It’s hard to classify the book of Jonah. Is it prophesy, fable, history or satire? As a book of prophecy, Jonah says relatively little about God’s message and a lot about Jonah’s personal adventures trying to escape doing what God wants.
The book as a whole and especially this passage (Jonah 3:1-5) includes three theological messages about God. First, God is persistent. Second, God is the God of all people. Third, God is compassionate. These messages are part of the season of Epiphany. They show that God has been constant since the time of Adam and Eve: that he is the God of all the peoples of the earth, and: that he cares about all people.
Jonah’s story starts before Sunday’s reading with the following: The word of the Lord came to Jonah … “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrians, who constantly menaced the whole of the Middle East of eight century BCE. They were ruthless and infamous for their cruelty to those they conquered. To Jonah, preaching repentance to the Assyrians had seemed like a very bad idea.
Immediately Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish, on the coast of Spain, just about as far away as one could go in the opposite direction. During the trip, the sailors threw him off the boat since they believed that God had afflicted them with storms because of Jonah. Then God had Jonah swallowed by a whale and vomited up on the shore near Nineveh.
This is where the reading for Sunday, January 21, begins.
The Lord said to Jonah a second time, “Go immediately to Nineveh, that large city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah went immediately to Nineveh, as the Lord had said. (Now Nineveh was an enormous city—it required three days to walk through it!) When Jonah began to enter the city one day’s walk, he announced, “At the end of forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!” The people of Nineveh believed in God, and they declared a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.
While Jonah went immediately to Nineveh his commitment was less than wholehearted (as the story subsequently tells us.) Nevertheless, he did what he was told and preached repentance. When he did, the Ninevites repented and God saved them.
In Mark’s gospel Mark 1:14-20, Jesus appears to pick up both Jonah’s and John’s message. After John was imprisoned, Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God. He said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel!”
The story of Jonah’s call and mission is the mirror image of, the call of Andrew and Simon, James and John in the gospel. Unlike Jonah, however, they followed Jesus immediately.
As he went along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother, casting a net into the sea (for they were fishermen). Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will turn you into fishers of people.” They left their nets immediately and followed him. Going on a little farther, he saw James, the son of Zebedee, and John his brother in their boat mending nets. Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
Follow me in the Greek usage, meant following in an intellectual, religious or moral sense…not just ‘walking behind’. Mark stresses that they followed immediately in response to Jesus’ call, suggesting both the power of Jesus’ call and his attractiveness.
The story of Jesus’ call of the first four disciples begs a number of questions.
- What was it that they saw in Jesus?
- Would we be as responsive to a call from him?
- What does our contemporary response to Jesus’ call look like? How are we to be ‘people fishers’?