Reflecting on the Prophets: Jonah 3

By Bill Mefford

Each week (hopefully), I will look at a chapter in book of the Minor Prophets, moving through them chronologically. As it should be with the Prophets, I will reflect on what they are saying in their context and relate it to ours. 

So, after his initial refusal, Jonah makes his way to Nineveh, an extremely large city as described in the book. And if we are to believe only what is written on the page (something I am usually inclined to do), then Jonah gives a fairly simple plea in the most ineffective way possible. He walks to somewhere near the middle of the city and shouts out, "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And upon that pronouncement, the people of Nineveh all believed in God. 

Yeah, something is missing here. 

No mention of God, no mention of what it is to believe in God, and not even a mention by Jonah of who he is and why he is standing in the middle of the city making such a proclamation. Some dude walks to the middle of this big city and yells out what appears to be a random line and gets the response of collective repentance by everyone in the city. Even the King who never heard him directly immediately repents upon hearing his message second hand and declares a day of fasting for everyone. 

Not bad for a day's work. 

I have to honest, this all seems so random. Just walking into a city and yelling something that is quite alarming, but without any context or ascribed call to change and then to get the response described here means the people of Nineveh, along with their king, were either very easily induced into following random town criers,or something was happening among the people of Nineveh that had prepared them for Jonah's proclamation. 

I opt for the latter choice, believing that God's prevenient grace was at work among the people of Nineveh, readying them for the announcement from Jonah. Prevenient grace is a term made famous by John Wesley that refers to God's work among people prior to their decision to follow God. This is God wooing those whom God loves and is actively reaching out to. This is divine preparation for a divine meeting. 

And this must hearken us back to the beginning of Jonah when he refuses so strongly to go to Nineveh that he literally and eagerly runs the other way. But God's call comes to Jonah a second time, it says in verse 1. God is wooing not only the people of Nineveh, but Jonah as well to Jonah's purpose. 

The lesson for us, as it was for Jonah, is to not cross off our list any people. No one is beyond the salvific love of God. We can never be sure who will be ready to hear the invitation to repentance, even if comes from the most random of calls. 

This chapter underlies the common practice among churches across the theological divide - from liberal to conservative - to focus their help on the "deserving" poor, leaving behind those deemed "undeserving." I have said it repeatedly and I will say it again here: there is no greater blasphemy in the church today than determining whether someone is "worthy" of receiving grace. This is idolatry. Taking on the role of determining whether someone is worthy of compassion and mercy is taking the role away from God. 

But yet, churches do this daily and the reason why they do so is because they say they are unable to meet all of the needs. They are right. When budgets are so skewed by immense building costs, by inward-focused programming and by denominational pressures to financially support arcane, crumbling, and irrelevant institutional infrastructure, then churches do struggle to adequately meet the needs of the poor and vulnerable in their communities. 

The problem is we cannot use self-indulgence to defend our idolatries. 

So, I pray the call comes to us, like it did to Jonah, for the 2nd time. Or for some of us the 202nd time. And that this time we would heed our call to Nineveh. God is preparing the hearts of those who will hear us and God is preparing us too. 

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