The Great Pretender
When I was a kid, I got introduced to the Motown sound; The Temps, The Tops, The Supremes, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson, The Marvelettes. Along with a wide variety of music – from George Jones to Ira Gershwin to the Georgia Satellites – the music of the Motor City floated through the air in our house and in our cars. I remember trips to visit family in Rome or vacations to the coast that were nothing more than one sing-along after another for miles and miles across Georgia. I can tell you honestly, there is nothing like driving down a state highway with all the windows down, singing at the top of your lungs. And quite often for us, that involved a compilation cassette full of Motown music.
One of my favorites to sing along to as a kid was The Tracks of My Tears by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. For my money, nobody had as smooth a voice or as great a range as Smokey. I would try to imitate his voice as a kid, but I could never hit all the high notes with the kind of easy authority that he did. I was thinking about this song this week as I prepared for the sermon because the lyrics are just too perfect for what we are talking about today.
People say I’m the life of the party
‘Cause I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I’m blue
So, take a good look at my face
You know my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears
And then the bridge…
Outside I’m masquerading
Inside my hope is fading
I’m just a clown since you put me down
My smile is my make up
I wear since my break-up with you
This song is obviously about pretending to be better off than you are after a breakup. The songwriter is telling us that he might look like he’s okay but he’s not okay. He’s smiling on the outside, keeping his chin up with a smile on his face, but he’s miserable on the inside. Basically, he is pretending for the sake of keeping up appearances.
The Prophetic Pretender
This week, we find Jonah having a sense of déjà vu. The sea monster has deposited him back where he started on dry land, facing the same task he was given to begin with.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
With that in mind, Jonah is the only prophet that God ever gave his Word to twice. And after everything that happened, Jonah was not to act the fool twice. According to our story, Jonah sets out to Nineveh, following “the Word of the Lord.” This beginning reiterates the fact that God wanted Jonah to offer a message to Nineveh that might lead the people of a foreign land, a foreign land that invaded and carried off Israel into captivity, to change and follow the ways of God.
Speaking of Nineveh, the name is used seven times in the passage here, making it seem certain that you cannot forget who Jonah is sent to. With this repetition, the writer wants us to remember that this prophet of God, this speaker for God is not talking to his chosen people, Israel. He is talking to the godless, heathen city of Nineveh, the enemy of the people of God. Jonah arrives at the city and begins walking across the breadth of it. The story says it is a “three days walk across” the city. Again as we pointed out last week, three days is a way to talk about how large the city was. One theologian comments on this saying, “The reader is not supposed to do arithmetic. He is supposed to be lost in astonishment.”
As Jonah finished one day’s walk, only part of the journey, he stops and tells the people, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Again, numbers are important. Forty days is a time period that has significant use in the Bible: the flood, Moses time on Sinai, the duration of Goliath’s taunting, the time it took for Elijah to get away from Ahab and Jezebel and to Mt. Horeb/Sinai, the time Jesus spends in the wilderness before the temptation. This number is linked by some with the idea of trial and discomfort and in our story today we get that. The time period before the threatened destruction of Nineveh is forty days. The people of Nineveh hear the message and believe God, spending the time in sackcloth and ashes (like Job), fasting and praying for God’s forgiveness and deliverance. In a drastic expression of things, not even the animals eat or drink, and they too must lie in sackcloth and ashes. Following the idea of forty as a number representing trial and discomfort, this is an uncomfortable way for the Ninevites to living
And Jonah is having none of it. As I said, Jonah walks only a third of the way into the city, not caring to go any further, not wanting to offer the message to any more people than he must. He delivers what is essentially the shortest prophetic/preaching message in the history of such things and nothing more. Verse two says this message was coming directly from God and apparently Jonah saw no reason to embellish it. It is the original ‘turn or burn’ sermon. And the people who heard it, responded, passing the message on and eventually taking it to the king who led the people in repentance.
I do not believe, based on what we know of Jonah and on the lack of actual repentance while Jonah was in the sea creature, that Jonah was the least bit interested in seeing the people of Nineveh repent. He only walks as far as necessary into the city with the message and only offers a minimal expression of the Word given to him. We will look next week and see for certain that Jonah hoped the message would fall on deaf ears, but suffice it to say, Jonah is going through the motions, saying the right words to the right people, and getting the job done.
Sympathy for the Prophet
If we had been Israelites hearing this story of Jonah in the time it was written (probably just after the exile), we would probably have felt the way Jonah did. Imagine if a foreign country came into the United States today and took all the wealth of the country, along with our leaders and scholars and sent them off to another country and left the rest of the country with a puppet government. Years later, another country overthrows the one that took over the US and allows the people that were taken to return home and start again. That was pretty much the situation when this story was written. In which case, it is easy to see why Jonah would act that way in the story. He pretended to do his job and did nothing more.
I imagine Jonah thought process was something like,
Go into town, tell them the message and get out. Don’t care if they listen or not. I hope they don’t. I hope not a single solitary person hears anything I have to say. The whole lot of them can go to Sheol, to the grave. Let ‘em all die for all I care.
It sounds hateful, angry, spiteful. And yet for what he went through, not beyond understanding. Given those circumstances, any one of us might feel or act the same way.
God, even in the Old Testament, does not call us to live into our natural, baser instincts. God did not call the returning Jews or us to a life of worship that includes living into what we have always thought and felt and acted on. We are not called to be pretenders, people who show the world one face while living a life that is entirely different.
God speaks in the scroll of Micah after the Exile and around the time of the Jonah story saying,
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
God doesn’t want false worship or going through the motions. God wants authenticity of the heart expressed in our attitudes and actions. God wants us to do just things; to love kindness in ourselves and others; to walk with and before God in humility, a proper attitude about our place before God and man. Jonah’s story is not one about a prophet who repents and goes back to what God has called him to. Jonah’s story is one about a prophet who went back because he feared not following the directives of God and what that might mean. He was just going through the motions, saying what had to be said and not really caring about it.
I don’t think going the motions is all that uncommon in the church, in fact, I think it’s a widespread reality. Sometimes, I think we fall into it without even realizing. Do you ever catch yourself just going through the motions of your faith? Do read the Bible and pray as if they are things to check off you list, like doing the dishes or cutting the grass? Do you use certain words and phrases around certain people just because it’s the right language for the moment?
The question beneath all of these and the question hat Jonah had to answer was, is this life of following God real to you or just a game you play because of your family and your culture?
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.
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.
Sweeney, Marvin A. The Twelve Prophets: Berit Olam – Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry. Edited by David W. Cotter. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Minneapolis, MN: Michael Glazier/The Liturgical Press, 2000.
 (Miracles 1965)
 Jonah 3:1-2
 (Limburg, Jonah: A Commentary 1993, Kindle Loc. 1536)
 (Limburg, Jonah: A Commentary 1993, Kindle Loc. 1605)
 (Limburg, Hosea-Micah: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching 2011, p. 150)
 (Limburg, Hosea-Micah: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching 2011, p. 138) (Limburg, Jonah: A Commentary 1993, Kindle Loc. 439)
 (Limburg, Hosea-Micah: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching 2011, p. 138), (Achtemeier 1996, Kindle Loc. 5108)
 Micah 6:6-8