TODAY’S READING: JONAH
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” – Jonah 1:1-3
“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” – Jonah 4:1-2
Most everyone would see Jesus in the story of Jonah in Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of a great fish as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ three days and nights in the center of the earth. That’s because Jesus himself made this connection for us. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus said, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
But, I think there is a subtle undertone in the book of Jonah revealed by the play on words of the meaning of the names that reveals something about Jesus.
The name Jonah most likely means dove. And, when we think of a dove in regards to Jesus we think of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. Mark 1:10 says, “And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.”
Jonah was the son of Amittai. The most common meanings of Amittai are true or truth of the Lord. Of course, Jesus does not just give us truth. He is truth. In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” And, we ultimately receive Jesus as the truth through the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, we can see Jesus in Jonah the son of Amittai as the dove of what is true or the Spirit of the truth of the Lord. For us to truly know Jesus and the Father, we must have the Spirit of truth.
But, both Jonah and Amittai have subtle, secondary meanings that reveal an interesting twist on the Spirit of the truth of the Lord.
It is possible that the name Jonah derives from a Hebrew word meaning vexer.
And, the name of Amittai derives from a Hebrew root word meaning confirm or support but that in various ways has the meaning of certainty.
So, while the obvious meaning of Jonah the son of Amittai is the Spirit of the truth of the Lord, the subtle, secondary meaning is the vexer of certainty.
Isn’t this who Jesus is?
He is the truth. We received him in the Spirit of the truth of the Lord. Yet, as the truth, he vexes and confounds everything we hold to be certain. For, how else would we repent and be transformed by the continual renewing of our mind.
All of us want to live by a set of laws and rules. We want to know exactly what we are required to do in every situation. With these rules, we don’t have to think, to assess the situation, to learn about the other person and their needs. We just apply the rule, the law.
But, to live this way, by the letter of the law, is death.
Jesus revealed this in Matthew 5-7 as he took what the Jews were certain of, the law, and altered it or nullified it t the extent that the Jews were vexed and confounded and considered Jesus a law breaker, a heretic, a blasphemer.
In John 5, Jesus told the Jews that they tried to live by the scriptures, by the law, but that the scriptures actually pointed to him who was eternal life.
This is what the New Testament reveals regarding traditions, which are nothing more than the certainties of life that we grew up with. In Matthew 15:2, Jesus was asked wh his disciples break from the traditions, the certainties, of the elders. Jesus answered, “So for the sake of your tradition [your certainties] you have made void the word of God.”
We see this play on the meaning of Jonah the son of Amittai even with the book of Jonah. For, Jonah vacillated between two places – Tarshish and Nineveh.
When we think of Tarshish in the Bible, one of the first things to come to mind is likely the ships of Tarshish. These ships transported great wealth and goods from place to place. Tarshish then is connected with material prosperity, commercialization, and wealth. In chapter one, we are told that to go to Tarshish, to prosperity and wealth, which is what our own reasoning, traditions, and certainties tell us to do, is to go away from the presence of the Lord.
But, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the enemy of Israel. And, for the Jews, Nineveh as the enemy of Israel was also the enemy of God. Yet, Jonah was called to go preach to the city of Nineveh. Jonah tells us in chapter four that he did not want to do this because “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” If going to Tarshish, fleeing the perceived enemy, was going away from the presence of the Lord, then moving toward Nineveh, toward the enemy, was moving in the direction of God.
For Jonah, going toward Nineveh would have been dying to self, responding to evil with good, giving up riches for the sake of the other. In other words, for Jonah to go to Nineveh would have been for his certainties to be vexed, to receive the Spirit of the Lord, to receive Jesus and live like him.
Isn’t this what Jesus told us? That we are stuck between God and money?
In Matthew 6:24, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
Basically, the Jews believed that if you lived according to the law you would be blessed by God and you would be wealthy. But, Jesus vexes their certainty about the law and money, showing that to follow God is entirely distinct from going after wealth and prosperity.
The rich young ruler asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the last six commandments of the ten commandments. The rich young ruler said he done that. So, in Mark 10:21, Jesus told him, “You lack one thing; go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Here again Jesus presents the difference between serving God or money. Jesus vexed the rich young ruler’s certainties about who he was and what his wealth meant. But, because the rich young ruler did not allow the Spirit of the truth of the Lord to vex his certainties he walked away disheartened and sorrowful.
From all this, we learn that to truly have eternal life we have to let Jesus and the Spirit vex and confound what we hold to be certain, all the traditions that we have lived by. As we let our certainties, our rules, our laws, and our traditions be vexed and confounded by the Lord, we come to rely solely on him, solely on the truth, moment by moment. Then, we deal with each circumstance and each person in a unique way. We regard that circumstance and person by the Spirit instead of the flesh and we respond with life instead of laws and rules.
In the end, the Spirit of the truth of the Lord, the vexer of certainty, leaves with us Jesus as the only certainty in our life.