Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Farce of Expectations

To quote Marx (and I don't mean Karl, but Groucho): “Although it is generally known, I think it's about time to announce that I was born at a very early age.”1 Perhaps you've heard the story from Dangerfield: “What a childhood I had. Once on my birthday, my ol' man gave me a bat. The first day I played with it, it flew away.”2 Or maybe you're familiar with the anecdote from Borge: “Once, my father came home and found me in front of a roaring fire. That made my father very mad, as we didn't have a fireplace.”3 Oh, and do you know what you call two men sitting atop a window? Our new bishop tells me their names must be Kurt and Rod. ('Curtain rod' – get it?)

Now, I have to admit: I've never cared for it when preachers start sermons with jokes. As a general rule, it strikes me as a lazy way of catching people's attention, and it's almost never organically connected with the passage or subject at hand. But I think this case deserves to be an exception. Because there's one thing we're maybe too slow to admit about the Book of Jonah – and that's that it's meant to be funny.4 Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, the Marx Brothers, the Monty Python crew, Rodney Dangerfield, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Jonah son of Amittai – now those are some of the comedy greats. One author describes the prophet Jonah as being, “as a man..., as funny as he is odd.”5 You see, what we get in the Book of Jonah is not the typical prophetic narrative. It certainly doesn't read like its neighbors, Obadiah or Micah. It's a self-contained narrative; the closest things we get are the exploits of Elijah and Elisha, but neither of those sound quite like this. This book has elements of comedy, of spoof, of parody. It's dripping with satire.6 You could label it a farce. So if we want to understand the Book of Jonah, we'd better practice having a sense of humor.7

So what do I mean when I tell you that the Book of Jonah is supposed to be funny? Well, no one behaves how they're supposed to be behave. Everybody is cast against type. All expectations of the first-time reader who's read earlier parts of the Old Testament get overthrown. And that's especially true when it comes to our story's main character, Jonah ben Amittai. For background, this is not the first time in the Old Testament we meet this guy. He shows up in 2 Kings 14, which is the only way we can get a historical lock on him. He's living in the eighth century BC, at a time when Israel – the northern kingdom – is a horribly wicked place. King Jeroboam II “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; he didn't depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin” (2 Kings 14:24). This is exactly the setting where we'd expect, if we come here fresh from Judges, to see Israel put under affliction as a form of discipline. But Jonah steps onto the scene and prophesies that God is going to do the opposite of what we expect. In spite of the evil of Jeroboam's rule, in spite of Israel's sinful unworthiness, “the LORD saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter..., so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam” (2 Kings 14:26-27), such that Jeroboam “restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah.” In other words, God has such pity on unrepentant Israel that he lets the unrepentant king play the hero, “according to the word of the LORD, God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher” (2 Kings 14:25). That's already a clue that Jonah has a weird ministry: instead of the usual prophet job description, which is being the unpopular bearer of bad news, Jonah's experience is being the celebrated bearer of unaccountably good news!

Now, we expect prophets to be good guys – very pious, very religious, great role models who are enthusiastic about their privileges, or at least respectful of the solemn calling to which they've been elected by the LORD. That should go double to those who, unlike the 'weeping prophet' Jeremiah, get to go around spreading sunshine all the time. So we expect Jonah to be the happiest and healthiest prophet, most excited to be the voice of God's soft and gentle mercy. I mean, he gets to outsource all the hard parts of his job to colleagues like Amos, who got to be persecuted for passing along God's word: “The sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (Amos 7:9).

But with Amos in charge of bringing bad news to Israel, Jonah's let off the hook of disappointing his people, told to go instead condemn the city of Nineveh, which will otherwise survive to become the future capital of the Assyrian Empire, through which – in less than four decades – God will wipe Israel off the map. And as we step into the pages of this book, Jonah – the prophet with the easy life – doesn't want to do his job any more. The prophet disobediently abandons the God he works for, in what one scholar calls “Jonah's entirely ridiculous response.”8 It doesn't fit his calling. But it does fit his name. Jonah's name means 'Dove,' and if there's one thing doves are known for in the Bible, it's that they complain: “We moan and moan like doves” (Isaiah 59:11). Doves moan in distress. The other thing doves are known for in the Bible is that they like to fly away and escape: “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away...” (Psalm 55:6); “If any survivors escape, they will be on the mountains, like doves of the valleys, all of them moaning...” (Ezekiel 7:16). So Jonah chooses his name over his title: he's desperate to fly away, and he sure is going to moan. If that weren't enough, Hosea's soon going to compare the entire nation of Israel to “a dove, silly and without sense” (Hosea 7:11). I can't help but think the misadventures of his friend named Dove – that is, Jonah – were in the back of Hosea's mind as he said that, especially since one of the traits of this senseless dove Israel is... “going to Assyria” (Hosea 7:11).

