This wee book on Jonah cost me £2.50 in 1977. I bought it because I was speaking at a Conference in Kilcreggan on mission. Back then Missiology was an up and coming area of major theological attention and grew into an essential discipline for research, reflection and forward looking ecclesial praxis. I hadn't long finished reading through Let the Earth Hear His Voice, a massive document produced at the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, 1975. Three years later J Verkuyl's Introduction to Contemporary Missiology appeared as an early introduction to a more serious and structured approach to missiology as a serious doctrinal imperative in its own right, and an area of study requiring urgency, imagination and courage to challenge the more superficial or outdated theories and practices of evangelism and missionary activity.
Back to Jonah. I had just spent £6.25 on Leslie Allen's commentary on Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, and was fascinated by Jonah as a missionary who wanted to give evangelism a body swerve, whose reluctance to preach mercy was ruthlessly obstinate, and whose entire body language was an enacted "No" of defiance, poorly disguised as justified protest at the scandalous softness of God!
So when I read Fretheim's theological commentary (by the way the current very fruitful attention to theological exegesis is not as recent or as innovative as is often claimed in publishers' blurb - Fretheim et al were doing it decades ago) I was intrigued by the playfulness and literary enjoyment of a commentator who understood irony and the subversive persuasiveness of an anti-hero. All the way through the book Jonah is a missiological liability. He doesn't want to preach repentance and mercy; he says yes but walks in the opposite direction; he prays a Psalm of repentance that reads like pious obedience but is more a wheedling negotiation with God; then when he does preach, his words are unadulterated pessimism; and his response to the Ninevites repentance is anger, resentment and a suicidal sulk.
The story of Jonah is a brilliant exposition of obedience through gritted teeth, a servant of God who thinks he can manage the universe better than the Creator. He sits beneath his gourd plant, hoping against hope that the Ninevites will be offered no hope, no mercy, no future. He is angry with God because God is slow to anger; he is critical of God because mercy is the best outcome of judgement; his sense of proportion is so skewed that he is moved by the tragedy of a withered gourd tree, and unmoved by the thought of annihilation on an urban scale. And the book ends in one of the best jokes in the entire canon - leave aside the 120,000 people, what about all the animals. Weigh it up Jonah - one gourd bush or an entire city. Where does the burden of mercy rightly fall?
Here is one of Fretheim's best comments, a comparison of Elijah and Jonah: "And Elijah asked that he might die, saying, 'It is enough. Now O lord take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.'" The difference between Jon ah and Elijah is striking. Elijah was in despair over his failure to turn the hearts of the idolatrous people of Israel. Jonah was in despair over his success...Jonah has become angry because God has refused to pour out his anger. Jonah will be angry if God will not be."(p. 122)
No wonder God asks the incredulous question, "Are you right to be angry". In the 21st Century world where religious anger is often clothed in lethal violence, or simmers into a resentment of 'the other', whoever 'they' are, Jonah comes as an ironic subversion of all devotion to God that uses God's judgement as an excuse for our hatreds, justification of our prejudices and confirmation of our presupposed rightness. Because however right we think we are, there is always the danger that we feel so right that rather than accept the reality of God's eternal love and mercy, we remake God in the image of our own prejudices and begin instructing God in the dynamics of anger, punishment and judgement.
"God was in Christ breconciling the world to himself, not counting their tresspasses against them...." Go and do likewise! The Gospel remains subversive, generous, outrageous, scandalous, unbelievably merciful, incredibly forgiving, and the God made known in Jesus remains the God who throws extravagant parties for every sinner who repents, and who even comes looking for the Jonah-like elder brother, out there sulking because God has no favourites.