|Yom Kippur 5769 - The Book of Jonah|
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, but also a difficult day of fasting and lengthy prayers. So, our tradition provides some relief on the afternoon of Yom Kippur with a story-the tale of Jonah the prophet.
The word of the Lord comes to Jonah, telling him to go to Nineveh and cry out against its wickedness, but Jonah resists and buys passage on a ship headed in the opposite direction. The Lord sends a storm to block Jonah's way. Jonah admits to the sailors that he is the cause of the storm, and tells them they must throw him overboard if they hope to survive. The sailors reluctantly comply. The Lord provides a huge fish that swallows Jonah and preserves his life. There, Jonah finally repents. The fish spews him out after three days, and Jonah goes to Nineveh, where he proclaims, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" The Ninevites respond, from the greatest to the least, sitting in sackcloth and ashes and crying out to God.
The climax of the story comes when God accepts this remarkable repentance, or teshuvah, among the Ninevites.
But here's the surprise: this conclusion
Jonah rejects the divine conclusion to the story. He retracts his fish-belly repentance and wishes he had never turned back from Tarshish. What's the problem here?
Teshuvah, the Hebrew term for repentance, is based on the word for turn or return. It means that we turn away from our wrong ways and turn toward God and his ways. We take on God's perspective. Otherwise, we will fall back into error and sin. Jonah, even though he has turned back to Nineveh as directed, turns away from God's perspective on Nineveh, and ends up wishing he'd never come at all.
Jonah's problem is what Christian writer Eugene Peterson calls "a failure of imagination." He is ready to see Nineveh destroyed because all he sees is a wicked city deserving judgment. In contrast, God desires mercy, because he sees "120,000 humans who don't know between their right hand and their left" (4:11).
Jonah wants to stay in his world of us and them, good guys and bad guys. God wants him in his world, the world he has created, where every soul is precious.
I believe we Messianic Jews suffer at times from a failure of imagination, like Jonah. We fail to see ourselves as among the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and Yeshua as our shepherd, who will re-gather us in the face of impending judgment. Instead, we either ignore our people as a whole, or we ignore the fact that "we all like sheep have gone astray" (Isaiah 53:6). The Lord teaches Jonah a lesson that may be helpful to us as well.
When God announces his change of mind about destroying Nineveh, Jonah stalks off to see if something still might happen to the city. He goes east of town and builds a sukkah for himself. God provides a vine to grow over the sukkah and protect Jonah from the heat. But then he sends a worm to destroy the vine, and Jonah is outraged.
Just as the vine is a comfort to Jonah, so is restored humanity a comfort to the Lord.
Failure of imagination: Jonah sees the Ninevites only as they are, an irritant to the righteous. But God sees their souls and desires them. The moral: We need to join with God in seeking the souls of men.
The good news here is that I am not proposing a new program. People do not come to Yeshua through programs and methodology, but through the influence of friends and loved ones-through us.
The bad news, though, is that the longer we follow Yeshua, the less influence we seem to have on those outside his sheepfold. We reach unspoken agreements with family not to rock the religious boat, and we slowly lose touch with non-Messianic friends. This is a problem throughout the Messianic Jewish world. Like Jonah, we build a sukkah, we try to get comfortable, we wait to see what is going to happen to this wicked world . . . and we long more for our own comfort than for the souls of men.
But there is still good news-the sign of Jonah. Yeshua said, "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" (Mt. 12:40). Jonah announced the message God gave him, and the rest of the story unfolded. The simple message itself has power. Our message is the sign of Jonah: Yeshua the Messiah died and rose again. Our problem is that we often forget about the Ninevites who need this message the most, or we adapt the message for their ears so much that we lose the simple truth of life and deliverance in Messiah.
There is an epilogue to this story. Like Jonah, Yeshua emerges from the belly of the fish and stands on the seashore. There he has a discussion with Shimon bar Yonah, Simon son of Jonah, who like the prophet has recently been avoiding God.
Here is a lesson about teshuvah for Yom Kippur, the season of teshuvah. When we truly return to God, we take on his perspective. We turn from failure of imagination to see the world as God sees it. When we truly return, we are caught up in God's desire for all to return. Our return is incomplete without the return of our people. Yeshua is telling us what he told Shimon-if you love me, you will love my lost sheep and go after them.