In our first session with the adult group, we compared the functional role of Jonah as “ignoble preacher defiant of God” with that of the pagan sailors, whose behavior–in contrast with the prophet–served the intent of God’s instruction. It was the captain of the boat, not Jonah, who feared the God of the Hebrews and looked to him for assistance. (Jonah 1:6) This type of role reversal is typical in Scripture and is given to shatter our self-righteous assumptions about each other.
Lest we idolize the sailors, the writers quickly turn the tides against the reader. As the Gospel of Matthew explains, “no one is good” but God. (Matt 19:17) Just as Jonah tried to pay his own way–supporting himself instead of accepting God’s provision–the sailors too found themselves rowing against the will of God. (Jonah 1:3, 1:13) From the moment the Word of the Lord appears in verse one, all sides in Jonah are consigned to a “no win” scenario, best intentions aside.
Finally, from a position of hypocrisy and at his own risk, Jonah preaches the Word of the Lord to the captain and his shipmates, offering a way forward for everyone. Matthew, who calls our attention to Jonah’s “sign” (the Word of the Lord) reminds us that since all men fall short, we are to emulate the teacher’s instructions, not his behavior. (Matt 12:39, 23:2) In the end, it is Jonah’s proclamation of the “fear of the Lord” that will lead to salvation for all parties. (Jonah 1:9)