By Rev. J.C. Austin
“Eat the frog first.” That’s one version of a proverb that has some different versions. That’s the simplest one. An expanded version is, “If the first thing you do each morning is eat a frog, you can go through the rest of the day knowing you’re done with the worst part.” Then there is a version that is often attributed to Mark Twain, although there’s no actual evidence he ever said it. Twain, of course, is the default source for a lot of folksy wisdom that people want to carry some extra heft. And it does sound like something Mark Twain would have said: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, best do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the bigger one first.”
The point of course, is that if you have to do something unpleasant, or that you really don’t want to do, it’s best to just get it over with, and if you have more than one of them, start with the most unpleasant one. We’ve probably all been asked to do something in our professional or personal life at some point that was big, challenging, even unpleasant. Many of us have been asked to do something like that which we might have felt was at best pointless, and at worst a really bad idea with which we had fundamental disagreements.
And when faced with such things, we have only a few real options: to refuse it, to avoid it, or to do it anyway. A straightforward refusal often has consequences that we don’t want, and so it usually comes down to a question of whether we can avoid it or if we have to do it anyway. And since we don’t want to have to do it, that often points us in the direction of avoidance: trying to change the circumstances one way or another so that we don’t have to choose between an acceptance or a refusal. We may try to delegate it or pawn it off on someone else, for example. If that’s not an option, we often delay over and over again, hoping that it will resolve itself one way or another, even if we know that’s not really an option.
And so there’s literally a whole productivity philosophy based around this problem that is articulated in a book called Eat That Frog! 21 Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. And the premise is simple: start with your most challenging task, because it is likely that it is both the easiest one to procrastinate about and the most important one to accomplish, even if it’s also the most unpleasant. And if you don’t do that, if you keep putting it off in favor of other things that are more appealing, that challenging task doesn’t go away. Rather, it sits there waiting, like a threatening cloud that keeps growing and blocking out more light unless you somehow decide for it to open up.
Jonah could probably write a sequel to that productivity system called Don’t Let the Fish Eat You!, because that’s what happens to him when he literally runs away from his most challenging and important task and the threatening clouds gather and unleash a storm on him for doing so. If you know anything about this story, you probably know the part about the fish; it has gone far beyond the pages of Scripture and seeped into the larger culture, with allusions to it showing up in everything from Moby Dick to Finding Nemo.
But if we think about it at all, we just assume that Jonah got swallowed by the fish because he ran away from fulfilling God’s call to him. The story literally opens, after all, with God telling Jonah, “Go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” That’s Jonah’s frog: his challenging, even overwhelming, yet crucial task. And Jonah takes one look at it and sprints in the other direction.
Literally: this gets lost in the translation you just heard, but God tells Jonah to “get up” and go to Nineveh, but Jonah instead “goes down” to Joppa on the shore of the Mediterranean. Jonah is supposed to go east to Nineveh; instead he gets in that boat and goes west. And by west, I mean west. Jonah, of course, is in the land of Israel, and he gets on a boat in the coastal city of Joppa and heads out to Tarshish, which is generally thought to have been in southern Spain near the Strait of Gibraltar at the western mouth of the Mediterranean. Jonah responds to God’s call by trying to go to what, for him and his culture, was the other end of the earth.
But God is not letting Jonah off the hook that easily, so to speak, and the metaphorical cloud of the task that Jonah is refusing to do becomes a very literal one: God whips up a storm that threatens to sink the boat. The sailors are terrified as they try to save the ship, until Jonah finally admits, “you better throw me overboard; this is happening because of me.” The men finally do as Jonah says; that’s when the famous fish comes in, swallowing him up for three days and nights until Jonah finally relents and calls out to God from inside the fish, “what I have vowed I will repay,” meaning that he will obey God’s command this time.
And after going to the ends of the earth to avoid that obedience, the fish deposits him on the beach basically right back where he started. And as Jonah lies there on his back, gasping in the wet sand, presumably feeling and looking pretty unpleasant after three days in the belly of a fish, God speaks to him again: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This time, Jonah does not refuse or procrastinate, and he heads out to Nineveh to deliver its prophetic warning.
The book of Jonah is one of the best pure stories in the entire Bible. That’s why we read an abridged version of the whole thing today rather than just the one passage suggested by the lectionary schedule of Scripture readings for worship. Because if you pull just one passage out to look at, you lose the narrative flow and thereby some of the most significant meanings. For example, when we read or recall the story of Jonah, we often focus on the first two chapters because they’re the most vivid and entertaining: God’s prophetic call to Jonah; Jonah’s attempted avoidance; the ship in the storm, Jonah in the fish. And once he’s back on land, we often kind of stop there, because he obeys the command this time, and isn’t that the point?
