Skip to site content

Do You Shirk Responsibility Like Jonah?

Jonah admitted he had angered the God—the God of heaven who made the sea and land. He told the sailors to throw him overboard and the sea would become calm. Amazingly, Jonah chose to die rather than change his ways.

Like Jonah, we’ve walked around responsibilities we knew were ours to carry out, but we left them for others.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” /> 
Remember Jonah? He’s that biblical character that God told to go and preach against the great city of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Nineveh. Instead, he got on a boat bound for Tarshish. But he never got there. A great storm erupted on the sea. The sailors believed that someone had angered a god who caused the storm to rage. They threw lots and the lots pointed to Jonah. With great irony, the author shows that the superstition of the sailors was true—someone had angered a god. 
Jonah admitted he had angered the God—the God of heaven who made the sea and land. He told the sailors to throw him overboard and the sea would become calm. Amazingly, Jonah chose to die rather than change his ways.  
But God sent his personal escort service, a great fish, to swallow and transport Jonah to the shores of Nineveh, where he was unceremoniously vomited on the beach. With great reluctance, he went into the city. In Hebrew, his message is a grand total of five words. In English, the translation is only a few more: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” 
That’s it. A five-word sermon. Some of you have waited all your life to hear a five-word sermon. But what good can five words do? 
Look what happened: The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast for all of them, from the least to the greatest.  When God saw how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. 
God had compassion on the people of Nineveh. But Jonah never did. At the end of this short story, Jonah is a pathetic figure. He’s angered by the transformation he sees happen in the city because he hated the Ninevites. He didn’t want them to receive mercy, only destruction. The news makes him sick—so sick he’s ready to die … again. He goes outside the city, makes himself a shelter and sits down.

God allows a vine to grow up the shelter, which gives Jonah shade from the hot sun. But the next day God sends a worm that eats the vine and it withers. When the scorching sun comes out, Jonah is miserable and angry. God asks him if he has a right to be angry about the withered vine and Jonah says, “I do. I am angry enough to die.” 
Then the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has over a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about this great city?” (Jon 4:10-11). 
Tony Campolo is a Baptist evangelist whom Christianity Todayhas described as a “ferocious critic of Christians left and right.” The same magazine reported that in the 1980s Campolo began many of his speeches by telling his audience that last night while they were sleeping, over 30,000 kids had died of starvation related to malnutrition.  
Then he’d tell his audience that they didn’t care, using an expletive to emphasize how much they didn’t care. Then he’d tell his audience that they were more upset because he used an expletive than they were about the fact that 30,000 kids had died the night before. 
What upsets you? What consumes you? What needs of others ignite your passions to do something to make a difference in their lives? What needs of humanity drive you to get up off the couch and exercise your spiritual gifts so you will make a difference in their lives?  
What prejudices do you still hold that cause you to steer clear of ministry the Lord has directed you to carry out? Whom do you despise to the point that you would go in the other direction rather than share with them the kindness and grace of the Lord? 
If you are afraid to answer these questions honestly, it’s a sign you are running, just like Jonah, away from the Lord. If you answer them but refuse to do what the Lord has instructed, it’s a sign that you care, but, like Jonah, you care about the wrong things.

Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column first appeared in The Moultrie Observer.