Fish Tale and Forgiveness, Jonah 3:1-10

Last week’s text from I Samuel raised a tough question: are some sins beyond forgiveness?  I hadn’t looked ahead in the lectionary then but was pleased to find that the Hebrew text from Jonah for this week offers a great response to that question.

Ask most people what they know about Jonah, and you will get “Jonah and the whale” as their response.  It’s a familiar story kids learn about and sing about in Sunday School, but it is more than a big fish story (which is what the Hebrew says, not a “whale” per se).  I’m not a fisherman, but I’ve always been attracted to Jonah and even chose it as the text for the first sermon I ever preached, way back in 1969.  At the time my wife asked me why that text.  She said, “What does that story mean for us today?”  My response, “Don’t go swimming with big fish.”

Of course, it means much more than that if we take time to ask some basic questions, like what was Jonah doing in the water and why was he swallowed by the big fish?  It’s a very short story, only 3 pages, and it makes much more sense if read in its entirety. But here’s the abridged version:

  1.  God calls Jonah and tells him to go on a mission to Nineveh.
  2. Jonah doesn’t want to go and jumps on a ship headed for Tarshish (in the exact opposite direction) instead.
  3. God is not pleased and causes a storm at sea, and when the sailors learn that Jonah is the reason for God’s displeasure, they throw Jonah overboard.
  4. God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Not to punish him, by the way, but to save him and give him time to reconsider God’s offer.)
  5. After 3 days God has the fish spit Jonah out; and Jonah decides this time he’d better listen to God, heads for Nineveh and delivers God’s message.
  6. The people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning, repent of their sins, and are forgiven and saved from God’s judgment on them.
  7. Jonah pouts because he really wanted God to give the Ninevites hell, not mercy.

So there’s a lot more going on here than Jonah and the fish.  It’s a story about a refusal to say yes when God’s wishes are very plain.  Jonah’s call is not ambiguous as is sometimes the case. The message from God to Jonah couldn’t be more clear and direct: “Go at once to Nineveh” (1:1).    There is no failure to communicate here – just reluctance to obey.  And we all know how smart it is to say “no” to God; so why would Jonah even try?  To answer that question requires a little history lesson.  Nineveh was the capital of Babylon, a hated enemy of the Hebrew people.  Ironically, for our contemporary context, Nineveh sat about where modern day Baghdad is located today.  Given that context, we know what Jonah was being asked to do was take a warning to the people of Nineveh so they could be forgiven and spared from God’s wrath.

Jonah knew, as he says in 4:2, that Yahweh was a God of mercy and would forgive those hated enemies of his people.  Put yourself in Jonah’s place.  Fill in your own favorite enemies: liberals, conservatives, 9/11 terrorists, Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers, Muslims, Evangelicals, bitter athletic rivals, business competitors, lawyers, former spouses – whoever it is that you would like to be the very last people God would forgive.  That’s who Johan is being asked to save and why he is a reluctant prophet who dares to defy a direct order from God.  As the story unfolds we see it is one of repentance – Jonah repents of his obedience after God gives him a three-day time out in the smelly innards of a fish.  The people of Nineveh repent after they hear Jonah’s message from God.  And even God gets in on the act and repents of his judgment against the people of Nineveh.

Which brings us, finally, back to last week’s question about unforgiveable sin.  And the answer is “no.”  If God can forgive the enemies of his chosen people who destroyed Jerusalem and carried God’s people off into exile, what could be unforgiveable?

Jonah is a foreshadowing of the grace-filled Gospel of Jesus, which turns on its head the vengeful, don’t get mad, get even theology we often prefer in our Jonah-like assessment of who deserves forgiveness.  Jesus states that Gospel as clearly as God calls of Jonah.  “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  And, ‘You’ve heard it said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:38-44).

That doesn’t sound like a God who would hold anything unforgiveable, does it?   That’s the Amazing Grace we sing about that “saves a wretch like me.”  So, then why does it say in last week’s text (I Sam. 3:14) that the sins of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for forever?  David Stackpole, one of the best students I ever had in preaching class, interpreted that I Samuel text in a way many years ago that made a lot of sense to me then and still does.  David pointed out a couple of key words in I Samuel 3:14 that are easy to read over when our attention is captured by the harshness of the other words in the verse.  He pointed out that the verse doesn’t say their sins cannot be atoned for; it says they cannot be atoned for “by sacrifice or offering.”

We sometimes fall into the trap of imposing our human limitations on God.  Someone once said, “God created us in God’s image, and we return the favor.”  In this case those limitations involve too narrow concepts of not only who and what God can forgive, but how.  The Hebrew theology of Samuel’s day saw sacrificial offerings as the default means of seeking God’s forgiveness.  Ironically, it was Eli’s son’s misuse of sacrificial offerings that got them in hot water.  (See last week’s post for details.)  Eli’s sons corrupted sacrifice as a means of grace with their own selfishness and deceit; so how could something they had no respect for and had broken trust with be a vehicle for finding their way back to God.

But because humans spoil one gift from God doesn’t mean God can’t come up with others.  To put those kind of limits on God would limit God’s power and render God unworthy of our trust.  Jonah tried putting parameters on God’s forgiveness, and we see how well that worked for him.

God’s forgiveness cannot be bought with sacrifice or offering.  But it can be accepted as a freely given gift by those who are humble enough to know we need it.  The Ninevites were forgiven because they repented and admitted their sin (Jonah 4:6-9).  There are multiple scriptures that attest to God’s merciful nature.  The prophet Isaiah (1:18) says, “Though your sins be as scarlet I will make them white as snow.”   Jesus says to his executioners from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).  I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Yes, I know, there are many counter texts that argue for the vengeful God Jonah wished upon his enemies (like we do).  Those texts were written by angry men who wanted their enemies to suffer, but be very careful of that two-edged sword.  Those who live by that unforgivable doctrine will stand under the same judgment.  See living in glass houses and throwing stones?

God’s grace is free.  It can’t be earned by bigger checks in the offering plate or making greater sacrifices of our time and effort.  It is simply poured out in an overflowing cup for those who repent and truly seek it.  What are you waiting for?  There is no need to carry that heavy burden of guilt and anger another day.  God who can show mercy on reluctant, disobedient Jonah and on his dreaded enemies in Nineveh can certainly forgive us too.

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