Running from yourself
The cowboy philosopher Will Rogers said, “Nothing is as stupid as an educated man if you get him off the thing he was educated on.” Don’t believe it? I have more than ninety hours of graduate level education in religion, theology, and social sciences but you could make me look like and ignorant savage by asking me to solve an algebraic equation. When we get out of our comfort zones and away from those things which we feel good about, those places we feel like we belong in, we start sticking out like sore thumbs. And when we get uncomfortable, we tend to want to run away.
Case in point, the great twentieth century theologian, Henri J. M. Nouwen. Nouwen used his degrees in theology and psychology to take a penetrating look into the mind and heart of Christianity. His books on the spiritual life and pastoral counseling are still best sellers and required reading for most if not all seminaries. The Catholic priest was a professor at Harvard and Yale before taking a position as priest at L’Arche Daybreak, a small community of mentally and physically challenged adults outside Toronto in Canada.
Yet for all his work and all his accomplishments, Henri struggled inside. A bundle of emotional contradictions, Nouwen was insecure and constantly sought the approval of others, his identity wrapped up in affirmation for being a good priest, author, and teacher. Never mind that he was a bestselling writer and noted speaker, Henri was convinced that he was not good enough. More than all of this, Henri was convinced he was not loved, by God or anyone else. Henri hid behind his work and his ministry, running from himself and the pain he felt. For years he ran from his feelings, his emotions, himself, until it finally caught up with him and his emotional life fell apart.
When his closest friendship fell apart, he had a complete emotional breakdown and had to leave ministry at L’Arche for intensive therapy. Through this therapy and support from friends, Henri recovered, writing his reflections as a series of daily imperatives to live by. During this time, Henri stopped running and faced the pain in his soul and the fear at its heart. The journal of imperatives would eventually become a book, The Inner Voice of Love, where Henri would come to grips with God’s love and the acceptance of that love. And when he had finally come to accept that love, Henri stopped running.
Jonah takes a lap
Running from God is not unusual. People the world over and across time have spoken of and written about trying to find ways of avoiding God or what they feel God would like them to do. No one is immune to this feeling, not even prophets of God.
And Jonah was just that, a prophet of God, one called to hear from God and then speak those words to king and country. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah was the son of Amittai, the prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II. In the story, God encouraged Jeroboam II to expand the borders of Israel through the guidance given to Jonah as speaker for God. We do not hear about Jonah again until we get to the story that bears his name.
The story of Jonah’s adventure wastes no time in getting to the point. “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” This follows the basic pattern of the prophetic exercise: go somewhere, say something to someone on God’s behalf. Normally, we see the prophet getting up and going to wherever they are sent, saying whatever God said to say.
While there are occasions that prophets were forced to flee from those they spoke to like Elijah before Jezabel (1 Kings 19:2–3) or Uriah before King Jehoichim (Jer. 26:20–23), Jonah does something odd: he runs away before he delivers the message. Verse three of chapter one says, “But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so, he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.” In other words, Jonah is trying his best to get as far from God, more importantly as far from the objective of Nineveh, as he possibly can. Note also, he is trying to get away from the presence of the Lord as well.
But why? Why would a faithful prophet who helped spiritually lead Israel into economic and political growth abandon his call?
The answer, I think, can be found in 2 Kings 14-15. The answer begins in the story of Jeroboam II in 2 Kings 14. Jonah watched Israel prosper under the rule of Jeroboam II. God blessed king and country and Israel prospered, despite the fact that Jeroboam II “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin.” But toward the end of Jeroboam II’s reign (745 BCE), Tiglath-pileser became the ruler of Babylon and in 740 BCE, “In the days of King Pekah of Israel, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria.” Jonah may well have been a witness to this and as a result may have developed a hatred for these Assyrians who took his friends and countrymen off into captivity.
