What I'm Reading: 005 -- The Prodigal Prophet

What I’m Reading
005: The Prodigal Prophet
By Pastor Matt Schuler

“The narrative of Jonah seduces the reader into thinking of it as a simple fable, with the account of the great fish as the dramatic, if implausible, high point,” writes Tim Keller in his book The Prodigal Prophet. How could be possibly believe something so ridiculous and how could it impact our live thousands of years after the writer says it took place? 

Martin Luther says of Jonah, “If it were not in the Bible, I’d consider it a silly lie. Because if one thinks about it, Jonah was three days in the huge belly of the whale, where he could have been digested in three hours.” Yet, deep in this book is a roadmap to repentance and restoration to receive the grace and mercy God offers. Jonah also provides us with a way to look at our current cultural landscape and act in loving response to our family, friends, neighbors and even enemies.

I picked up The Prodigal Prophet as part of my research for our Jonah sermon series, I Wish You Were Dead. Keller references that the book is a culmination three separate sermon series he preached on Jonah over the course of thirty years. I started reading in the morning and finished the book in the afternoon. Jonah, as the person revealed to us in Scripture, is one of the worst people you could ever meet. My problem is that I’m more like Jonah than I am like Jesus, and that’s precisely why I need Jesus.

Keller describes Jonah as the prodigal who does the exact opposite thing God tells him to do. Given his situation, I can’t really say I’d do what God said either. God told Jonah to go to Assyria, who scholars have called a terrorist state. Their actions were so evil God chose to intervene by sending His prophet to them. This is only the second time in Biblical history that God had sent a prophet to foreigners, and it hadn’t gone well the time before. Elisha was sent to anoint Hazael as the king of Syria and wept as he went. Elisha said, “I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel: you will set fire to their fortresses; you will slay their young men with the sword, and you will dash in pieces their little ones, and you will rip open their women with child.” How could Jonah expect much different? If he went to the Assryians and told them they were evil and would be punished, it would probably mean his life!

In a sense, Jonah’s mission is one of practicality. God desires not only for one small group of people to be saved, but for all people to be saved. “This call of God to Jonah is a call to us,” Keller writes. “It means that Christians cannot think that their role in life is strictly to build up the church, as crucial as that is. They must also, as neighbors and citizens, work sacrificially for the common life and common good.”

I’ve been challenged in my study of Jonah to ask myself, “Is my private faith of any public good?” Keller references how our modern, pluralist culture shames and punishes those who don’t conform to the popular norms and that “for all our talk of tolerance, we demand that others adopt our characteristics and beliefs.” He invites Christians to live out in a way that is truly counter-cultural, one that embraces and loves people, even people who don’t believe what we believe.