So here's Jonah, reduced to the ridiculousness of a runaway prophet. We expect him to do as he's told; instead, he's a letdown, a rebel. He goes on the lam, and soon finds himself in a situation we don't expect: aboard ship with a bunch of pagan sailors, probably Phoenicians with maybe some Philistines. And we expect them to be corrupted by all “the abominable practices of those nations” (Deuteronomy 18:9). We expect them to be real rough characters, profane and depraved, notorious for human sacrifice. But instead, they value Jonah's life even when he doesn't, and go out of their way to try and save him! We expect them to have their hearts darkened by their idols, but instead they turn out to be more pious than the Hebrew prophet! In fact, they have to scold Jonah for his lack of religion. See, it's funny! Jonah is a ridiculous figure, he's the butt of the joke here. Here you've got an Israelite prophet, a symbol for true religion, and he might as well be a pagan; and that's underlined by these pagan sailors, a symbol for error and wickedness, and they have the moral compass of Moses and begin worshipping the God Jonah's trying impossibly to escape! Unbeknownst to Jonah, as he judges them later on, these run-of-the-mill pagan sailors are more spiritually attuned than he is (Jonah 1:4-16).

Now, when the storm comes, when all fingers point at Jonah, we expect him to come up with a plan to survive – to try something, anything, that will keep them all out of danger. Instead, Jonah volunteers to die. And it won't be the last time. Actually, Jonah seems to have a death-wish – he doesn't try to kill himself, but he does seem to keep hoping that somebody's going to put him out of his misery. The trouble for Jonah is, he can't even succeed at dying! Even thrown overboard to drown and be done with it, the unlikeliest savior scoops him up at God's command (Jonah 1:15-17). Jonah is fighting – and failing in his fight – against God's determination that he live. That's the stuff of black comedy right there! Jonah can't even die right.

When we meet him in the fish's belly – which becomes almost a nurturing figure to him, which is probably why the author gives the fish a sex change partway through telling the tale, switching from the male to female form of the Hebrew word for 'fish' – Jonah finally prays. It's been a long time coming, but he's up against a wall. He prays a fishy hybrid psalm, part lament and part thanksgiving. Now, what we expect Jonah to do is pray a prayer of repentance. We expect him to confess his sin, to tell God he's sorry. But Jonah never does (Jonah 2:1-9). He's not sorry, not repentant. It's a stubborn character flaw, the stock-and-trade of many a sitcom character who has to make life impossible for himself.

Still, after his prayer of thanksgiving, we expect Jonah to be gently released onto dry land. We expect him to be released into the shallow water at the shore and soon stand on his own two feet. But that's not what happens. Instead, Jonah gets puked out with gusto, like gumbo that was undercooked. He's delivered by indigestion. It's profoundly undignified. More than that, it's slapstick. Now we're in Three Stooges territory, or with Charlie Chaplin running down an up-escalator. This is Jonah's comedic pratfall – much against his own will. If there were any beachgoers on scene when Jonah was upchucked ashore, guaranteed they laughed at him as he stewed in his shame and stench on his way to the showers (Jonah 2:10).

