By Ted Furlow
In a mindless moment, I let the “Cruise Director” talk me into signing up for classes at Cal State, Long Beach. We would attend the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute together…sweet, just like our college days. Osher is an independent affair on campus, whose goal is to be a school for learners 50+. I think of it as a program for delinquent seniors, someplace to keep the geezers off the 91, and to stop the looting of buffets with hidden Tupperware.
My wife knew I would be ishy about doing it, so she cleverly sealed the deal by signing us up for a Hebrew Bible class taught by a Hassidic Rabbi, and the guy was fabulous. Luxuriously proportioned and gravelly voiced, he was a bushy haired dynamo who lectured like a Borsch Belt comedian. Listening to this man, who for six weeks exposed us to the Jewish perspective of the Word, opened a door to some of the Judeo origins of our Christianity and gave us a new appreciation for the foundations of our faith. The early weeks covered the trials and tribulations of Adam and Eve, Ruth, David, Saul, and Solomon. They are all good topics, all relevant and all well explained, but it was the last week that bridged the Torah to the modern world for me. The topic was Jonah.
Jonah is perhaps the shortest of the Prophetic Books of the Bible, and it is written in the format of a short story. It is a narrative rather than a series of statements, a fable very much in the model of Aesop with a whale as a supporting actor. Like the creation myths of Genesis, it is a test of reality and a story that goes against the reader’s expectations, much like the parables of Jesus. It is also a story with an unexpected twist, and while most people know some of the elements of Jonah, I venture that few know the ending.
God called Jonah to save some people he despised, the Assyrians in Nineveh. He refused, and that refusal to obey and his subsequent antics, sets the stage for a great story that has at least four themes. First it is written as a humorous story, a comedic series of missteps by Jonah and the other characters who are as amusing as they are farfetched. Second, the subject matter isn’t just the whale or Jonah’s journey, but it’s about having a proper attitude towards people that you disapprove of or dislike. Third, it is a critique of religious zeal, something familiar to all of us in the judgmental finger pointing of today’s Christianity. Fourth, it is an example of God’s relentless influencing of us to do His will. It recalls the lyrics of the late Jim Croce … “you don’t pull on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger…” and you don’t refuse God.
For Christians, the story of Jonah has some theological impacts. In Matthew 12:39 Christ, responding to a challenge from the Pharisees for a sign, offers that no signs will be given but the sign of Jonah. Theologians often compare Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale to Jesus’ three days in the tomb. Others see Jonah’s tribulations and sufferings as a precursor to the sufferings of Jesus on the cross; the often painful path to God’s will. I personally found value in the end of the story.
Jonah is irreconcilably upset with God. The folk of Nineveh had repented, and God had accepted, but Jonah, steeped in his anger and zealotry towards the Assyrians, wanted them not to be forgiven but destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah. Disappointed, he goes outside of the city, sits himself down and waits to see what will happen. At first, God provides him a leafy gourd plant, a Kikayon tree, to spring up and give him shade from the burning sun, but the next morning, God sends a worm to destroy the leaves, and a burning wind so Jonah would suffer. This sets up the final piece of the story, as Jonah, a whiney ideologue, is vexed over his loss of shade.
God asks Jonah if he has a reason to be upset and Jonah says, ‘yes.’ God then asks Jonah if he can be so concerned over a tree that God gave him, one that cost him nothing and required neither merit nor effort on his part, should not God be concerned over the people of Nineveh, concerned enough to show his love and mercy to those who repented?
And with that, a reproof of Jonah, a question mark, and no response, the Book of Jonah abruptly ends.
Is it up to us to answer God’s question? Can we be so unencumbered with life’s inconveniences, our privileges, our whininess, and our personal zealotry, to be concerned about the Assyrians in our life? Can we overcome ourselves to act in God’s goodness and mercy? Unlike the Book of Jonah, this story goes on and these questions call for a response—yours.
Ted Furlow retired as Director of Pastoral Planning in the Diocese of San Bernardino and continues in marriage preparation ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.