Celtic Evening Prayer for Autumn


Tonight, we explore the Book of Jonah.  It’s much more than the story of a man who ends up in the belly of a whale. This Scripture helps define the relationship between God and humanity, showing the pettiness of the human participant, Jonah.

Scripture: Jonah chapter 4

The Book of Jonah is similar to the Book of Job, which we met a couple of Sundays ago. It’s a parable, not about a real person.  It addresses the relationship between Jonah, a human person, and God.

This evening’s Scripture comes at the end of the story

Overview of the story

Jonah is a play in four acts, each of which corresponds to one of its four chapters.

Chapter 1 is the best known. Johan receives a call from God to go to Nineveh, and preach repentance to them for their sins. Jonah disobeys. He gets on a ship going the other way. A storm blows up, and the sailors blame Jonah. He must have done something wrong. Eventually they throw him overboard and he lands up in the belly of the whale.

Chapter 2 is Jonah’s prayer. It ends with Jonah being spewed up onto the land.

Chapter 3 begins with another call from God. This time Jonah does not disobey. He goes to Nineveh, and cries out in the streets that the city will be destroyed within forty days. The king of Nineveh foresees what will happen, so he fasts, and sits in sackcloth and ashes, as signs of repentance. He tells the population that they, and even their animals, must all do the same. God sees that they are sincere, and changes his mind about destroying them and their city.

Now to our reading, Jonah, Chapter 4

Act 4 of Jonah has three scenes:
Scene 1: Jonah is angry because God did not carry out the divine plan to destroy Nineveh. Basically, what he says is, “Why did I bother to come here and preach for you?” God challenges Jonah, “What right do you have to be angry?” In other words, “I’m God, you are just a mortal.”

So Jonah stomps off and sits on a hill outside Nineveh, hoping that the Ninevites will get their comeuppance after all.

Scene 2: God makes a bush grow to shade Jonah while he sits in the sun. But next morning, a worm attacks the bush.  It shrivels up, leaving Jonah roasting in the hot sun. That makes Jonah even more ticked off.

Scene 3: God asks again, “What right do you have to be angry?” You are angry about the bush, which grew and then withered without any input from you. But I, God, am concerned with the fate of all the inhabitants and animals in Nineveh.

What we learn

Just as in the Book of Job, we see that God has tested the mortal being. Whereas Job passed the test, and did not curse God, Jonah’s response is different. He disobeys God by refusing to go to Nineveh (Chapter 1). When God gives him a second chance, he goes with bad grace, and actually hopes that Nineveh will be destroyed – schadenfreude.

So he’s angry when God spares Nineveh. Maybe he’s angry with God or with the Ninevites, or both. Either way, we see Jonah as an example of human pettiness, someone who is angry when he doesn’t get his own way.

The story of Jonah strikes me as an excellent counterpoint to the Thanksgiving season. He shows us exactly the human qualities that we hope not to put on display in our lives.