End of Act I. Intermission. The curtain rises on Act II with a beautiful symmetry: Once again, at the midway point in the action, the Word of the LORD approaches Jonah, reiterating the same basic charge. Jonah gets a do-over. This time, he complies and behaves “according to the word of the LORD (Jonah 3:1-3). Now, ancient Nineveh wasn't all that big, but the narrator casts it as this vast city, so as to highlight how Jonah went about fulfilling God's commission. We expect Jonah to now do things right – to approach the city elders, to shout from the rooftops, to give a long and eloquent sermon listing all of Nineveh's sins, proclaiming who God is and why he cares what they do, and summoning them to change their ways. We know Jonah's capable of a poetic turn – he proved it when he was fish food. Instead, no sooner does he get through the city gate than he yells five words and calls it quits. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be turned!” (Jonah 3:4). He doesn't open his message with a “Thus saith the LORD.” He doesn't explain where he's come from or whom he serves. He says nothing about what Nineveh did wrong. He doesn't even clearly say what's going to happen: 'turned' is a pretty ambiguous word. Jonah doesn't even tell them that there's anything they can do. “The narrator suggests that he just makes it inside the city and utters the briefest oracle of all biblical prophets.”9 Jonah fulfills the letter of the law while spitefully thwarting its spirit. He's like a little kid told to clean his toys off the floor, so he piles them in his parents' bed under the covers, or tapes them to the legs of the kitchen table. Except Jonah is so low-effort, he does the bare minimum that will comply with God's instructions. The result is comically laconic. It's the stuff anti-jokes are made of. “What do you call a pigeon that can't find its way home? A pigeon.”

With such a weak set-up by Jonah, we hardly expect much from the Assyrians in Nineveh. They have no reason to believe Jonah, no context for the message, no implementation plan, no hope for compliance – exactly as Jonah hopes. Indeed, given their brutal reputation, we expect them to attack Jonah, maybe kill him. Instead, their response is as lavish as Jonah's summons was laconic. They promptly believed God, started fasting and wearing sackcloth, sat in ashes, and prayed (Jonah 3:5-9). They repent on a dime! There's no city in Israel at this time that receives the word of any priest or prophet with as much responsiveness as Nineveh shows to even what Jonah left unsaid. Like magic, they vastly exceed expectations – and the contrast is comical. Jonah tried his best to fail his mission, and he failed at failing! The big, bad Assyrians are softies before God, acting like a nation of Josiahs and Hezekiahs instead. But so extreme is their turn that we even get the picture of the people of Nineveh dressing up their livestock in sackcloth and inducing the animals to fast. It's a prayer meeting “from cow to king.”10 Yes, even the cows are repenting and praying. It's ripped right from a cartoon or a comic strip.

Now, Jonah's failure of failing – in other words, his success – ticks him off, and he starts moaning. You know, we'd expect Jonah to be happy. He's had a greater success than any prophet before him. Noah didn't convert so many, Moses didn't convert so many, Samuel didn't convert so many, Elijah and Elisha didn't convert so many! Jonah's going down in history as the great evangelist! And he couldn't be more miserable about it. He's furious and crestfallen at his own success, because he wanted to fail, but he failed at failing (Jonah 3:10—4:3). We find out that Jonah's well aware of how God described himself to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness...” (Exodus 34:6). Those words were the foundation of the covenant, the promise of hope beyond the sin of the golden calf – but Jonah, who comes from a land of golden calves – turns the promise into an accusation! Chutzpah doesn't even begin to cover it!

And so God plays a final prank on Jonah, like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown only to yank it away at the last moment – and then give him a lecture (Jonah 4:3-11). The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away – only, unlike Job, Jonah has no time to say a “Blessed be the name of the LORD (Job 1:21). Each scene up to this final vignette has conspired together to highlight a God at work in the realm of the ridiculous, God making a mockery of Jonah's peevish strain of disobedience, until at last God ends his closing speech with a curtain-closing appeal to just think of all those poor cows (Jonah 4:11). And so closes this farce on our expectations.

Fast forward almost eight centuries, and we get to the Gospels. And there too, we find the farce of expectations. You see, as we step into the pages of the Gospels, we expect Israel's long-awaited Savior to be born in splendor – maybe in a palace – but instead, he's in a peasant's feed-trough. We expect heralds to call great dignitaries and scholars. But instead, all heaven pays visit to unshowered shepherds. When we meet the Pharisees, we expect them to live up to their reputation as role models of religion. But instead, we hear how prostitutes and publicans precede them into glory (Matthew 21:31). We expect rabbis to be stringent and demanding in choosing their disciples – but instead, Jesus invites backwoods bumpkins on sight. We expect these disciples to measurably improve through the years with Jesus – but instead, they seem no wiser or holier in Gethsemane than in Galilee. And then we expect the cross to be the closing catastrophe of sorrow and shame. But instead, it's a royal throne where the King is coronated in thorns. Here on the cross, the King holds court, reigning and judging the world. For the cross is the place where all the world's plans, all the world's expectations, all the world's assessments of what's sensible and plausible and reasonable, are lampooned by the lance that pierces the heart of God.

