Jonah and the Non-Ending

Jonah And The WhaleOver the last several weeks, we’ve been taking a look at a man who can best be described as an anti-prophet. Jonah was told to go to one of Israel’s mortal enemies, to preach a message that could potentially lead to their repentance. Knowing how gracious God can be, Jonah decided that the better idea would be to run in the opposite direction. God gave him a minor course correction and Jonah did indeed wind up preaching in Nineveh, although he just phoned it in. And then, when the brutal Assyrians repented, God tried to teach Jonah a lesson on feeling compassion for others through a vine and worm. God then tells Jonah that He has compassion for the people of Assyria.

The end.

Wait, what? That doesn’t seem quite right. It’s an abrupt ending, a non-ending really, because there’s an important question left unanswered: what happened to Jonah? Did the prophet finally (finally!) get his act together? Did he connect the dots, figure out what God was trying to teach him, and finally feel compassion for the Assyrians? Did he stubbornly hang on to his grudge, refusing to believe that God could possibly show grace to a group of bloodthirsty barbarians? Did Jonah go home, telling an incredible story to his people about how God can even forgive the worst of people, himself included? Or did he stay camped out on the outskirts of Nineveh, waiting and hoping and praying for the wrath of God? We have no idea. The author, whoever it is who wrote down this story, apparently decided not to tell us.

Now it’s possible that the author, whoever he may have been, decided not to tell us because he understood that Jonah wasn’t really the main character. The hero of the story is not the prophet who ran away but the God who sent him in the first place. Since God is the one who sent Jonah, the one who saved Jonah, and the one who decided to show mercy to the Assyrians, it makes a certain amount of sense to end the story where the author did. Jonah is a secondary character in the book, an obstacle that the true hero has to overcome.

But there’s also the possibility that the author non-ended the story as he did deliberately. He wanted us to ask those questions about Jonah. It’s not that the story doesn’t have an ending, it’s that the ending is open. He leaves the questions unanswered so we will ask those questions and wrestle with the answers.

This isn’t the only time that we see this sort of non-ending in the Bible. Jesus Himself does the same thing in my favorite parable, that of the Two Lost Sons. You may know that one as the Prodigal Son.

Now I won’t get into the full story here (maybe someday), but think about how that story ends. The younger brother has come home and is in the feast to celebrate his return. The older brother has refused to join the party. Their long-suffering father comes out and pleads with his older son to join them. The end.

But what happens? Does the older boy go in? Does he stubbornly refuse? How does the story end?

I would argue that Jesus left his story open-ended so that the people listening to the story, namely the Pharisees and teachers of the law, would ask themselves those questions, not only about the older brother, but about themselves. Would they welcome their “younger brothers,” namely the tax collectors and other sinners with whom Jesus was eating, back into the family? Or would they continue to condemn them?

In the case of Jesus’ parable, the non-ending was a way to hold a mirror up to the people who heard it in the hopes that they would see the error of their ways. And, I think, that’s what the author of Jonah was trying to do as well. I think the story of Jonah isn’t so much about one prophet who ran the wrong way. It’s really about how God’s people should react when He shows mercy to those we think don’t deserve it. Do we show compassion on them as well? Or do we pitch our lean-tos and break out the popcorn in the hopes that we can watch the wrath of God destroy those jerks?

Human nature being what it is, we want to see those we consider our enemies suffer. We’re hardwired to want eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth justice. But God calls on His people to transcend that visceral reaction. Jesus says as much in His Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jonah the Anti-Prophet is not just a fish story. It’s actually a reminder to all of God’s people of every generation that we are called on to emulate God’s compassion and mercy. We shouldn’t cluck our tongues at Jonah and his silliness too much, because in reality, Jonah is a stand-in for us. So when we ask the question of what Jonah should have done at the end of the book that bears his name, what we’re really asking is what we should do in our lives.

So what are you going to do, Jonah?

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One Comment:

  1. Excellent. Great thoughts.

    I wonder – what if the book of Jonah was written by Jonah? That would suggest that he finally figured out that God was what was important and not him. (I’m not saying that’s the case, but just that it would be interesting).

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