A Very Funny Fish Tale

a sermon based on Jonah 3:1-5, 10
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 25, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

As we just heard today’s Lectionary text and children’s message are about Jonah, a biblical character swallowed by a fish because when God asked him to do something that he wooden’t. 1 Jonah’s not to be confused with Pinocchio a storybook character swallowed by a whale because he’s wooden.

I find it interesting that while a lot of people understand the story of Jonah as literally true, the story is better heard as a “fish tale” of another sort, it was very likely porpoise-ly meant as a “whale of a tale.” In other words, Jonah’s author probably meant it as a funny story, and hearing it as literal truth can be out of tune with that intent. There’s a saying that you can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish story. And . . .“Sorry Charlie!” . . . I know the fish puns may be getting me into trouble, but Jonah’s whole story works better as a fable than as record history.

So for today, without gill-t lets scale back any notion that it is history and take this op-perch-tuna-ty to find the heart and sole of the story. By the end of the sermon I hope you can say that “No trout about it, today’s sermon helped lure me out of a fishy way of hearing Jonah, because with the literal understanding we flounder.”

Just for the halibut, those were my opening thirteen puns, contained I might add on a quarter of a page in small font. The story of Jonah is two and half pages long in my even smaller font Bible, that’s about the length of some modern comedians’ set-up and joke. So consider yourself lucky about the short run of awful puns this morning!

We only heard a bit of the Jonah story in the Lectionary lesson. Some of us may recall the whole of the story, and we heard a good deal more in the children’s message but I’m going to retell it and put it in context to help us get the humor and the point of this prophet’s fish tale. 1

As we heard in our reading “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” There’s a first time I’ll get to in a moment, but I want to mention the importance of “the word of the Lord.” The word of the Lord is not just the Bible per se, “God’s word” symbolizes how God acts in creation. It is defined in the Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms as “God’s self revelation.”

In the Bible God’s Word or speaking often represents the very essence of God incarnate – present and acting in creation. We are told in Genesis that God spoke creation into being, God’s word gets the world going. We are told in the Gospel of John that Christ is the word of God, God revealed in Jesus. God’s word gets our religion going.

In the story today the word of the Lord, of course, is not the Bible coming to Jonah. It God’s revelation to get Jonah going to Nineveh. The first time God speaks to get him going Jonah doesn’t heed the call which unleashes a series of comedic events as Jonah tries to hide from God and God’s word, so the “word of the Lord” comes (as we heard) a second time. That God had to come a second time on its own evokes humor since Jonah as a prophet ought not to have to be told twice by God what to do. Right?

But Jonah does have to be told twice because he’s been running from God’s Word. See Jonah’s one of those self-righteous types who choose to ignore God’s word and try and do what they want instead, hoping God won’t catch up to them–which is funny because, seriously, how do you hide from God? The comedic irony of a prophet –a man of God– ignoring and hiding from God weaves throughout this story.

Prior to the second call that we heard about in today’s Lectionary reading, Jonah’s been dogged in amazing ways by the first call.

Jonah reminds me of a modern day televangelist and other holier-than-thou-religious types who hear the word of God but purposefully do their own thing; running from the mission of love, hoping to crush those they hate, blatantly ignoring God’s call to love and call to save everyone. That’s what goes on with Jonah, only to the delight of listener when this religious holier-than-thou type high tails it away from God’s call, we get to hear the slap-stick manner in which God chases after him.

In Chapter One the story starts with Jonah son of Amittai (ah-mit-eye) receiving the word of the Lord telling him to go to Nineveh and “cry out against it; for their wickedness has come out against me.”

Names in the Old Testament tell us a lot. Jonah in Hebrew can be heard to mean “dove” or it can be heard to mean “mistreatment.” Amittai (ah-mit-eye) means “truth.” So Jonah the runaway prophet’s own name humorously sums up what God uses him for, bearing peace like a dove, but also for what Jonah does, mistreat the truth by running from it, by avoiding the Word of God, not wanting to save those he (Jonah) doesn’t like.

So the first line of the Book of Jonah sets Jonah up as a religious man whom the word of the Lord comes to, but what happens from there on out he represents religious type who’ve been around for ages, a man of God mostly in name only. Of course the ironic twist is Jonah while not acting up to his name, is forced by God to live up to it nonetheless– that is how powerful God’s Word is, it can be heard and effective through even begrudging religious hypocrites. And more to the point is, that when the word of God is even barely followed it can transform the wicked and save lives.

See Jonah’s called to go to Nineveh and preach to the people there. Nineveh is basically the biggest baddest hometown of the Assyrians, then Israel’s arch enemy and a people Jonah wants nothing to do with helping. Jonah does not want to bring the saving grace of God– Yahweh– to them or have any part in saving them. So Jonah tries to run away. He goes down to Jobba and gets passage on a boat going the opposite way from where Yahweh told him go.

Jonah in Hebrew can literally be heard to symbolically step down to hell with his defiance, with his intentional travel away from God’s call. The Hebrew tells us he went down to Jobba, down in the boat, down in the hull and laid down to a deep snoring sleep.

At this point we are told God was not “down with that” behavior and starts causing things to be hurled to affect change. First a powerful storm is hurled, so powerful it causes even non-Jewish sailors to change allegiance and pray to Yahweh, but not Jonah. Then the sailors cast (hurl) lots to get an answer on who’s troubling Yahweh. The answer comes up “Jonah.”

Even then the non-Jewish sailors do not want to harm Jonah and they try to put him ashore. But that didn’t work, so Jonah rather than do as Yahweh asks, has the sailors hurl him down into the sea where he is swallowed by fish going down into her stomach. The fish then takes Jonah down into the depths for three days, symbolizing death’s three day journey down to Sheol–what we might call hell today. Down in the stomach, down in the depths, on the way down to hell Jonah finally prays which results in God causing the fish to vomit–“hurl” as we might crassly say – Jonah onto dry land.

