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The grumpiest disciple

Jonah and the whaleby Liv Larson Andrews

“I knew you were gracious and merciful!” We laughed together around the lunch table, repeating lines from the book of Jonah.

Earlier in the day, our team of worship leaders had led a rehearsal for the Easter Vigil that was part of a retreat on Lent and the Three Days. We worked with each reader of the Old Testament texts, and Jonah stood out as a favorite. The reader drew out the humor in the story, pointing right when he said “Nineveh,” and left when he said “Tarshish,” dramatizing Jonah’s outright refusal to follow God’s initial call. As we continued chuckling, a woman came and stood near our table. Her face was sullen and sad. When we quieted, she explained to us that Jonah was a deeply important story in her life, a profound story of repentance and forgiveness. By laughing and joking, we were making a mockery of sacred scripture. We fell silent.

I’ve never forgotten the look on this woman’s face, or the feeling in my stomach after she spoke to us. I wouldn’t in a million years wish to desecrate the Bible or tease another person’s faith. Had I done that? I felt sad—and a little defensive. Regardless of our intent, our group’s laughter had caused real hurt in this person. All of a sudden I was confronted with an unexpected need to make amends. Funny: I wanted to run the other way.

The urge to flee

Coming face to face with hurt we have caused is very much like taking a journey we’d rather forego. For Jonah, the trip to Nineveh represented the opposite kind of move: coming face to face with what hurts you. Nineveh was the stronghold of the Assyrian Empire. Maybe one of the dangers in reading the Jonah story too light-heartedly is that the Ninevites can be painted with a comic brush as well—becoming folk-tale big baddies instead of real enemies. Imperial dominance, such as that enjoyed by Assyria, can mean mortal threat, as their power is won by ongoing violence and expressions of might. Perhaps Jonah had seen neighbors and family members enslaved or killed by people from Nineveh. If we hear the story this way, we might cheer for Jonah getting into the boat going to Tarshish! After all, how would we respond if the voice of God asked us to deliver a word of warning to those who have been our cruel oppressors?

I treasure this aspect of the story: Jonah is never cheery about his task. He repents of his attempted escape. He is faithful, even praising God from the belly of the fish. But his heart remains unsoftened as far as the Ninevites and their situation.

Though he acts as the mouthpiece of God, though he truly enables a whole city of people to avoid destruction through repentance, Jonah doesn’t budge about his own feelings for them. He’s angry about their salvation, crying out, I think, with intended comic irony: “For I knew you were gracious and merciful!” I wonder if Jonah’s unmoved anger opens up a space for those among us whose hearts aren’t ready to forgive, but who also wish to act faithfully and follow Jesus’ command to forgive “seventy times seven.” Maybe there is a way to get on the boat God offers us, to let God carry us into a hard task, and to go about that task faithfully—even when our feelings don’t come along for the ride.

The Rev. Liv Larson Andrews is the pastor of Salem Lutheran in Spokane, Wash. She lives with her husband and young son, and dreams of hosting a lectionary-based cooking show..

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