Simon, Son of Jonah

By Jim Vitale

Matthew 16:13-20 is Simon’s moment of glory. Jesus asks his disciples who people think Jesus is and Simon, in a miraculous moment of inspiration, proclaims rightly and truthfully that Jesus is the Messiah. He is the first person to see Jesus for who Jesus truly is. And in his glorious moment of triumph, Jesus bestows on Simon a new title: Simon, son of Jonah—

—Wait, Jonah? Why Jonah? Of all the prophets who have ever proclaimed God’s truth, Jonah seems like the last one Jesus should choose. Simon, son of Isaiah! Simon, son of Elijah! Simon, son of Jeremiah! Any of these would be great compliments. But Jonah? That feels a little like an insult.

To understand this better, I think we need to take a closer look at the story of Jonah. Here’s how Jonah’s story goes:

One day God calls to an Israelite prophet named Jonah and tells him to travel to the Assyrian city of Nineveh to proclaim a message of repentance. Jonah is understandably befuddled by this because the Assyrians and Israelites are bitter enemies. But God assures Jonah that he has heard God correctly.  

So Jonah, in one of the stupidest moves ever recorded, disobeys a direct order from God and hightails it in the opposite direction of Nineveh. Naturally his attempts to outrun God fail spectacularly. A storm overtakes the ship, waves crash over the vessel, crew members begin to panic. And where is Jonah? On the deck lashing down supplies? No. With a bucket bailing out the bilge water? No. He’s asleep. And not just snoozing, but a fly-catching, buzz-saw snoring, dead-to-the-world slumber.

The captain wakes him and begs for his help. Jonah reluctantly gets up, knowing full well what is happening and why. But does he tell the crew why it’s happening? No. Does he take responsibility for it? No. The crew members have to draw straws to figure out whose fault this is; and only when Jonah pulls the short straw does he finally admit that it’s his fault.

So he jumps ship to save sailors more trouble, right? Nope. He tells them that they have to throw him overboard! He won’t even do that for himself! The sailors plead with him not to make them do it but finally they do. Of course as soon as Jonah hits the water, the storm stops, and a big fish gobbles him up.

Jonah then throws himself a little pity party in the belly of the fish before reluctantly agreeing to go to Nineveh.

And so the fish spits him out on land. God then returns to remind Jonah of the message he is to proclaim. Now we don’t know the message that God gave to Jonah exactly, but we can imagine that God’s message would much like the messages that God gave to the Israelites: “repent, change your ways, stop doing the bad things you’re doing. Follow God.” So Jonah sets off for Nineveh.

Now Nineveh was a huge city, a three days’ walk from one side to the other. Naturally, if you wanted to proclaim a message to the whole city, you’d travel the very center of it. So that’s what Jonah does, right? Not quite. Jonah walks one day, like he can’t even be bothered to go the extra half-day to get to the middle. And then he proclaims the message, but I’m skeptical. Given what happens in the rest of the story, I’m not convinced Jonah gets the message right. Does he tell the Ninevites of their wickedness? No. Does he call for repentance? No. Does he even mention that his God, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, sent him on this holy task? No. He states, very matter-of-factly: “40 days more and Nineveh will be destroyed.” That’s it.

Jonah, the most reluctant (maybe outright disobedient) prophet, phones in the whole thing: preaching a lame message half-heartedly to a city he can’t even be bothered to traverse.

And what happens next? Nothing short of a miracle. Despite Jonah’s lazy, willful disobedience, the Ninevites repent, cast themselves upon God’s mercy, and God spares them. And is Jonah happy? Of course not. Jonah complains to God again: “You see this is exactly why I didn’t want to come here. I knew you would be merciful to these people. And they have no right to your forgiveness.”

God chastises Jonah, telling him that he has no right to judge who is worthy or unworthy—and that worthiness isn’t even really the point. And so of course the story ends with Jonah learning his lesson, cherishing God’s mercy, and preaching it to all nations until the end of his days, right? Wrong. The story ends with Jonah baking in the desert sun grumpy, disappointed, and angry at God.

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.” Yikes.

Jonah is not a redeemed figure. And any attempts to make him so are unfaithful to the story. The point of the story is not Jonah’s redemption, it’s Nineveh’s—or better yet it’s that the good news of God’s grace and mercy will come out no matter what obstacles might stand in the way. Nineveh repents not because Jonah is an exceptional preacher, but because God is exceptionally faithful, and the Holy Spirit is exceptionally persistent.

It seems strange to compare Simon and Jonah. On the face of it they seem rather like opposites.
Jonah drops what he’s doing to run away from God; Simon drops what he’s doing to follow God.
Jonah sleeps calmly through storms on the sea; Simon panics through storms on the sea.
Jonah gets caught by a fish; Simon catches fish.
Jonah knows exactly what God is doing; Simon rarely knows what God is doing.
Jonah is not at all eager to perform for God; Simon is extremely eager to perform for God.
These two seem to have nothing in common. So why does Jesus compare them?

Because of this one thing: intentionally or unintentionally, both men struggle to proclaim the good news of God’s mercy and grace. Jonah’s career is marked by intentional choices to defy and deflect God’s mercy. Peter’s early career is marked by repeated misunderstandings of God’s mercy. And yet the Holy Spirit still manages to preach the good news through both of them. Jonah’s seemingly unuttered message of repentance and Simon’s loudly proclaimed message of Messiah are not the work of these two men, but the work of the Holy Spirit through these two men.

After giving Simon the rather humbling title of “Son of Jonah”, Jesus appears to make up for it by bestowing upon Simon yet another name: Peter. That’s a better name than “son of Jonah.” Perhaps now Simon is finally getting his pat on the back. But even this grand new name is undermined by what Jesus says next. Jesus says, “On this rock I will build my church.” We assume that rock is Peter, but if we take seriously what we just learned in our comparison between Peter and Jonah, then Jesus is not calling Peter the foundation, but rather Peter’s faithful confession that Jesus is the Messiah. And of course, it’s not Peter’s confession. It’s the Holy Spirit’s confession through Peter. Once again, poor Simon Peter is humbled.

It’s perhaps depressing to get to the end of this story and realize that Simon isn’t really commended at all. He continues to be humbled again and again. Shouldn’t this news that Jesus is the messiah bring Simon joy and excitement? Yes, maybe not in the ways we might expect.

Simon’s revelation brings joy, not because he earns a pat on the back, but because he now basks in the newly revealed truth of who Jesus is. The difference between Jonah and Simon is the difference between ego and humility. Despite being humbled over and over again, Jonah’s ego continues to block his view of God. He cannot see God’s mercy for the good thing that it is. But Simon, humbled over and over again, is finally able to see past his own ego, his own pride, his own need to be the best or the smartest or the most faithful. And in that moment he is able to see Jesus for who Jesus really is and understand why God’s mercy is such a good thing.

Simon’s revelation is also an unburdening. The truth of the story of Jonah, a story Jesus connects to Simon’s confession, is that the good news of the gospel will be proclaimed whether we are perfect preachers or not. The success or failure of God’s great ministry of mercy and grace does not depend upon us, but upon God. And that is very good news, because while the stories of Jonah and Simon show us just how limited our abilities are, they also reveal just how vast the Holy Spirit’s abilities are.

When we can finally come to see that this does not ultimately depend upon us, then we can finally come to see the beauty of God’s mercy and grace at work in this world.

And so, as we near the end of this Lenten season, may God bestow upon you a new name: child of Jonah!

Amen.