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The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at the humour and teachings in the Book of Jonah

The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at the humour and teachings in the Book of Jonah - a sermon given on the third Sunday of Epiphany - 22nd January 2012. 

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10 John 3: 16-21

The readings which we hear in church Sunday by Sunday and during the week are set down in the lectionary which is the list of readings authorised for use in the Church of England and I’ve decided that the compilers of the lectionary lack a sense of humour because they’ve edited the passage from Jonah which we heard this morning by cutting out verses 6 to 9 and jumping from verse 5 to verse 10.

And, by doing so, they’ve erased the proclamation of the King of Nineveh that not only human beings but animals too are to don sackcloth and cry mightily to God in repentance for their sins: a gloriously comical image that sits well with the gentle humour that pervades the Book of Jonah. I do think that, for the sake of an extra 30 seconds or so, we could well have been permitted to read those extra four verses of scripture.

Perhaps I can encourage you to go home and read the whole book: it’s only four chapters long and is a good read.

I don’t want to press the point too much for fear of you getting the wrong impression about the sanctity of scripture but, even with verses 6 to 9 excised from our reading this morning, this passage from the Book of Jonah is really quite funny – or, if you’re offended at the thought of scripture being funny, then think ‘satirical’.

This implausibly large city is converted in its entirety – man and beast – by a rather hapless figure called Jonah who wanders through its streets crying out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown’. As a result of this mass conversion – and presumably encouraged by the sight of camels and donkeys dressed in sackcloth and bemoaning their sins in loud voices in the streets, God changes his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon Nineveh and, as the author of the book succinctly puts it, ‘he did not do it’.

And all of that in ten verses.

The exaggerated nature of the account does of course, nevertheless, emphasise the importance of repentance (Nineveh was a very wicked place by all accounts) but the stretching of the imagination that arises out of the story also gives pause for thought and reminds us that nothing is really as simple as that and that a cut and dried approach to faith is unlikely to produce good results.

Which takes us to the much more serious and, indeed, challenging teaching of the passage from St John’s Gospel which was our second lesson this morning.

There is an argument that this is John commenting here and not reported words of Jesus, which is how they are presented to us. In which case, in this passage, we hear the Evangelist himself reflecting on the sending of God’s Son into the world as a source of new life and indeed of eternal life.

What is difficult for us, it seems to me, is the suggestion – implicit in this passage – that we, as human beings, have an easy choice between believing in God and not believing in God: between salvation and condemnation. And I have a feeling, based on instinct and experience, that most of us gathered here this morning don’t believe that it’s really as simple as that.

Of course, the teaching of this passage is tough and why not? Life’s tough. Perhaps, like the author of the Book of Jonah, John has cut out the nuances in order to make people sit up and take notice.

I remember a journalist from The Guardian door-stepping me once and asking me why people were giving up on religion and what could I say to convince them otherwise. He was very dismissive of my reply, saying that it was all very well but too nuanced for the readers of a newspaper article – so I told him to read the Book of Jonah, a suggestion which I don’t think he appreciated very much...!

The mild humour of the passage from the Book of Jonah – which speaks to me of humanity – complements the hard challenge of the passage from St John’s Gospel – which speaks to me of judgement – and, together, in these very different accounts, we see the safety net of God’s love: one hand confidently beckoning us towards him on our journey through life; the other gently touching our shoulder when we pause uncertainly by the edge of the road.

Nuances may not be good for newspaper articles but they do at least remind us that things are seldom simple and life’s choices seldom cut and dried.

Having criticised the compilers of the lectionary for their apparent lack of humour, I do admire the nuance that underlies the way they’ve thrown together the Book of Jonah and the Gospel of St John.

Michael Hampel
St Paul’s Cathedral