As I pointed out in the sermon on Sunday, the figure of Jonah is a caricature. He is a terrible prophet and a petulant little man. I consider him the worst missionary ever!
That’s why he is such a helpful character to ponder as we consider how to do mission right. Starting next Wednesday night at 6:30 pm, I’ll be leading a class on missions, and attempt to lay out a full theology, strategy, and spirituality for the church as we improve the way we help and serve others.
But first let’s see what we can learn from Jonah about how not to do missions:
- Jonah went alone. Missions is never a solo venture; it’s not meant for Lone Rangers. The first and most glaring problem with Jonah’s travels to Nineveh is that he didn’t take anybody with him. Therefore, there was nobody to support and encourage him, nobody to hold him accountable, nobody to talk common sense to him. When we attempt to do missions all by ourselves, no matter how noble or worthy, we are doomed to fail.
- Jonah didn’t learn the language. Did you notice that Jonah makes absolutely no preparation for his mission trip? He didn’t attempt to learn the language, the local culture, or anything else at all about the context to which he was traveling. I have a picture in my mind of Jonah walking through the middle of the city proclaiming, “In forty days, you will be overthrown!” in Hebrew, as people looked on with amusement since they couldn’t understand a word he was saying. The fact that the people and the king ended up being converted by this very brief sermon in a foreign language is a satirical jab at Jonah’s disinterest in actually communicating to the Ninevehites.
- Jonah didn’t befriend any Ninevehites. Again, the whole point of the story is that Jonah hated Nineveh. He didn’t want them to experience God’s shalom. That is most obvious by his absolute disregard of the people themselves. He didn’t take any steps to get to know them, understand them, or create friendships.
- Jonah viewed himself as superior to the Ninevehites. Obviously, Jonah thought his religion and culture better than Nineveh’s, and he saw himself as going to impose his worldview on that city. This is a subtle and malicious error that Christian missionaries have perpetuated throughout the centuries. Many of the 19th-century, so-called missionaries to Africa, for example, were nothing but Western colonizers, setting the stage for economic exploitation. But we make the same mistake when we view ourselves as superior to those whom we serve.
- Jonah was in a hurry. Note that he didn’t care to stick around the city very long. He did the absolute bare minimum of God’s command; he stuck to the letter of the law. Then he left and climbed the mountain to watch the destruction. He wanted immediate results to his missionary activity, and so often, the same is true of our own efforts. The truth about missions is that the most enduring, long-lasting, and best work is done over a long period of time. Short-term mission work is usually just that — short-term, and can be very damaging.
Imagine how the Book of Jonah would have read if Jonah were a model character, an exemplary prophet. It would have been pretty boring! No big fish, no bean plant, no pouting prophet.
Instead, we would read of a man who assembled a team of men and women who cared deeply about Nineveh’s history and culture, learned their language, listened to the people in the city, sipped coffee with them in their cafes, received hospitality from them, and lived with them for a long time. Perhaps eventually this team would get around to making suggestions, offering a hand, or building something. But this would only happen after a long period of listening, reflection, prayer, and study.
Like I said, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting as the whale story. But it would make a lasting difference toward establishing God’s kingdom.