by Rev. David A. Moffat
The prophecy of Jonah occupies a unique place in the Old Testament. Jonah is known to have been active in Israel (2 Kings 14:25) and in Nineveh. Although it is unusual for a prophet to speak the Word of the Lord in a foreign land, it is does occur elsewhere: Nahum also addresses Nineveh and Daniel speaks to the Babylonians. What makes it unique is it’s purpose: it doesn’t record the words of the prophet, instead it recounts his story. Apart from his prayer from inside the great fish, recorded in chapter 2 and his argument with the Lord in chapter 4, the only recorded prophecy Jonah utters is found in chapter 3 verse 4: “On the first day Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’” (NIV) You see, what is important about this book is not so much Jonah’s message to the people of Nineveh, as the Lord’s message to the Jews.
Let’s recount the story briefly. Jonah is commissioned to travel to Nineveh and bring them the Lord’s message. But he runs the other way, buying a sea passage to Tarshish. A storm besieges the ship, and when lots are drawn, Jonah is blamed. He is thrown into the sea. A fish effects about a curious rescue mission, and when Jonah is returned to dry land he obeys the Lord at last. Having preached the Lord’s destruction upon Nineveh, he then sits back to watch the fireworks. But nothing happens and he becomes angry.
The Lord’s response to Jonah’s anger is interesting. It comes in the form of a parable. A parable in the form of a plant. It sprang up “overnight” (Jonah 4:10) to provide him with shade from the heat of the sun, but then it died back, leaving Jonah exposed once more. This, it seems, was worse than not having had the shade in the first place: and I suppose you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. And the Lord makes his point one more time: the prophecy uttered through Jonah were not intended to reveal the great glory or power of God, but to secure the repentance and salvation of His wayward but beloved children.
We do not know whether Jonah actually gets the point in the end, but then that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we get it. So, let’s look at that parable more closely.
Plants in the Word refer to truths. Not simple facts, or even individual truths taken in isolation, but something more akin to an idea. An idea can be planted in the mind, and there it can draw upon all the facts, concepts, and other forms of truths which reside in the memory and which it needs to grow and bear fruit: in other words, to be useful to us. But this plant did not provide fruit, only shelter. It is a plant which “sprang up overnight and died overnight”. It provided shade from the sun and the wind, which please Jonah, but it withered, leaving him exposed and angry. In a similar incident, Jesus encountered a fig tree during the last week of his earthly life, and it also withered (Matthew 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14, 20-24 [cf Luke 21:29-33]). Jesus’ curse upon the fig tree is also a parable – one of judgement (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 885.2; NIV Study Bible, note on Mark 11:14, p. 1517 – see also Hosea 9:10).
This plant provided by the Lord also represents a judgement, upon Jonah’s idea of religion. It is unusual for a plant to spring up at night. This one did because night reflected Jonah’s heart. Look at his response to the Lord throughout the book. Jonah has no wish to serve the Lord. He runs away from His commands, and only goes second time around because he is backed into a corner. And then when things don’t go his way, he gets grumpy. He’s clearly not interested in what the Lord wants: he has his own plans for the city of Nineveh – destruction or destruction! His concern for others is typical of self-love – showing care for whatever benefits himself, while despising whatever does not. Wouldn’t it feel good, to rain down destruction upon this heathen mob! Imagine the power – people would certainly be queuing up to hear what you had to say!
Jonah’s attitude goes beyond self-centred grumpiness – it is nothing short of evil. Having walked through the city, thoroughly acquainting himself with their mistaken reasoning, he would rather see the death of more than 120,000 people than their repentance. “Ah, Lord, as not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled to Tarshish; for I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, one who relents from doing harm” (Jonah 4:2, NKJV) It characterised the prevailing attitude of the contemporary Jewish religion. They had this idea of being chosen, special. They could not believe that they were not subject to the limitations of the other nations around and about them. They worshipped the one, true God. He would save them. Everyone else could go to hell. That is the plant which springs up to give the prophet shade. Comfortable, but unproductive and ultimately doomed. It reflected the Jewish thinking of Jonah’s time, thinking which lingered into Jesus’ time, spelling the spiritual end of the Jewish religion, and it remains the biggest hurdle to finding a lasting peace in the Middle East today.
Now the effect of the plant’s demise is profound. Jonah despairs of his life – his spiritual life. When our idea of salvation and happiness is tied up with our own specialness to God, or anyone else, it is quite a shock to see that idea fall to the ground. We feel the heat of the sun and hot driving wind more intently than ever before, as our own unworthiness hits home. I thought I was special, but now I see I am not and it scares me intently. But it’s only when this idea is driven from my mind that a new idea can be introduced – the reality of the love of God. Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, …!” (Luke 13:34, Matthew 23:37,NKJV) God loved the disobedient Jonah as surely as he loved the sinful Ninevites. But that is not visible to us while that old religious idea blocks our view.
It turns out that Jonah and the Jews do not have the monopoly upon this particular fault. What we have here is a case of external worship devoid of a true internal. In these cases, the evil in our hearts bends the truths we learn to suit purposes which centre entirely upon ourselves. We met this same tendency last month, when we considered the golden calf idol (Exodus 32). Swedenborg writes, “those inside the Church who are immersed in evil reject charity even more than they deny the Lord, the reason being that in so doing they can look favourably upon their own lusts through a semblance of religion and engage in external worship which has no internal, that is, a worship of the lips and not of the heart.” (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 2373)
The answer? We need to follow the call to repentance that we declare to others. We must restore charity to its intended place, and fulfil our commission from the Lord. As a church, we need to get a realistic view of our God-given purpose.
I want to share with you a little of my own sense of calling to ministry. I know this may shock some of you, but I did not enter ministry because I love taking services of worship. I did so because I love working with people, because of a passion for education and for people’s eternal happiness, and because I can see that the church needs to change.
It turns out that those passions are just what ministry is all about: If [a priest] is principled in the good of the priesthood, which consists in providing for the salvation of souls, in teaching the way to heaven and in leading those whom he teaches – so far as he is principled in this good from love of it and ardent desire – he procures for himself truths which he may teach and by which he may lead. (Doctrine of Life, paragraph 39, emphasis added).
In many places, Swedenborg also describes the Church as the “heart and lungs” of humanity, bringing light and life to all of the body. But what if the heart and lungs fail? What if they started revelling in their own self importance, supplying only themselves? Sadly, this is the state much of the church finds itself in, and I include the organisational New Church here.
I am feeling the strength of these passions of mine more strongly these days, and find myself becoming less tolerant of anything in myself and other that falls short of those passions. I believe more strongly than ever in my calling to the ministry, but I am not prepared to simply maintain the status quo, or continue doing things the way the church always has when I see such misery and suffering in the world, knowing that we can provide some of the light and tools which could relieve the pain. Because evil and sin cause pain, and that is what we are called to fight. When push comes to shove, nothing is more important to ministry and the church than working towards regeneration. Not services of worship. Not the day or time we hold services. Not the number or type of hymns we sing. Not the way we dress. Not Swedenborg’s Writings. Not numerical growth. Nothing supplants our essential mission to cooperate with the Lord in the work of regeneration: they can only ever serve it. What else do we mean when we pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done. As in heaven, so upon the earth.” (Matthew 6:10)? The will of God is that His children find their way to His heaven, “a heaven of angels from the human race,” and His earthly instrument of that endeavour is His Church. If the church, or the trappings of the church do not fulfil that mission it is redundant and expendable. We all have something of Jonah within us as individuals too. I certainly see him in me. I have run the other way when called to speak the truth. I have stood on my pedestal, looking down upon those with whom I disagree, and done so in judgement and hatred. I have told myself that I know the truth of the matter. I well up with anger when I don’t see the visible rewards of my efforts. I shelter under the leaves of my own self-righteousness, and I crumble into a heap when those illusions wither and die.
Personally, Jonah teaches me about the folly of ”righteous anger”. Too often I accuse, or lash out, believing myself justified in doing so, only to discover there was something I missed. Either I did not fully understand the situation or I failed to see my own shortcomings. Even if I am “right”, am I supposed to sit back and wait for the “I told you so” moment ? No! Of course not! This smacks of unforgiveness, and by indulging in such things I drive a wedge between myself and those I love, and I separate myself from the true love of God.