Today millions of Americans (and others) will be gathering around a table about to eat an invariably beautiful, bounteous feast.
But first, many of those millions will be bowing heads, perhaps holding hands, and giving thanks to God. Giving thanks for home, family, friends, food. Perhaps also the nation. Beloveds now in attendance in Spirit only. Improved health, if applicable. Making it through a tough year.
The Comic Lens would invite you, in the midst of your blessing time, to also spend a moment thinking about Jonah.
As you may recall, Jonah is the main character of a short, quirky story/book of the Old Testament that’s nestled amidst several other equally short but not-so-quirky prophetic pronouncements. As the Bible tells it, Jonah’s story begins as he’s called by God to undertake the most wackadoodle of missions: to go to Nineveh, the most detested location in scripture, and tell the Ninevites to repent and come to God (just as the Israelites are always invited to do). Ychh. Who wants them at your party?
In response to God’s call, as you may recall, Jonah runs the other way, hopping on a ship to Tarshish which doesn’t get far. In the story, God causes a great storm to arise, and it leads to Jonah’s being thrown overboard (at his suggestion); hopefully this will convince God to calm things down for the rest on the boat. And let God proceed with getting His newly-chosen prophet to the place no Israelite in a million years wants to go. Double ychh.
Next, the most memorable thing in the story happens. Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish. We’ll call it a whale.
And, after that, at Chapter 2, we discover Jonah has offered up a Prayer (Psalm) of Thanksgiving. A most full-throated one.
In terms of content, it’s way, way off.
For starters, Jonah begins his prayer by praising God for hearing him as he called out for help in his distress. There’s no record of Jonah calling out to God. The others in the boat, however, call out quite a bit as they throw Jonah overboard. Why is Jonah claiming credit for others’ proper, faithful behavior?
Jonah continues by extolling God for saving him from the “belly of Sheol”. “BOS” is a poetic phrase describing the dark, lonely, unpleasant underworld of Hades where the Israelites believed all forever resided after they died. It’s rather ironic that Jonah is thanking God for being rescued from a belly…while he’s in the dark watery depths of another one, don’t you think?
It’s really something to imagine Jonah going on and on about God’s great act of rescue while he’s sloshing around in digestive juices and fish and seaweed in various states of decomposition.
Jonah’s psalm prayer continues to be drenched (pun intended) in irony, as he continues regaling his rescue story by lauding God for saving him just as the darkest of waters came over him and weeds wrapped around his head. Chances are, as he sits in this giant belly, dark waters and wrapping weeds are still part of his reality, although now they’re way grosser, because mostly they’re on their way to becoming whale poop.
Jonah doesn’t seem to be the least bit aware of his strange, nauseating setting. He keeps praising God with much of the same flowery language that found in the great Thanksgiving Psalms in our Book of Psalms.
It could be that Jonah is such a good Israelite he knows the Thanksgiving Psalms by heart and proceeds with singing them and creating a new one in their mold, expressing faithful gratitude no matter what circumstance.
Or, this psalm in this circumstance could be an indication that Jonah is pathetically (and over-the-top comically) out-of-touch with reality.
The capper of Jonah’s great thanksgiving prayer is when he says, in conclusion, as every good and faithful Israelite does at the end of their prayer of thanksgiving:
“With a voice of thanksgiving I make sacrifice to you!”
And then proceeds with making said sacrifice. Which is always some generous gift of grain or meat. Offered at the Temple.
Of course, Jonah is not in a temple. He’s in the belly of a great fish. He clearly seems to think he’s in a temple! And you can’t help but giggle imagining Jonah figuring out where the altar is and what kind of grain or meat offering can make with whatever is presently swirling around the whale’s gut. And then, after that, it’s time to do the deed — sacrifice — which means you set your gift afire.
Of course, that to is filled with comic fodder, since it’s probably awfully tough to get a fire going as he’s swirling in an intense amount of watery intestinal goo. He’s going to have to work harder than an Eagle Scout to get things going.
However, he seems to eventually accomplish his mission. We can safely assume a fire is successfully set and sacrifice is successfully offered. Why?
Because, as told us in v. 10, the fish then “spews” Jonah out upon the dry land of Nineveh. The grand (and to many solely accurate) King James Version reports it as “vomiting.”
This is hilarious on several counts. One, puking is funny! Especially when the puker is not seriously sick and is blorching in an odd place. Secondly, the present circumstance is funny because the poor whale who has no idea of what’s going on finally comes to life and can’t help but let ‘er rip.
Thirdly, because, according to the story, this is part of God’s journey to get Jonah to take his, it seems like the perfect (and most peevish) “That’s It!” for God to exclaim once Jonah’s complete obliviousness and gross misappropriation of the Thanksgiving Psalm tradition and form have finally gone too far. It’s time for Jonah to quite lallygagging about and get on with the Divine business of saving the Ninevites.
All this being said, the Comic Lens suggests you think uponJonah’s crazy thanksgiving prayer as you as this Thanksgiving offer up yours. Why?
It’s always good to remember that God’s perception of what’s going on is often way different from, and bigger than, ours. Just as Jonah doesn’t seem to have a clue he should keep praying for deliverance rather than launch in on thanksgiving for Mission Accomplished, so we can be ignorant of what God sees in our present circumstances and what kind of “thanksgiving prayer” is truly warranted. Should it be focused on gratitude for all the wonderful things that bring our lives and the lives of our loved ones great comfort and happiness? It certainly makes sense that we give God thanks for such incredibly rich gifts, right?
However, as Jesus tartly reminds us in his Beatitudes, God’s blessings - ie “gifts” - do not come in the form of health, wealth, children and life’s niceties. Rather, they come in the form of holy presence to the poor, the lonely, those suffering loss, and those kicked in the teeth and persecuted in their efforts to make peace.
From God’s eye-view what most of us are offering up for thanks with best intentions and faithful enthusiasm before we dig into our Thanksgiving feast may be just as out-of-it and on its way to eliciting a Divine “That’s It!” as what Jonah is praying.
Jonah (or, more to the point, Jonah’s author) and Jesus invite us to dramatically (and comically) stretch our awareness and, hopefully, curiosity, humility and awe, as to how God might really be blessing us (or should we say, “blessing” us), and for what reason. What love-bearing, world-transforming journey is God gifting us for? A journey beginning, perhaps, this Thanksgiving Day? Chances are, like with Jonah, it’s NEVER going to be what or where we expect. Scripture - the Book of Jonah and a gajillion other places - suggest it may very well be to a people and place we’d least care to encounter.
And yet, it’s always these journeys toward and encounters with the least likely/least liked people and places that emerge the Divine realm of true belovedness more than any other thing. These journeys also elicit God’s greatest prayers of praise, even if, as in the case of Jonah, such efforts from our perspective deserve nothing but scorn.
May this Thanksgiving open our eyes to see and open our ears to hear the prayers God is truly calling us to offer up. And awareness to understand from where we are actually praying.
Not that we shouldn’t be absolutely grateful for our profound blessings of family, friends and food, too. Also acknowledging, as every “wise fool” must, that no matter what we newly figure out about where we are and where God would have us next go and why, chances are we’re still probably dramatically (and comically) going to get it wrong. However, with God consciously at our side, we will miss the mark in a new and less disastrous way!
Now there’s something we all can be truly thankful - and hopeful - for, yes? Happy, Wonder-full Thanksgiving to Jonah’s, and to us all!