah would have known the story of the Flood, when God despaired of the wickedness of the people and blotted out all of humankind and the animals and creeping things and birds of the air, except for Noah and his family, and the animals they brought with them in the ark.
And he would have known the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Without getting bogged down in a discussion of exactly why God chose to destroy those cities, it would have been obvious that, if God is provoked by wickedness, God has not just the ability but also the will to destroy them.
Jonah would also have been familiar with the Psalms, such as Psalm 58: the people of Israel also called for judgment of the wicked in no uncertain terms. “Vanish,” “wither,” “dissolve”—these are not words that speak to a gracious mercy or steadfast love. While the God of the Hebrew Bible is not merely an angry God of wrath and smiting, there is plenty of wrath and smiting, as well as asking God to smite.
This message Jonah has been called to deliver is a hard one, forecasting dire consequences.
The second thing that strikes me, related to the first, is the directness and clarity of the statement: “go at once to Nineveh.” “Cry out against it.” God speaks to Jonah in unequivocal terms: it’s not a dream, or some other kind of sign which necessarily needs to be interpreted.
I can’t quite imagine what that would be like: I think I would be terrified. Of course, history is full of men and women who have been quite sure that God spoke to them like this. Some, such as those in the 1700s who spoke out against the evils of slavery in America, have been vindicated by history; others, with the passing of time, just seem to be crazy. Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive categories. Insofar as Jonah is part of our tradition, we assume that he’s not crazy, and I take the fact that he immediately runs away as a sign of sanity
I mention these two pieces together because Jonah is usually portrayed as petty or pouty or unreasonably irritable. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. He hears an unambiguous message, and he runs just as fast as he can the other way, in order to avoid God and the burden that God has placed upon him. There’s a lot more going on there than pouting.
For the sake of completeness, let me fill in the rest of the story, since it may have been a while since you’ve read it: Jonah gets on a boat headed for Tarshish, which is as far away as possible—if God had sent Jonah to Los Angles, Jonah was headed for Portland, Maine. But a storm comes up and threatens the boat; the sailors, who aren’t Israelites, pray to their own gods, to no avail, but through the casting of lots realize that Jonah is the problem. Since the sailors are polytheists, they have no problem believing that Jonah’s god is the one causing the storm, but they aren’t happy that the solution seems to be to throw Jonah overboard. They ask God—Yahweh, the God of the Israelites—for mercy, not wanting to shed the blood of an innocent man, before heaving Jonah over the side of the boat. Immediately, the storm stops, and this truly terrifies the sailors since it indicates God’s power, and it’s a lot more than anything they’ve seen from their own gods.
And thus we come to the part of the story everyone remembers: a big fish swallows Jonah, and Jonah sits in the belly of the big fish for three days and three nights. While in there, Jonah prays a fairly long prayer, thanking God for deliverance from the ocean, and hoping for mercy. Personally, I wonder how long Jonah was inside the fish before he started praying: at least at first, being in the belly of a big fish couldn’t have seemed like a good thing, no better and possibly worse than simply drowning.
After three days and three nights, Jonah is spit out onto shore. He then goes to Nineveh and tells them that they shall be destroyed in forty days.
This is the true crux of the story: the Ninevites believe Jonah, and repent.
But here’s the twist, the thing that makes it significant: in repenting, they gain God’s favor, and aren’t destroyed after all. Which ought to be a good thing, but Jonah is irritated.
The conversation between Jonah and God which follows the Ninevites’ repentance is the reason that people think of Jonah as quarrelsome: but I think it’s more complex than that. If we take Jonah at his word, the reason he ran away in the first place was that he knew that God was gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. In other words, Jonah was given an unambiguous message that he simultaneously believed was from God, and would not be carried out: God is telling me to say this, but it’s not going to happen. If I had a message like that, I’d run away too. Torah is clear about false prophets: “If someone speaks in the name of the LORD, but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken.” [Deut 18:22, NRSV]
And what do they do to false prophets? “That prophet must die.” [Deut 18:20]
Even if Jonah doesn’t think that the Ninevites will kill him—after all, presumably the whole reason that God found them to be wicked in the first place was that they weren’t following Torah—his credibility will still be ruined. No one listens to the boy who cries wolf, and Jonah knows that. When questioned about it, God gives a fairly standard Old Testament response: who are you to question me?
So: what are we supposed to take away from this story?
As I indicated earlier, I don’t expect God to speak to me, at least not with such directness and clarity. However, I do have a sense of duty which is intimately related to being a part of a religious body and living my life in a way that is appropriate to that community. I try to behave morally and with integrity, and I expect the same of others.
Most of the time, there’s not a problem: I’m not usually tempted to murder, or to steal, or to bow down before false idols. But what do I do with the imperative for justice, the imperative for peace, the imperative for a healthy environment? That is, what do I do with those imperatives that seem to be clear, unambiguous, and which move me deeply, but which at the same time I recognize that my own actions will never be sufficient, and my words will not be heeded by most of the people who hear them? It’s enough to make me want to get on board the next ship to Tarshish. It’s not that I am unable to bring these messages, but I see that they are futile. I can object to the war in Iraq, but it will continue; I can speak out against the economic disparity and social evils in the US, but they will continue. I can speak out against the wasteful excesses of our culture, but my commitment to a sustainable simplicity doesn’t seem to have any discernable impact: I can reduce, reuse, and recycle, but the mountains of trash continue to grow, polluting the air and the water. These may not be your imperatives, but I suspect that each of you have issues about which you feel strongly, and yet as individuals are unable to make any significant difference.
Theologian Kathryn Tanner asks, “How are hopelessness in the face of present troubles, complacent inactivity regarding suffering and injustice, and irresponsible self-concern, to be avoided?” [Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, 103] That is, the problems seem overwhelming, our ability to deal with them insufficient; and yet the imperative remains. What are we to do?
Tanner answers the question by saying, “Failure to succeed is a not… a reason for despair.”  “[O]ne is obligated to act simply because this is the only way of living that makes sense…” 
This, I think, is the message of Jonah. Jonah has to go to Nineveh, and the consequences are outside of his control. The results of many, perhaps most of our actions, are ultimately outside our control. I don’t want to sound too much like Immanuel Kant, but the only part we have control over is our intentions, the motives for our actions (and Kant would note that even there, most of the time we act out of decidedly mixed motives).
Doing the right thing, acting with integrity even if it seems futile, is the most important thing, even when the world doesn’t seem to notice.
Sometimes it just takes time: generations before slavery was abolished, for instance—but it was abolished. A century after Jonah visited Nineveh, that great city was finally destroyed, and the prophet Nahum rejoices in that destruction: “Nineveh is devastated: who will bemoan her?” [Nahum 3:7]
We must act with a persistence that outlives us, with faith that all will be made right in the fullness of time.