Today is Yom Kippur on the Jewish calendar. This no-work day of synagogue services, prayer, and fasting is the most solemn holy day in Judaism’s annual cycle of holy/holidays.
Toward the end of the day, something happens, according to Jewish custom, that might sound surprising. A big fish story is read in synagogues. After fasting, confessing their sins, and reflecting on the words of Moses and Isaiah, they listen once again to the account of a catch and release that is so amazing no one would believe it if it wasn’t in the Bible.
Of all the readings that could have been chosen for the highest holy day of the year, someone started the tradition of reading Jonah. But why? Why do Jewish people read about the reluctant prophet who ran from God, was caught by a big fish, and then was miraculously released to complete a dangerous mission of rescue?
Rabbis have different explanations for reading Jonah on the holiday commonly called the Day of Atonement. One teacher of Israel says the story of Jonah is more about repentance than it is about the fish. Some explain that Jonah is evidence that no one can escape the presence of God, even while trying to run from the Almighty. Others believe Jonah is read on Yom Kippur with the hope that listeners would learn from Jonah’s mistakes. One rabbi says, “God cares for everyone. Jonah cares only for himself. God wins.”
Each of these explanations makes a good point. But the last one intrigues me the most. The story of Jonah is, after all, about a stubbornly self-centered man who was glad to receive God’s mercy when he thought he was dying in the stomach of a great fish (2:9). But he wanted nothing to do with a God who could be “gracious and merciful” to the enemies of his nation (4:2).
Seems to me that his is a subject that we all have to deal with whether we are talking about those we regard as national or personal enemies.
God was not asking Jonah to “forgive” the people of Nineveh to get rid of Jonah’s feelings of hostility toward a people who had done so much harm to Israel. The LORD was asking Jonah to share heaven’s/His heart for a people who had no place in Jonah‘s heart.
Some might hear this and conclude, “Maybe, Jonah really does make a contribution not only to the traditional liturgy of Yom Kippur but to us as well. If God could forgive a repentant people as evil as the Ninevites, maybe he really could/or has already forgiven us for the sins we’ve confessed but haven’t been able to forget.
That would be true (and a wonderful source of reassurance– if our change of heart is real).
But it also might miss the bigger point of the story of Jonah— that God might really love the people we have no use for…
Don’t know about you. But I need to think about this a bit more… today… and maybe tomorrow too…
And isn’t it amazing that Nineveh was located across the river from what is now Mosul, Iraq…