To sum up, Yahweh calls to Jonah, a supposed prophet, to go save his arch enemy. Instead Jonah tries to run away from the all powerful, all seeing God by going down to the docks and down in a boat and down for a nap. So God hurls a storm at him that converts heathen sailors to do God’s bidding but not Jonah.  Jonah more stubborn than pagan sailors, hates his enemy so much he’d rather disobey God and be tossed into the sea, die and go to hell than preach to them. Consequently God begins to grant that wish, having him hurled into the sea and into the belly of a stinking slimy fish. On that hellish trip down to Sheol Jonah begrudgingly prays for life and is literally thrown-up onto shore. Where our Lectionary lesson finds him.

Can you hear how so far this story is kinda like a Saturday Live skit?

Think about Jonah as an angry Pat Robertson-like televangelist told to go to ISIS in Iraq, but instead he hops a cruise ship to Hawaii. Then while he’s napping in his stateroom God hurls a storm at the ship to change his mind which gets the Agnostic crew to pray to God, but not the televangelist. The Keystone Kop like crew consults a magic eight-ball about how to stop the storm, which tells them to throw the televangelist overboard – which the televangelist prods them to do so he can avoid going to ISIS. But he is not allowed to drown! Instead Charlie the Tuna swallows him and after three days her stomach is so upset by the obnoxious little man she vomits him out on the Iraqi shore. That’s the tenor of the story . . . the funny truth is that prophets who mistreat the truth of God’s word are no better than fish vomit.

So what happens when the word of God comes to Jonah a second time? Jonah’s told to get up, go to Nineveh “and proclaim to it that message that I tell you.”  So he “went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.” Nineveh’s a huge city that takes three days to walk across.  Jonah walked a day into the city, stops and cries out to no one in particular what may be the world’s shortest – and certainly one of the worst– sermons ever. Wanting to do as little as possible to help Nineveh, Jonah begrudgingly preached with no explanation these words: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s it.

But here’s the thing, that awful little sermon yelled out in the middle of the city by a terrible behaving self-centered little man, carried in it the bare bones gist of the truth of God’s Word. That nugget of truth–much to Jonah’s chagrin– was powerful enough to have affect. The people of Nineveh believed and in the reading we are told they “turned from their evil ways” and were saved from calamity.

The selected Lectionary verses leave off some more funny details that The Book of Jonah reports. When the king of Nineveh heard the news, the place goes crazy trying to appease God. First the king takes off his robe, covers himself with sackcloth and sits in ashes, then he decrees that every person and animal in the city is to fast and be covered in sackcloth and “cry mightily to God.”

Just picturing the herdsmen and farmers trying to dress unfed sheep, camels and chickens in sackcloth makes me smile. And the image of all the herds and pets and barnyard animals finally dressed and mightily crying out to God with similarly dressed and crying townsfolk makes for a comedic scene even Mel Brooks would be hard pressed to top. Plus there is the humor of the ironic twist that all the Ninevites – like the heathen sailors, but unlike Jonah– act without question on the word of the Lord. The king commands that “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.” And as we heard, they did as commanded and that changed God’s mind.

What was also left out the lesson is the story’s end. You’d think after all that Jonah saw and heard and went through he’d be changed too. He’s not. We are told that the saving affect of his preaching

“was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled . . . at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

Because God’s love is inclusive of his enemies Jonah asks that God take his life. Jonah hates that God’s love has no strings attached.

God responds with the question we should all be asking the Jonahs of the world “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah leaves in a huff and sits on the outskirts of the city brooding in a tent. The guy never stops acting like putz.

As Jonah sat sulking God caused a bush to grow up and offer more shade to him. “Jonah was very happy about the bush.” Then at dawn God caused the bush to wither and here is how the story ends

When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Jonah the great religious man is shown by God to selfishly care more for a bush and his own shade and his own way than for the lives of 120,000 mixed-up people! He’ having a tantrum because God caused him to help save 120,000 people. For all the miracles he has witnessed and the one he helped bring about Jonah remains unmoved and unconcerned and unloving for his enemies. He behaves like a jerk.

So what’s the point of the story? It’s not a literal historical truth. It’s truth of another sort, that God loves everyone and wants us to help everyone and that Jonah and his ilk will never learn. But that will not stop even those who behave like fish vomit from being used by God to bend the world toward salvation and love. Because God is concerned not just about prophets and religious folk who believe in God, but about everyone and everyone’s actions.

God loves us – and everyone else– whether we like it or not!

And like it our not God is going to use all of creation from storms and salty sailors, to icky fish stomachs and vomit and even icky people to save the world and end wickedness wherever it is.

As Jonah derisively puts the ultimate beautiful truth of the story: God is “gracious . . . and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah concludes this is an awful attribute of God. We are meant to see the folly in selfishly following a way that leads to such conclusions.

So…. May we be as unlike Jonah and his ilk as possible, to not only avoid being swallowed and thrown up by fish, but to live in ways that actually follow the word of the Lord whenever and wherever it calls us. May this be so even when it is to love and help our enemies–something God wants us to do even if we don’t want to do it. Because another truth is that sometimes we can all be like Jonah, standing in the need of prayer . . .

The moral of the Jonah fable: May we all live in tuna with God . . . AMEN.
1. The idea of the very humorous nature of this story and some of the ideas about the humor come from Lawrence Wood’s brilliant essay in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol, 1, pages 267-271 that covers today’s Lectionary text. I also relied on the New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary on Jonah to fill out the rest of Jonah’s tale and word meanings, etc.