It is tempting to launch a scathing critique of the main character in The Old Testament book of Jonah. And, many commentators have heaped scorn and disapproval on the reluctant prophet God sent to Nineveh.

To be fair, the picture of Jonah that emerges in the book that bears his name is not particularly attractive. He appears to be an angry racist ethnocentric xenophobic bigot, not to mention, mean and vicious.

Jonah is instructed by God to go to Nineveh and issue a stern rebuke to the people of the “great city” of Nineveh. Instead of obeying God’s instruction, Jonah flees to

Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:3)

When eventually Jonah does go to Nineveh in response to God’s repeated command, the people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s words and immediately and unconditionally repent and

turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. (Jonah 3:8)

In response to this powerful transformation in the lives of the Ninevites, God is said to have

changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)

One would assume at this point that Jonah would rejoice at the spectacular success of his preaching mission to Nineveh. One would be wrong. Instead, Jonah becomes “angry”, and apparently refuses to believe that God in fact intends to spare the city. The prophet seems to have harboured the hope that, in spite of their obvious repentance, God would still punish the people of Nineveh:

Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. (Jonah 4:5)

Jonah’s last words in response to God’s question,

Is it right for you to be angry?

are,

Yes, angry enough to die. (Jonah 4:9)

For Jonah, there is no happy ending to this story. He seems to end the story precisely where he began. Jonah is angry against God, resentful of God’s mercy, and still hoping for the destruction of Nineveh. It is not a pretty picture.

It is no wonder that commentators for centuries have looked at Jonah as the embodiment of everything that is worst about religion. He is self-righteous, violent, and unforgiving. He lacks charity, does not seem to have an ounce of mercy in his being and is unable to see anything good in people whose lives and practices are different from his own.

At a time in the world where the incredible diversity of the human community increasingly presses in upon us, the example of Jonah is a salutary warning against the kind of racist, ethnocentric, xenophobic bigotry that seems to be on the rise in many parts of the world. When we miss the mercy of God, we will always do violence to the human community.

The vision of God that emerges in the Book of Jonah is a picture of the towering force of love that pursues all people regardless of race, creed, culture, or ethnicity working tirelessly to insure that all human beings on this earth may have a chance to open to the power of light and love that is their true identity.

In a strange way, this could be a comforting message for most of us. We probably all pride ourselves on being as inclusive, welcoming, and open to diversity as we possibly can. I am not like Jonah.

But, whenever my reading of any passage of Scripture leaves me feeling even the tiniest bit smug, I need to look more carefully and ask myself what I am not seeing here.

When I look more closely at the Book of Jonah, I begin to realize that, in fact, Jonah is not so far away from me as I might have at first assumed. The hand that points a finger at Jonah has three fingers pointing back at me. The Book of Jonah like all of Scripture is a mirror in which I am challenged to examine myself more honestly and see myself more clearly.

So, when I view myself in the mirror of the Book of Jonah, what do I see?

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