No, I don’t think it is. It’s not insignificant, but it’s not even close to the most important point of this story for us. And we can start to realize that by asking an important question: why did Jonah avoid this call from God in the first place? Why was this important task so challenging, even unpleasant for him? If you look more closely, you would actually think Jonah would embrace and relish this task. After all, he was from the northern kingdom of Israel, and its greatest enemy in the 8th century, when Jonah lived, was the Assyrian Empire, whose capital is Nineveh.
Assyria was far larger and more powerful than Israel; in fact, Nineveh was probably one of the largest cities in the world at the time. Assyria regularly threatened and harassed the northern kingdom of Israel, and eventually conquered it in the late 8th century, several hundred years before the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom of Judah and its capital of Jerusalem. So you would think that Jonah might leap at the chance to get to be the messenger crying out against Nineveh on God’s behalf because of its wickedness, proclaiming that in forty days it would be “overthrown,” or destroyed.
But he doesn’t. He would rather go to the other side of the earth, and on a fairly dangerous sea voyage, than do that. Why? Well it’s in the last chapter of the book, which we often forget or skip altogether. When Jonah finally does deliver his prophecy in Nineveh, he provokes an extraordinary response. The people of Nineveh believe him; or more precisely, they believe God whom he is representing. The narrator says Nineveh is so big it would take three days to walk across it, but Jonah doesn’t even get through the first day before everyone is responding to him.
They all proclaim a fast and put on sackcloth, the classic disciplines and signs of repentance. When the news reaches the king, he goes even further: he orders an extreme fast, neither food nor water, as well as the wearing of sackcloth, and he extends those practices to cover not simply all the human residents, but the animals, too! That’s right: cattle were in their pens, fasting and draped in sackcloth, mooing their repentance of Nineveh’s evil ways! It’s both comical and could not be more serious all at the same time.
Now, here’s the thing: God, through Jonah, did not call for any kind of response. Jonah didn’t say, “repent, because the end is near.” He simply said, “the end is near.” There was no offer of hope, no invitation to change, no possibility mentioned of anything other than doom for Nineveh. And yet the king and the people and yes, the animals, repent anyway, fervently, throwing themselves at the feet of God with signs of complete submission and remorse. “Who knows?” the king says, hoping against hope; “God may relent and change his mind.”
Who knows? Jonah. Jonah knows, and that is why he ran away. That is why he is seething with such anger as he walks out of the city that should be a smoking ruin but isn’t because God does, in fact, relent, accepting the repentance of Nineveh from its evil and not destroying them as God had promised. Jonah is outraged by this; outraged because he knew that God would be just like this, turning away from administering promised and well-deserved justice in favor of grace and mercy just because the people of Nineveh repented when that was never a deal that was offered in the first place!
That’s why he refused to take up his big, challenging task; that’s why it was so unpleasant to him: because he knew this is how it would end up. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning,” he spits at God; “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” In other words, Jonah knew God would let Nineveh get away, and he didn’t want any part of it,
Every fisherman has a story about “The One That Got Away,” and it’s never about an insignificant or even average fish, because why would that even be a story worth telling? “The One That Got Away” is always a particularly big and clever fish, one that would have been not only one of the greatest catches of that fisherman’s career, but a catch that others would recognize as objectively impressive. Jonah tried to be one that got away from God, but he was caught all the same, ironically by what had to have been a big and impressive fish. And for Jonah, Nineveh is The One That Got Away because what he wanted was to see it caught, stuffed, and put up on the wall as a trophy.
But that’s not what God wanted, which Jonah knew but did not understand. Jonah wanted justice for Nineveh’s many crimes, which he defined as punishment, and so in Jonah’s mind, Nineveh got away; God had it on the hook and just let it go, wriggling off back into the water from which it came with no consequences for its actions. But to God, for God, Nineveh isn’t The One That Got Away; Nineveh chose to leap out of the water and into God’s hands itself, hoping that this would result not in its death but in its life. And that’s exactly what happened. Nineveh was caught, but not to be killed and hung as a trophy on God’s wall; Nineveh was caught in order to truly live, to repent from its aggression and injustice and live the way in which God intended.
The question at the end of this story, then, is whether Jonah ends up as “The One That Got Away,” after all. Was Jonah able to not only know, but finally understand, the answer to God’s final question: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city?”, understand that God doesn’t desire to truly “catch” any of us, but to set us free, free to live in God’s love and justice and mercy and peace, free to live out those gifts of God whenever we turn to God in repentance, because God is always there waiting for us to do so.
Jonah doesn’t answer God’s question. And I think that’s because it allows God’s question to be there for us to hear and consider and answer, even when it seems big and important and maybe even unpleasant to do so, because in answering we can not only know, but understand, the power and the cost and the beauty and the improbable promise of God’s grace, for everyone, always, and especially when they, when we, realize we need it most.