Saturday, March 16, 2013

a God of play and the backwards prophet

There is a tradition that holds the story of Jonah as a comedy. Think of the children’s book Wacky Wednesday.

Children find the story humorous because everything in it is out of whack, off kilter. “A shoe on a wall? Shouldn’t be there at all!” the writer states.

It is a pedagogical technique: pupils can learn the natural order of things through encountering the opposite.

Take a pair of trousers and ask: “Where do these go? Over your head?”

“No! They go on your legs!”

“That’s right. Good job!”

Learning can be playful.


The stories of the Old Testament were handed down from generation to generation through the ancient technique of storytelling. In this tradition, a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle or older brother or sister would gather the younger ones to retell the stories of their ancestors. This is how history was kept. (By the way, we do this very little today, which is why—tragically—I know very little of my own immediate family history. But, I digress. Back to the ancient method…)

In the ancient method of storytelling, words and phrases were repeated with certain gestures and, in many instances, interactive role plays. It is likely the children made the sounds of wind, earthquake and fire when they were told (and helped tell) the story of Elijah encountering God in the whisper. Notice the repetition in the story: “But God was not in the _____________.” Three times. And then, the climax: God comes as a gentle whisper. (I can see the children growing very, very quiet right then!)

The process utilized in telling the story etched the content into one’s memory, painting the scenes of faith on the canvas of the soul.

Because of this, stories that we treat today as tragic were related in the classic world with touches of humor. We tend to grow serious when we tell the story of Abraham taking his son Isaac to sacrifice him, but we overlook the fact that future generations looking back on the story would have smiled when, in the course of the narrative, Isaac says to his father Abraham, “Father, we have the wood for the sacrifice but where is the lamb?”

Young listeners would smile at that part, knowing they needed to wait to hear how the story ends but also knowing they know how it ends. Cognizance of the end of the story caused one's joy in the middle of the story to grow. The children smile—maybe they even laugh—when Abraham answers the question.

Keep in mind that, classically speaking, the ancient world divided story and drama into two categories: comedy and tragedy. Generally speaking—with rare exceptions, as we shall see—if a story had a sad ending, it was tragedy. If happy, it was comedy—even if, along the way, tragic things happened.

Think Shakespeare: we laugh in Much Ado About Nothing at the mishaps along the way—at the expense of the characters—because we know how it will all turn out in the end. But King Lear is a different matter.  There is a final, tragic ending. In that instance, the humor we encounter along the way is an empathetic response because we know how the story ends.

Greek tragedy and comedy function with the same framework.

So comedy is touched with tragedy but not overcome.


And then we come to Jonah, a black comedy. Along the way, the children laugh because Jonah does everything a prophet is not supposed to do. It’s a way of teaching children what’s supposed to happen by telling a story that relates the opposite.  (This splinter was first put in my brain by Jerome Berryman, author of Godly Play).

Along the way, as the storyteller relates what Jonah does, they would have recognized: “No, that’s not what a prophet is supposed to do!”

God says, “Go to Nineveh.” 

And Jonah goes the other way.

He gets swallowed by a big fish who vomits him up on the shore later. God’s prophet: a piece of undigested meat, covered in gastric juices.  Funny stuff! (“Very different than that Elijah story, isn’t it, kids?”)

He finally goes to Nineveh and meets with success, but this makes him angry. He doesn’t want these people to live. God’s prophet wants them to die.  “Is that how a prophet is supposed to behave, kids?”


“That’s right. We don’t put our trousers on our head, do we?”

It’s all backwards.

But this is what makes Jonah such a unique comedy. The story does have a happy ending but it also has a sad ending:   Jonah is supposed to be happy with us about the happy ending (the whole city repents!), but he isn’t.

It’s a black comedy. Surprise!

Jonah becomes the new favorite story because of this. In fact, this story might just be better than that Elijah story.

Wait a second. There’s another Elijah and Jonah:  John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively. I wonder which story will be better. I wonder who will be greater.



Yes, Jesus. He tells us that the only sign we’ll be given when asked for proof that he is the Messiah is “the sign of Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39)

What a story to choose!

To be sure, Jesus referenced the whole counsel of God in his ministry (and especially when he was walking—in disguise! Is that how the Messiah is supposed to behave?—on the Road to Emmaus with two of his disciples). He traced how “things had to happen this way” through the Law and the Prophets.

Well, for Pete’s sake, what was it he had to explain to them?! What, in particular, were they even wondering about when Jesus was explaining “it had to happen this way.”

The crucifixion, of course. They couldn’t understand why the person they thought was the Messiah had to die. That did not compute with them.

Jesus was a backwards prophet, just like Jonah.

They did not expect they would know his hometown: “But we know where this man is from; when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.” (John 7:27)

It’s all backward!

They did not expect Messiah to break the law. After all, he had given them their laws. (John 5:16-18)

It’s all backward!

They did not expect he would forgive the woman who was clearly (!) caught in the act of adultery. (John 8:1-11)

It’s all backward!

They did not expect God-with-us would die alongside the world’s criminals.

It’s all backward!

Jesus told them plainly: just as Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so the Son of Man would spend three days and three nights “in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)  This would have caught them by surprise. “The Messiah is like Jonah? Impossible! He’s a backwards prophet! He does everything he’s not supposed to do!”


In fact, it’s because he did what he wasn’t supposed to do that he ended up in the belly of the earth. It is true that Jesus did what the Father wanted him to do but in human estimation, he was—and is—the chief character in Wacky Wednesday. That’s what got him killed. 

Notice: We make much of the fact that he rose again from the dead, but the more captivating (and scandalous fact) of the Jesus-story is that Messiah (Messiah, mind you!) spent three days in the belly.

It’s all backward!

They were not expecting the black comedy to come true. They thought it was “just another one of our stories.” But they were not listening when Jesus said the only sign they would be given is “the sign of Jonah.”

And, there’s more: in the story of Jesus we have two Jonahs. The first is the story of Jonah as we all know it. It is the Jonah as played by us: the disobedient, unforgiving Jonah that does almost everything all wrong.  It is the elder-son Jonah who begrudges the familial restoration of a younger, rebellious brother by their father. (see Luke 15:11-32)

Then, there is the Jonah as played by Jesus, the one who appears to us as a law-breaker. He is the prodigal father who hikes up his robes and comes running out to his rebellious son. (A man of dignity does not do such a thing! It’s backwards!) We find out, however, that he does all the wrong things for all the right reasons.

Jesus is the Jonah who plants the tiniest of all seeds and watches it grow so it can provide shelter not for himself but for the birds of the air to make a home. (Matthew 13:31-32)

He is the picture of Jonah as the story should have ended: a Jonah who is glad when even “one sinner repents” (let alone a whole city!). (Luke 15:7)

I just love how Jesus uses the medium of a black comedy (it shouldn’t happen this way!) to make a new story whose ending is true comedy (it happened this way!).

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