I love the Book of Jonah for the same reason I watch The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Both use humor and satire to make their point.
Sometimes it can be hard to hear the humor in the Bible. We so revere the text, calling it holy scripture, that we forget to notice if the story is ridiculous beyond belief. But that’s what happens with Jonah, a ridiculous situation.
The fish, or whale as we think of it, should be a clear enough sign of ridiculousness. People in the time of Jonah knew fish didn’t swallow people up and then regurgitate them on shore. The whole point of the image is not awe at the miracle but a chuckle at the expense of Jonah. In Hebrew, Jonah prays in very archaic language, which we tried to capture by having him switch from a modern translation to the King James. The original author did this so we wouldn’t take Jonah seriously, just as you wouldn’t take me seriously if I started praying, “Thouest Holiest Lordest.”
The editors of the Bible placed Jonah immediately after Obadiah so that one prophet really commented on the other. And they did so as a sort of rebuke to prophets like Obadiah. Obadiah, as we tried to capture him today, was a prophet of intolerance. He thought God loved only him and his kind; and so he called down God’s vengeance on those “other people,” the people of Edom, the neighbors whom Obadiah hated.
The editors of the Bible didn’t suppress the story of Obadiah. And we have to be honest: his strain of intolerance runs through our Bible. He’s not the only one to speak against “others.” But in important ways, the editors of the Bible tell other powerful stories of the foreigners whom God loves. And Jonah is one of those stories.
From the beginning, Jonah proved himself an awful prophet. God told him to do something; he ran the other way; to Tarshish, the end of the world. Meanwhile, the pagan sailors, the “others,” show great faithfulness - first praying to their gods, then wanting to spare Jonah’s life, and finally by praying to Yahweh. The pagan sailors had far more faith than Jonah.
But the farce moves into high gear when Jonah arrives in Nineveh. He says one word and suddenly everyone in Godless Nineveh realizes their sin, repents, and prays to God. Again, it’s ridiculous: even the animals put on sackcloth. Imagine it: everyone is so sad that even the dogs dressed up for a funeral.
Which is just what Jonah didn’t want. When the people repent, when they do what the prophet told them to do, he got very angry and depressed. “I knew this would happen because you’re a God of grace and mercy.” This is Obadiah and every prophet of intolerance hitting rock bottom: God loves everyone. Jonah would rather die than live in a world where God loved his enemies.
And that’s where the humor in Jonah turns serious. We see the cost of Jonah’s hatred and intolerance: he would rather die than love as expansively as God.
It makes me wonder: what does intolerance and hatred cost us?
We need to tell this story of Jonah because we live today with prophets of intolerance. This weekend we heard it in the extreme. News broke of a plot by three white men in Kansas, the “Crusader Militia.” These men planned to bomb a housing complex where many Somali Muslims lived. They, like Obadiah, wanted people different from themselves to die.
So we see it in the extreme and we know it’s wrong. But we also face it in more everyday ways. In the quiet acceptance of inequality. In the pervasive segregation of our region. In the privileging of white experience as the norm.
Jonah wanted to go to the ends of the earth rather than Nineveh. In the end, God asked him, “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?”
And isn’t that the question we need to ask in our hearts too; “should we not be concerned about Nineveh?” Should we not be concerned about Aleppo? Should we not be concerned about Sherman Park? Should we not be concerned about all those people we treat as “others”? Should we not be concerned about the way quiet intolerance makes us run to Tarshish instead of facing our own privilege and prejudice?
Alleluia and Amen.
THE STORY OF JONAH
Prelude - The Pompous Prophet Obadiah (Twitter Feed on Screen)
(Obadiah takes pulpit to the tune of Kill the Wabbit)
The vision of Obadiah. Thus saith the Lord God concerning Edom; We have heard a rumour from the Lord, and an ambassador is sent among the heathen, Arise ye, and let us rise up against her in battle.
Shall I not in that day, saith the Lord, even destroy the wise men out of Edom, and understanding out of the mount of Esau?
And thy mighty men, O Teman, shall be dismayed, to the end that every one of the mount of Esau may be cut off by slaughter.
For the day of the Lord is near upon all the heathen: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee: thy reward shall return upon thine own head. For as ye have drunk upon my holy mountain, so shall all the heathen drink continually, yea, they shall drink, and they shall swallow down, and they shall be as though they had not been.
And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them; and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau; for the Lord hath spoken it.
I must do something to challenge Obadiah. Do something dramatic. I could save the Ninevites! Whom shall I send? [pause] I’ll text Jonah! [looking at phone] He’s in my contacts somewhere. Janus. Jove. Jonah. [typing] Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.