Don't take my word for it. Listen to the Apostle Paul: “Since, in the wisdom of God, the world didn't know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks demand wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified – a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called (both Jews and Greeks), Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:21-25). On these verses, one literature expert commented: “The Christian is profoundly mad merely by the standards of the world. To the world, the wicked seem wise, but are mad in the sight of God. The Christian is touched by the Infinite, and will not only have the last laugh at the end of time: even now, he laughs more insanely than the worldlings.”11

But Paul goes on: “Consider your calling, brothers! Not many of you were wise according to the flesh, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world – (even things that are not!) – to bring to nothing things that are, so that no flesh might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). And once again, that's very much not what expectations would have led us to believe. We didn't expect God to choose the foolish and weak and lowly (like us), and therefore that's exactly what God did, for the sake of shaming those who elevated their expectations into presumption. And if we come, by the way, to too readily presume that foolishness and weakness and lowliness are fine sources of boasting in the flesh, then God is more than happy to lampoon those expectations too, because either way, as Samuel says: “Presumption is like iniquity and idolatry” (1 Samuel 15:23).

So let's learn from Jonah and his comedy of errors. God is a God of surprises, a God at work in our ridiculous world, a God who displays himself first and foremost enthroned on the absurdity of the cross. Let us worship the God who exposes the disobedience of proud prophets and redeems pagan ignorance by his surprising dawn of light. Let's hold loosely our expectations in life, and be willing to lay our dignity and self-solemnity at the feet of the foolishness of the Father. And let us begin to laugh more insanely than all the worldlings and their dour, neat, and tidy chaos. To that end, I don't think I can close any better than by quoting Chesterton: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”12 “Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground. To be at last in such secure innocence that one can juggle with the universe and the stars, to be so good that one can treat everything as a joke – that may be, perhaps, the real end and final holiday of human souls.”13 Amen.

1  Groucho Marx, Groucho and Me (Bernard Geis Associates, 1959), 3.

2  Rodney Dangerfield, It's Not Easy Bein' Me (Thorndike Press, 2004), 18.

3  Victor Borge, quoted in The Texas Outlook (November 1970): 56.

4  Marion D. Shutter, Wit and Humor in the Bible: A Literary Study (Arena Publishing Co., 1892), 39: “There are some elements of genuine humor in the story of Jonah.”

5  Earl F. Palmer, The Humor of Jesus: Sources of Laughter in the Bible (Regent College, 2001), 81.

6  To cite two recent scholars: Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament 28 (Zondervan Academic, 2019 [2013]), 37, observes “a hint of satire” in this “gentle parody.” JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Lexham Academic, 2019), 377, sees in it “a historical narrative with satirical elements.”

7  Peter J. Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Baylor University Press, 2009), 138: “If texts function like jokes, then texts require certain kinds of interpreters. What kind of interpreters? Funny ones? That would not be a bad start.”

8  Mark Biddle, A Time to Laugh: Humor in the Bible (Smyth & Helwys, 2013), 58.

9  Raymond F. Person, Jr., In Conversation with Jonah: Conversation Analysis, Literary Criticism, and the Book of Jonah (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 87.

10  Mark Biddle, A Time to Laugh: Humor in the Bible (Smyth & Helwys, 2013), 66.

11  Michael Andrew Screech, Laughter at the Foot of the Cross (University of Chicago Press, 1998), 73.

12  Gilbert Keith Chesterton, “The Eternal Revolution,” Orthodoxy (1908), in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton 1:325.

13  Gilbert Keith Chesterton, “Aristocracy at Our Universities,” The Illustrated London News, 17 August 1907, in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton 27:533.

No comments:

Post a Comment