Jonah the Missionary

For the last few weeks my Bible study group has been looking at the lives of 19th and 20th century missionaries. It was my turn to lead the study last week but I was in a bit of a bind. I don't know much about any missionaries. To make a long story short I decided to look at the contrast between the missionaries we had been learning about and Jonah. It was a stark and stunning contrast. The missionaries we had so far looked at were women who had gone to great lengths to get to their mission fields. They sacrificed family, health, comfort, and safety. They laboured for decades in often hostile environments and often didn't get to see the spiritual fruits of their labours.

Jonah on the other hand was a man with a reputation for being a prophet of God. No one would have stood in his way had he chosen to go directly to Nineveh as God had commanded. Instead he chose to run from God. Let me say that again, he chose to run from God. Jonah, a Hebrew, who most certainly knew the history between God and the Hebrews tried to run from God. We had a good laugh over Jonah's feeble attempt to avoid God. But our mirth was tempered by the knowledge that sometimes we get the same hare brained idea that we can somehow avoid God.

As the story goes Jonah hops a ship to Tarshish thinking what, that God wouldn't find him there? Then God lets loose a storm that has the sailors on that ship fearing for their lives. These gentile sailors caught on pretty quickly that they were not caught in your average run of the mill Mediterranean storm. They determined that Jonah's actions had brought God's wrath down upon them and proceeded to rectify the situation. Jonah goes over board, the storm goes away, and the ship is saved.

After his three day trip in the belly of a fish Jonah finally decides to do what God told him to after all. Once liberated from the fish's stomach Jonah makes his way to Nineveh. There he tells the city's denizens to repent which is exactly what they do. In repenting of their sins the Ninevites are spared God's wrath. Now any other missionary would have been incapacitated with joy to have their message so readily received. But not Jonah. Jonah throws a rather melodramatic fit declaring,
"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." (Jonah 4:2, 3 NRSV)
Jonah sounds a bit like a disgruntled teenager doesn't he? In contrast to Jonah the missionaries we had been studying would likely have prayed that it would be better for them to die if it meant that more people would come to know God.

Jonah stuck around outside of the city to see what else was going to happen (no doubt hoping that it would be spectacularly messy). God being gracious and merciful set Jonah up with a nice shady plant to sit under. The next day he took the plant away. Jonah proceeds to have another better-off-dead freak out session.
But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die." (Jonah 4:9 NRSV)
Jonah is either really brave, really stupid, or really confident about God's grace and mercy because at this point I'd be worried that God would say okay and make me lunch for some hungry creature.
Then the Lord said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor 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 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?" (Jonah 4:10, 11 NRSV)
I think the best thing that could be said about Jonah at this point is that his concern for the nation of Israel made him hesitant about playing a part in the salvation of Israel's enemy.

While we laugh at Jonah for trying to run from God and shake our heads at his complete lack of compassion for Nineveh how many of us have his same attitude? How many of us have our own Nineveh that we would rather leave to suffer the wrath of God? How often do we put our own comfort and self interest before sharing God's word with those who don't know their right hand from their left? Too many of us have our pet heathens that we like to kick around too much to actually go to them and share the love of God with them.

The silver lining to the dark cloud of Jonah's bad attitude is that God still used him to bring about the repentance of the people of Nineveh. God can bring people to salvation inspite of our bad behaviour and bad attitudes but wouldn't you rather have him bring people to salvation by our compassion?

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