If The Sackcloth Fits, Wear It


January 24, 2018

By Stephen Finlan.

Scripture: Jonah 3:1–10 (NRSV)

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.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
 
 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
 
 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Reflection:

This is a great and radical text. In it, the reluctant prophet Jonah finally agrees to do what God commands him to do, prophesying to the Assyrians, and they immediately comply with the prophet’s demand. The author is showing that Gentiles might be as receptive to God’s commands, and as sincerely repentant, as any Jewish believer might be.
 
After all, Jonah had spent the first two chapters trying to avoid God’s command to him, but when we finally cooperates, the Gentiles instantly heed God’s warning to them. And yet, Jonah (in chapter 4) becomes angry, pouts, and hides his head under a bush. The story ends with God asking if he does not have the right to care for Nineveh, with its many confused people, “and also many animals” (4:11).
 
This is just one of many clues showing us that Jonah is not some children’s story. It is a grown-up satire that attacks nationalistic pride. Jonah, who does not want to help the Ninevites, is really the anti-hero of the story.
 
There are many comic moments, not least of which are the animals wearing sackcloth, and presumably crying mightily to God, who get mentioned again by God at the very end of the book. Even the animals are more cooperative with God than the stubborn prophet, Jonah.
 
This author has written a daring satire attacking hard-hearted nationalism. Jesus used Jonah to attack the same attitude: “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!” (Luke 11:32). And the “queen of the South” will judge them too, since she came from far away to hear the wisdom of Solomon (Luke 11:31).
 
Nationality does not matter. What counts is openness to God, and receptivity to the word of truth.

Prayer:

God, change our hearts whenever they become hardened, or frightened, or conceited.
 
Help us to be open to all people, knowing that you can reach anyone who honestly seeks wisdom.
 
Show us how to reflect your love, and to be humble in our opinion about ourselves.
 
And help us retain enough humor to laugh at ourselves whenever we resemble Jonah.
 
The Rev. Stephen Finlan is pastor of First Congregational Church, Plainfield, CT.
 

Spirited Wednesday: January 24, 2018 , by Stephen Finlan.