I am re-reading a great little book by Michael Frost called "Jesus the Fool". It is currently out of print, but is well worth the read if you can get your hands on it. In chapter 3, provocatively titled "Jesus the jester" he examines the story of Jonah. Now this is a book that I had heard of as a child even though I didn't go to Sunday school. The idea of being stuck in the belly of a whale was both novel and disturbing for me as a child, and a favourite story of Religious Education teachers. I guess I have not really given the book much thought beyond still being bemused about the whale (what would it be like to be surrounded by the digestive juices of a host beast?). So thanks Michael for taking me out of the belly of the whale and showing me the point of the story. Jonah was a reluctant prophet. I can imagine that the job description for 'prophet' does not have broad appeal at the best of times. What is worse for Jonah is that God does not ask him to be a 'prophet' amongst his own people. No, Jonah was to go to Ninevah, to the Babylonians. The story occurs at a time when Israel was licking its wounds from the Babylonian exile, and re-establishing its difference to the culture that had dominated it. Israel was actively shunning everything to do with Babylon or anything non-Jewish. It is therefore unsurprising that Jonah is not at all thrilled by the prospect of calling the occupants of Nineveh to repentance. So Jonah follows the only course he can think of – to flee from God and the absurd request. He ends up in Tarshish (Spain, apparently), and then through an amazing series of events, the belly of the whale. Eventually Jonah realises that he can't escape God and the call placed on him. He goes to Nineveh and does what God has told him to do. Amazingly, the Babylonians repent and believe, and are spared the judgment that Jonah had foretold. They seek forgiveness, and receive it. Jonah is actually mightily unpleased by this turn of events.
As I read Michael Frost's comments on this well known story, I was struck by the similarities between Jonah, the Israelites, and churches today. We don't want to go to Nineveh. We are too busy working out what it means to be a Christian, setting standards that are hard for others outside of the church to meet. We develop program after program to refine these processes. We allow people outside the church to come in if they change to look and behave like us. We want to spread God's message – amongst those who are like us already. We prefer to run away than go into the places we deem as being God-forsaken, beyond hope, beyond redemption. We are so busy trying not to be like the world that we don't actually allow ourselves to be part of it enough to permeate the love and good news of Jesus. Let us be in the business of building bridges not walls.