Today’s reading is drawn from Jonah 4:4-11.
God wants the people of Nineveh to turn to him or he is going to destroy them. So he calls Jonah to deliver his message.
But Jonah, well aware of how horrendously violent the Assyrians are, doesn’t want to go. He gets on a boat that’s sailing in the opposite direction from Nineveh.
God won’t let Jonah shirk his instructions. He sends a storm, and Jonah and the crewmen eventually figure out that Jonah’s disobedience is what has angered God, who in turn has angered the sea. When Jonah is thrown overboard, the storm stops, and God sends a large fish to swallow him. God won’t let his prophet drown.
After a three-day time-out in the fish’s belly, a repentant Jonah is ready to go to Nineveh. He heads straight there. He preaches God’s message and the people of Nineveh wholeheartedly repent. God withholds his judgment.
But instead of rejoicing, Jonah is angry. Jonah complains that he knew God would be merciful. Sulking, Jonah travels to a place east of Nineveh and waits to see what will happen to the city. There God teaches him an object lesson about God’s goodness.
The King’s Heart
God could have sent another prophet. He could have allowed Jonah to sink to the sea bottom and called on someone else to deliver his message to Nineveh.
But God mercifully sends a lifesaver, a fish. God wasn’t giving up on Jonah. He continued to show him his goodness.
In the same way, God could have destroyed the violent Assyrians. They were cruel enemies of his people with a national practice of beheading and impaling those who were in their way. But God mercifully sends them a prophet, giving them an opportunity to turn from their wicked ways.
Even though Jonah had a three-day chance to learn about God’s goodness, he apparently didn’t learn it completely. He pouted when the Assyrians repented and God relented, and Jonah does the same when the plant God sends for him withers. But God gave Jonah the same grace he gave the Assyrians. He didn’t give up on him; he patiently explained his reasoning, even when he didn’t have to.
It is ludicrous. The God of the universe doesn’t need to let his creations in on what he’s doing and why. But God doesn’t view his relationship with us that way. God wants his prophet — and everyone — to see his good heart.
Jesus uses Jonah’s three-day fish belly experience to illustrate his upcoming situation of spending “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” in explanation of his death and resurrection (see Matthew 12:40).