[looking at phone] This can’t be God. I’ve been hacked! The Russians are stealing my emails.
NARRATOR: [SAILORS take center stage and mime pulling ropes, etc.; JONAH lays down on choir chairs to sleep]
Jonah got up and went the other direction to Tarshish, running away from God. He went down to the port of Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went on board, joining those going to Tarshish—as far away from God as he could get. But God sent a huge storm at sea, the waves towering. [SAILORS ACT as if being blown around, Gilligan’s Island underscore]
SAILORS: [ad lib, overlapping]
The ship will be torn into pieces! We’re all going to die! This is the perfect storm!
Let us all call out to our own gods and goddesses!
SAILORS: [ad lib, overlapping]
Baal, save us! Molech, save us! Zeus, save us!
We must lighten the ship; through the cargo overboard. [SAILORS mime throwing stuff]
SAILOR 3: [to Jonah]
What’s this? Sleeping! Get up! Pray to your god! Maybe your god will see we’re in trouble and rescue us.
Let’s get to the bottom of this. Let’s draw straws to identify the culprit on this ship who’s responsible for this disaster. [SAILORS draw straws; JONAH gets the short one]
Confess. Why this disaster? What is your work? Where do you come from? What country? What family?
I’m a Hebrew. I worship God, the God of heaven who made sea and land.
What on earth have you done!”
God told me to go to Ninevah and save the people. I’m running to Tarshish instead.
What are we going to do with you—to get rid of this storm? [SAILORS are still miming rough seas]
Throw me overboard, into the sea. Then the storm will stop. It’s all my fault. I’m the cause of the storm. Get rid of me and you’ll get rid of the storm.
Let’s row to shore!
We’ll pray to your God: Yahweh! Don’t let us drown because of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for his death. You are God. Do what you think is best.
They took Jonah and threw him overboard. [SAILORS push JONAH towards pulpit] Immediately the sea was quieted down.
SAILORS: [no longer being buffeted]
Praise be to Yahweh. Alleluia. [SAILORS exit]
[during underscoring of Who Lives in a Pineapple Under the Sea?, the NARRATOR reveals the stuffed fish, dances it around, and hands it to JONAH]
Then God assigned a huge fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the fish’s belly three days and nights.
JONAH: [praying pompously, still holding fish. Jonah is praying as if he was devout but he didn’t follow God’s command, his faith here is a show (and showy), we’re not meant to think Jonah is being honest or authentic]
I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me;
out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.
For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas;
and the floods compassed me about:
all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.
Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight;
yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.
The waters compassed me about, even to the soul:
the depth closed me round about,
the weeds were wrapped about my head.
I went down to the bottoms of the mountains;
the earth with her bars was about me for ever:
yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord:
and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.
They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.
But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay that that I have vowed.
Salvation is of the Lord.
NARRATOR [imitates fish retching]
I can’t take this prophet any more! [NARRATOR takes fish and “expels” JONAH]
Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.
NARRATOR: [JONAH dragging his feet]
Jonah entered the city, and went one day’s walk.
In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.
NINEVITES: [with real show of piety, authentic faith (opposite of Jonah)]
Yahweh, forgive us!
We must fast!
And dress in burlap to show we’re sorry.
Everyone -- rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers, even our dogs and cats.
See, even the king got up off his throne, threw down his royal robes, dressed in burlap, and sat down in the dirt.
Not one drop of water, not one bite of food for man, woman, or animal, including your herds and flocks! Dress them all, both people and animals, in burlap, and send up a cry for help to God. Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quit being angry with us and let us live!
NINEVITES AND KING:
Praise be to Yahweh! Alleluia! [exit]
God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn’t do.
[to Narrator] Uggh! I Knew This Was Going to Happen!
[to God] I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness! I want to be a prophet like Obadiah, preaching fire, but you had to have other plans - forgiveness, mercy, love. Well, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead! [JONAH stomps around and sits under one of our palm trees.]
What do you have to be angry about?
God arranged for a broad-leafed tree to spring up. It grew over Jonah to cool him off and get him out of his angry sulk. Jonah was pleased and enjoyed the shade. Life was looking up!
But then God sent a worm. By dawn of the next day, the worm had bored into the shade tree and it withered away. The sun came up and God sent a hot, blistering wind from the east. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head and he started to faint.
I’m better off dead!
What right do you have to get angry about this shade tree?
Plenty of right. It’s made me angry enough to die!
What’s this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?
Obadiah - Bill Cumming
Jonah - Mark Bucher
God - Charlie Marsh
Narrator + Fish - Barb Parkman
Sailors & Ninevites - Chris Jameson, Chuck Lawton*, Donna Kummer