This Sunday we will read in worship a snippet of the story we know as “The Book of Jonah”. It’s the whale story. But, really it is more about the man than the fish and I don’t like the man.

It’s not the book I find difficult; I love the “The Book of Jonah.” It is full of wisdom, insight, compassion and deep honesty. But the main character serves as a cautionary tale rather than an appealing portrait of a person one might want to emulate.

Jonah is a bad theologian.  He foolishly believes he can flee “from the presence of the Lord”. He has not understood the teaching of his own tradition that, the problems of life emerge when we believe that there is anywhere we can hide from the divine Presence (cf Genesis 3:8). Jonah has failed to take to heart the testimony of Psalm 139 which goes to great lengths to affirm that there is nowhere that God is absent.

Jonah has chosen to be unconscious. When the boat in which he is seeking to escape from the “presence of the Lord” is caught in a terrible storm, Jonah is in the hold of the ship “fast asleep” (more accurately “deep sleep”.) He is unaware of the reality of his situation and unsympathetic towards the sailors whose lives he has put in danger.

He is a liar and a deceiver. Confronted by the sailors, Jonah affirms that he is a worshiper of the Lord God (Jonah 1:9). The prophet Samuel is clear that worship and obedience go hand in hand. True worship cannot be separated from obedience to the word of the Lord who is being worshipped (I Samuel 15:22). Jonah has heard the “word of the Lord” and chosen to disobey.

Jonah has a horrible vision of God; he believes God can be appeased by human sacrifice (Jonah 1:12). He stirs up a huge and dangerous storm as a result of his self-willed denial of God’s will. And Jonah is divisive, vindictive and judgmental. He is an unforgiving, mean human being. When the Ninevites repent in response to the message Jonah delivered, he becomes angry and depressed. Jonah wanted the city of Nineveh to be “overthrown.” God’s grace infuriates the prophet.

The point of the whole book is to set up a contrast between this unattractive main character and the real hero of the story. The hero of “The Book of Jonah” is God who asks at the end of the book,

should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ (Jonah 4:11)

The God of “The Book of Jonah” unlike the prophet, is a God of mercy and compassion. God understands that the people of Nineveh have lost their way; they are hurt and broken. God wants them to see their condition and return to truth. Note, in God’s original instruction to Jonah, there is no mention of destruction of the city of Nineveh. Destruction is Jonah’s addition to the message God gave him. God is looking for sincerity and transparency.

And yet, strangely, for all his failings, Jonah serves as God’s instrument to bring reform to the people of Nineveh. The God of grace and mercy is able to bring healing even through the resentful, bitter, angry words of such an unattractive character as Jonah. But, please be clear, Jonah is no hero. To the end of the book, there is no evidence that he ever repented of his mean vindictive judgmental attitude toward the people of Nineveh. Jonah is not a character to emulate.

In the broken, confused, world we inhabit, Jonah is not the prophet we need.

The prophet we need today describes herself as

a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother.

She spoke “the word of the Lord” with clarity and force on Wednesday 20 January at the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States of America. In her poem “The Hill We Climb”, Amanda Gorman said,

Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one should make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in in all of the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it

This is the prophetic voice we need to heed. It is a voice which calls us to follow the God of grace and healing rather than the “prophet” of vengeance and division. God is in the business of building bridges that unite, rather than walls that divide.

Let “The Book of Jonah” be today a cautionary tale calling us to a brighter and better tomorrow.


To view Gorman reading her poem go here: