This year’s theme is “The Life…” Today we continue that theme with….
The Life of Jonah
Andy Farmer is the Minister to Students at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.
In seminary, Jonah became my favorite book in the Bible. We translated it in Hebrew class, and it’s very playful in the original language. In Old Testament class, our professor showed us how humor can work as an interpretive lens, revealing that Jonah is probably best understood as a parody (of prophetic literature). And it wasn’t just that Jonah is fun. In one of my final classes before graduation, we read Eugene Peterson’s Under the Predictable Plant, which uses Jonah as a guide in “vocational holiness.”
These experiences exposed me to a twist on the traditional telling of the story. I have mostly heard Jonah characterized as a “comeback” narrative and the character himself praised as a model. The message goes something like, “If at first you don’t obey, try, try again.” In this version, Jonah embarrasses himself early on but bounces back to save the (Ninevite) world.
But Eugene Peterson, Dr. Jackson, and the text itself did not say that. They let Jonah be seen for the failure he is…all the way to the end of the book. He is not a good model. He never does learn the lesson or put his money where his mouth is. The point is “Don’t be like Jonah.”
Yet, in ministry, we are. Or, at least, I am. What do you do if you find yourself to be petty, self-absorbed, conflict-avoidant, or a lazy preacher? Well, you could read Eugene Peterson’s “guide in vocational holiness”:
“The first movement in the story shows Jonah disobedient; the second shows him obedient. Both times Jonah fails. We never do see a successful Jonah. He never gets it right. I find this rather comforting. Jonah is not a model to live up to, a model that shows up my inadequacy; this is training in humility, which turns out to be not a groveling but a quite cheerful humility (p. 11).”
Okay, but, what is rather comforting to Eugene Peterson may be only mildly so to us. So, again, what do we do?
I sometimes follow the text’s lead and try self-deprecation. It is remarkable how well the ancient Hebrews could laugh at themselves. They do not romanticize themselves in their writings. They admit weakness and stubbornness, are self-critical, and even depict sworn enemies and foreigners as “getting it” and obeying God better than they do. This kind of modesty suits me. By nurturing a realistic view of church work, and of my own limitations, I have not been disappointed by much or shocked by anything.
On the other hand, self-deprecation can be a slippery slope. The line between true and false humility is thin. Go too far and pile on the self-criticism, and you might have trouble getting back on your feet. Meanwhile, projecting modesty does nothing for the self-absorption and self-pity still lurking in your heart. When harboring distorted humility in any of its various forms, I get (sometimes way) off track and struggle to remain hopeful. It’s a rough life trying to do what we do without joy, gratitude, or discipline. In that kind of rut, the only time we’ll laugh is so that we don’t cry.
A Brennan Manning quote sometimes sets me straight. He wrote that humility is not having a low opinion of ourselves; it’s having no opinion. That sounds kind of cliché or, at least, easier said than done. Dying to self isn’t any more clever, I guess, than it is easy. I suspect, though, that this is the only path from “groveling” to “cheerful.”
Good humor isn’t just for fun. It doesn’t “take something lightly” as much as sheds light on the (uncomfortable) truth. The truth at the bottom of Jonah is that those self-identifying as “God’s people” are sometimes immovably resistant and disobedient to God’s message, even when there’s a good prophet bringing the word. To shed light on this, the Hebrews included Jonah, the great anti-prophet story, in their canon. “Even the nasty Assyrians, even their king and their cattle, even foreign sailors and storms and fish and worms—all of them, even if equipped with the worst prophet ever—would be quicker to repent than we are.”
Those in ministry can cherish another truth: Jonah’s failures—of action and of attitude—do not impede God. They do not limit God’s reach or responsiveness, not just in pursuing the “lost” but also in pursuing the lost prophet.