As a child I loved stories. I still love to read and to glean little bits of information for life from whatever I read or hear. My grandmother was a fabulous storyteller and when she felt the situation needed it she would tell me a story. So one day I was fretting over this spider in the house. Some of you may know my discomfort with spiders. It was a large spider and I didn’t want to go into the room with it and I certainly didn’t want to leave it in my bedroom. I was at a difficult crossroads. Seeing me fretting my grandmother beckoned me to sit down by her. She had a story to tell.
So I reluctantly stopped my fretting and sat down in the chair next to her. This is the story she told. A long time ago, when Jesus was just a baby King Herod sent some soldiers to try to kill him. So the Holy family: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had to quickly escape out the back of the manger. But there was little chance that they were going to out run these soldiers because the journey to Egypt was so far away and the road was tough. But God sent an angel to ask the spiders for help. The spiders quickly weaved together a web so thick and so large that the soldiers could not catch up to the young family. This was a story told to me with a purpose. I was supposed to see the Holiness and goodness of spiders and not fret so much over them in the house and never should we kill them when we come across them. As much as I enjoyed the story the spider in my bedroom ended in a vacuum cleaner and I am still very uncomfortable with spiders.
But this is why I like the book of Jonah. You see Jonah as a whole is a very unique book out of all of the prophets and books named for prophets. Jonah is not a strictly historical account but rather is written as a parable, much like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. The story was less about the historical nature of the life of this prophet and was more of a commentary on what was happening in the society of the people he preached to. It was intended for other Israelites and not the people of Nineveh. It was intended, like my grandmother’s story, to teach a lesson about living into the commands of God and recognizing that God is a God of compassion, love, and kindness. Not a God that is quick to anger and is vengeful.
We heard that Jonah did not want to reach out and help the Ninevites because Nineveh was the capitol city of Assyria, a large empire who had conquered and destroyed Israel in the past. In response to being forced into exile for many generations, the people of Israel, Jonah as well, became embittered towards foreigners believing the worst of all gentiles. They wanted to see God come through and punish all foreigners. But this poses a problem to the command of God given at the formation of God’s covenant with Jacob and his descendants. They were called to go forth into the world to live in kindness, forgiveness, and to spread the faith in the one true God. This last part is hard to do if you harbor so much hate in your heart.
Jonah’s running shows his unwillingness to recognize a loving, forgiving, and slow to anger God. He knew that if the people repented that God would show mercy. A prophet was always God’s last warning before destruction came. Jonah wanted nothing to do with helping the very people who had brought harm to his people generations in the past. They wanted vengeance to continue to be heaped upon these people even though the citizens of Nineveh had themselves experienced destruction and deportation at the hands of the Babylonians and the Persians. They were never to be a power of any influence again. Yet Jonah wanted to see God go further and to wipe them from the face of the earth.
What we learn from Jonah is about God. We learn about how our very human emotions, fears, and desire for vengeance can sometimes get in the way of living into God’s love more fully. Sometimes we, as human beings, want to tell God what we would like to see him do. We want to see those who cause us pain get theirs. But God is saying that he created all things from the plants to the animals, to human beings of all colors, shapes, sizes, and cultures and God cares for all people and living creatures and offers forgiveness and judgment to all people equally. Rick Warren wrote, “God teaches us to love by putting some unlovely people around us. It takes no character to love people who are lovely and loving to you”. For a prophet to risk life and limb for a people there must be a level of love there. Jonah was asked to have enough love and respect for these gentiles to speak God’s words of life to them. And Jonah struggled with that.
Many of us struggle to love those people and things in life that are perhaps a little unsavory, or cranky, or prickly. Those things or people we would rather not deal with. But that is not how we are called to live our lives and we see it in Jonah and we hear it again in our Gospels when Jesus yet again called us to love one another, even those who are not like us. God would be explicit with Jonah when he said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow … 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 from their left”. Sometimes we feel like Jonah. We all do. This is why it is such an important episode in the scriptures. There are times when we all lose sight that to God all life is precious. There are times when we undervalue that which are cared for by the Lord. We do it with silly things like spiders and snakes. Yet they are valuable to the food chain and important in nature. We do it also with the way we might undervalue our friendships and relationships with our loved ones. We do it with those that we don’t understand. In those moments when we are tempted to undervalue or to stereotype remember Jonah and try to see God’s love and God’s ways.
We are called to go forth and to act with God’s love in mind. We are called to remember that to love your neighbor has been a commandment of God since the very beginning of time and it is one that he has been trying to teach humanity through prophets and finally through Christ. He is still calling us to work hard to act out of love in life. So let us all remember Jesus’ frequent command to those he taught and to “Go and do likewise”.
 Rick Warren, 21st Century American Evangelical Christian Pastor and Writer.
 Jonah 4: 10-11.
 Luke 10: 37, NSRV.
(Based on excerpts from Jonah 1-4 and Luke 10: 29-37)