In Jewish tradition, the four chapters of the Book of Jonah are read aloud at Yom Kippur. Jonah is a minor prophet in the Hebrew Bible but he has a big message. Some of you may know his story.
Jonah is sent by God to Nineveh to warn the people that if they do not change their ways they will be destroyed. But Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh. The people there are not his people: they are not Jewish. And he knows they won’t listen to him. Who listens to prophets anyway?
So he steals away onto a sailing ship. Of course, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures knows where he is and troubles the waters. When the crew finds out that God is after Jonah, they cast him over board. He urges them to, actually -- Jonah doesn’t want them to suffer for his transgressions.
Of course, God wants his prophet to make it to Nineveh, so he provides a big fish to swallow Jonah up and keep him for three days and three nights... just enough time to think about what is at stake here. A long “time out,” right? Well, when the fish coughs him up, again God sends Jonah to Nineveh. This time Jonah goes. There he warns the people that they must change their ways or be destroyed. And lo and behold, they listen! Who would have thought it? They are not destroyed. They live anew.
But Jonah, the reluctant prophet, doesn’t understand this turn of events. He would have had the Ninevites thwarted anyway for being so bad in the first place. He would have preferred God not give them a second chance. Not recognizing his own second chance, after his time in the big fish, he becomes angry and goes away to sulk on a hill.
But God, who in the end is most gracious, patient and generous, and knowing the human heart as God does, makes room for all people, the Ninevites and Jonah, to make mistakes and to change their ways. As listeners/readers of the tale, we can only hope that Jonah eventually understands something about this boundless forgiveness; this boundless love... and rejoins God's people.