3rd Sunday of Ordinary time, January 21, 2018
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm: 25:4-9; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
So let’s start with 2 questions this morning. Who here has ever suffered through a homily that claimed Jonah was a true story? Given that our Gospel is about Jesus calling apostles, who has been taught the primary topic of our 1st reading is about the call of Jonah as a prophet and how important it is to be obedient to God’s call?
Jonah is a kind of fable; it is like Aesop’s fables in the way it uses fish and cattle to add some humor to it. It’s also like Jesus’ parables, since it is a short story that has a twist in it that we might not see coming. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria (not to be confused with Syria), the most ruthless and feared nation in the Middle East at the time. The Assyrians destroyed Israel in 721 BC. They conquered through particularly brutal military tactics, including wholesale slaughter, and are remembered as the first people to attempt to rule the entire world. That sheds some light on why Jonah was particularly unwilling for this mission. He likely figured his probability of being tortured and killed upon entering Ninevah about 110%. Besides, the Assyrians were deeply hated mortal enemies of the Israelites, not people he wanted to sit next to. God wants to save their souls? Jonah can’t possibly see this mission as worth his life.
So when God called him, he understandably ran to find the first boat sailing in the opposite direction. Even the sailors, who worshiped idols and nature-type gods, understood Jonah’s God better than Jonah did. It is telling that in his prayer for God’s help, he says, “Those who worship vain idols forsake their source of mercy, but I, with resounding praise, will sacrifice to you, Lord.” In fact, the sailors found mercy by throwing Jonah into the sea, while vain Jonah neither praised God nor was willing to sacrifice much of anything. The mood is set when the whale “spews Jonah up the shore;” even the whale wants nothing to do with him.
So God tells Jonah, for a 2nd time, to announce the message that God will give him. God has to give Jonah a script of the message of repentance to read, since Jonah has clearly no desire to save the Assyrians, no interest in sharing the Word of God with them, and no love for them as neighbors. But, wonder of wonders, they repent. And God forgave them, and decided not to destroy the city. Jonah was livid with anger and told God off. “Isn’t this what I told you,” Jonah screamed, “I ran away because I knew you would forgive these scumbags. Take my life, I can’t endure this.” He simply couldn’t accept that the Assyrians had destroyed his homeland and killed so many innocent people without a thought, yet God would forgive them because they repented.
There is still more history behind this hatred. Israel had lapsed into worshiping idols again before the Assyrians overran their county. The prophet Amos had warned the Israelites that unless they repented, God would not protect them and they would be taken captive. Amos had a very personal way of explaining it to them: God can’t dwell with you any more than a man can maintain a true marriage with his wife who commits adultery. Still, the Israelites reasoned, weren’t the Israelites God’s Chosen People? Didn’t God love only them? Didn’t God at least have to protect them because they had the Temple, the priesthood, the Ark?
So, after Ninevah prayed for mercy and did acts of penance – the King, all the people, even the cattle and the sheep wore sackcloth to express their grief – Jonah still sat and waited for God to come to his senses and destroy the city of Nineveh. At first, God had a large plant grow up around Jonah to protect him from the sun. The next day, as an object lesson, God had a worm destroy the plant, and Jonah became faint from the heat, and he told God he was so angry about the plant dying that he was angry enough to die. God’s response is this: “You pity the plant, although you did nothing to grow it and only had it for one day. Then should I not pity a great city of 120,000 people, and their cattle, which didn’t know any better?” One part of the lesson is: God’s mercy and love are not only for all people, but all of his creation.
.Jonah was so absorbed in his self-righteousness and pity, he was not longer rational. How did Jonah get so confused? That is the other and primary point of this story. Not quite 100 years after the Assyrian invasion of Israel, the Babylonians invaded, and leveled the country, again, taking most of the people captive, again, for some 40 years. The people left behind were the poor and marginalized, who then intermarried with other tribes in the area. These became the people called the “Samaritans.” (Note: the Babylonians also leveled Nineveh.)
When the Israelites were released to return from captivity, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, a strong and narrow-minded Jewish nationalism developed. People were required to prove by lineage that they were “pure” Jews, and those with mixed lineage, like the Samaritans, were barred from participating in government or religious life. Prior to this, a person could become an Israelite by marriage or coming to live and participate in the community. But by the 4th Century BC, Israel had closed in on itself, no longer sharing their faith. This story is a call for Israel to repent, and to preach and practice God’s mercy and forgiveness. By putting a mirror up in front of the people, the writer hopes to show them the folly of their faults and bring them to repentance for their sins of exclusivity and hatred.
Jonah is a 4th Century BC teaching story with lots of implications for today’s world. It is the story of love and gentleness as the one successful response to hatred. It is a lesson of the faithfulness of God and how faithfulness is required from us to be able to walk with God in right relationship. It is about when nationalism goes far beyond civic pride and falls into unwarranted presumption of privilege, particularly privilege which degrades others.
Every day is “the time of fulfillment, the Kingdom of God is at hand”, Jesus told us. We also need to stop and repent of those sins we only recognize when we see them in others. One of the reasons Jesus was surrounded by disciples was to give us people to relate to. We can better hear Jesus’ teachings by identifying with the disciples mistakes.
And that means we all need to become increasingly aware of not only what we do but what we do not do. I see pictures of refugee camps and starving children daily, yet I live very comfortably. What I do not do speaks very loudly to me. Do I think I am more valuable than a child dying of starvation and cholera in Yemen? Does God find people in one nation innately more loveable than elsewhere? Being God’s chosen people brings greater responsibility, not greater privilege. Just a few blocks from us, around Coates Elementary School, live a lot of people who God chooses, too. Perhaps they should be here, sitting next to us?