When we put this all together, we get God telling a faithful prophet to go to the capital city of the most powerful nation-state in the region at that time and tell them the God of the people they took into captivity says, “stop being a wicked people or face my judgment.” God is offering mercy to a Gentile people who Jonah would like to see wiped off the face of the earth. And Jonah says, no. Not no, but heck no. Then, Jonah runs away hoping to get as far from God and Nineveh as he can.
He of course doesn’t get away. The boat to Tarshish, possible a town as far away as the modern Spanish coast, is hijacked by a storm and the rest is familiar. The crew and passengers are terrified. They fight the storm for a while and finally cast lots to see what brought the unnatural storm about. The lot falls on Jonah and he tells them to toss him into the sea where a large fish/sea creature swallows him whole, ending the first part of the story.
Something unfamiliar in the familiar
Most of us know this story like the back of our hand. Even if you never went to church as a kid or as an adult, you’ve most likely heard it referenced at some point in your life. But most of us know it as a simple ‘do what you’re told’ kind of story, like if you don’t do what God says, something bad will happen to you and you’ll still have to do it anyway. But I don’t think that’s the point.
I think the point is that Jonah was running away from himself and how he felt about the people he was called to serve. He knew that if God called the people of Nineveh to repentance, then God must have seen the possibility of good in them. And Jonah could not see any good in a people that would kill and cart off his friends so, he ran away from God, the prophetic calling, all of it.
I think this story is like a lot of other stories in the Bible, it is intended to be a mirror, a way of showing us something about ourselves. In this case, I think it illustrates the fact that we have a tendency to like the world as a black and white place with easy to see good guys and bad guys, so we will know which side of things we are on. We want to be on the right side of things and when we find ourselves wondering or questioning that, we start acting like Jonah and pointing the finger. We say things like “They’re not like us” or “They’re doing it wrong” or “They’re trying to get away with something.” We hide behind the past and traditions or our sense of defending God and righteousness or worse yet, a version of Christianity that more to do with our passion for politics (on both sides of the aisle) than our passion for Jesus.
Jonah’s hatred of what happened to his people and the people who did it led him away from the healing and restoration that might have come with begin able to forgive the Assyrians and offer them grace. That was the underlying point of God’s mission for Jonah: forgiveness and grace offered to the Ninevites but also freeing Jonah by helping him learn to forgive and offer grace to the Assyrians, a repairing of the damage within the prophet.
In the world we live in, so many of us have been taught or learned to hate people based on the whims and interpretations of a few very loud, sometimes persuasive people. We hear it on television, on social media, in just about every area of our lives that connect us to other people. The truth is, we like Jonah, don’t really know the people we hate. We do it because someone speaks into the fears we have and points them at imaginary versions of types of people and we give into our fear.
But that is not what we are called to.
In between two chapters on spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12 and 14), Paul sandwiches a chapter about love. We use it at weddings most of the time but that was not it’s real purpose. The real purpose of the chapter was to say that the spiritual gifting we have is meaningless if the motive behind it is not love. Jesus takes this one step further in The Beatitudes,
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
Jonah chose to run away rather than offer love and grace. When faced with those we have deemed uncomfortable, unforgivable, unlikable, unacceptable, will we offer love and grace or will we run away and hide, hoping God will let us off the hook?
Achtemeier, Elizabeth. Minor Prophets I. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 1996.
Cary, Philip. Jonah: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Brazos/Baker Publishing Group, 2008.
Heath, Elaine. The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.
Leithart, Peter. 1&2 Kings: A Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Brazos/Baker Publishing Group, 2006.
Limburg, James. Hosea-Micah: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
—. Jonah: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.
 (Heath 2017, p.68-71)
 (Limburg, Jonah: A Commentary 1993, Kindle Loc. 710)
 Jonah 1:1-2
 (Limburg, Jonah: A Commentary 1993, Kindle Loc. 782)
 2 Kings 14:24
 2 Kings 15:29
 (Achtemeier 1996, Kindle Loc. 4556), (Leithart 2006, p.242-248)
 (Cary 2008, Kindle Loc. 729)