Proper 3,  January 25, 2015

Jonah 3

Sometimes, I have to admit, I get a bit frustrated with the lectionary that guides our Sunday readings. In principal, I am a great believer in the lectionary. I think it is hugely important that we hear Scripture week after week as a voice that comes to us from the outside, that we are challenged to hear and respond to (“hear what the Spirit is saying to the church”) – not as something the preacher has chosen in order to reinforce whatever points he or she wants to make in a sermon. You see the difference: where the passages come from determines how we listen to them. Is the Scripture something I as preacher control, something I can wield as a tool to work my purposes, or even as a weapon to clobber my enemies? To listen to the preaching in some churches, that’s what it can end up being. Or is it a Word that comes to us from beyond, that we – you and I together – are called to listen to obediently, to try to make sense of for our lives, to hear the challenge it contains and respond to it? There is an important principle at stake here, and that principle makes it worthwhile to use the lectionary, whatever its occasional failings may be.

Well, this morning we are faced with one of the lectionary’s failings, in our Old Testament reading from the book of Jonah. The lectionary often does not treat the Old Testament well. It leaves out huge bits, necessarily, I suppose. It often treats the Old Testament passage as just a prelude to the main event of the gospel, rather than letting it speak with its own voice. And it often edits a passage down severely and clumsily, so the whole wonderful art of Biblical storytelling gets lost. Today’s reading is a case in point. This is the only time we get to hear from the book of Jonah in all the three years of the lectionary cycle; and what we hear is chosen out of context and edited down to give a completely false impression.

Listening to this passage, you would think that Jonah is a pious and inspiring story about one particularly successful preacher of repentance. What gets lost in translation, is that the book of Jonah is actually a book of high comedy, a merciless satire of religious tribalism. It is one of the funniest passages in the Old Testament – though there are others. Unfortunately, the good fathers who chose our lectionary texts appear to be somewhat challenged in the humour department.

Of course, there is the well-known beginning of the story. Jonah is called by God to bring the wicked city of Nineveh to repentance. Nineveh, the ancient capital of the brutal Assyrian empire, is Sin City in the Hebrew imagination – might as well go preach in Vegas. Jonah, famously, immediately springs to attention and hits the road – in exactly the opposite direction, fleeing to the ends of the earth, to Tarshish (which was probably Spain) to get away from the job he has been sent to do. And then there was the business with the great fish, which swallowed him up and spat him out on the shore not too far from Nineveh. It is hard to think of a less dignified entrance for the mighty prophet of the Lord.

Cue up the reading we just heard: prophet vents, city repents, God relents. But note some of the details. Nineveh was a great city, three days journey across; Jonah walked for a day before he gave his message. He didn’t even bother to go right downtown, to deliver his message in front of the king’s palace or something. It’s as though he were being sent to bring a message to Province House, and he delivers his sermon in the parking lot of a strip mall somewhere on the Bedford Highway. Jonah clearly is still not making much of an effort.

But lo and behold, even this little effort has an effect. The people hear his message, and respond: “You know, he’s right. We do need to repent of our evil ways before we come to a bad end.”  The king proclaims fasting and prayer. There is something comical about the unexpectedness of all this. Not to mention the king’s proclamation, which addresses itself not only to the people of Nineveh, but also the animals: they too are to fast, put on sackcloth, and cry out to the Lord. Clearly we are not intended to take this too seriously.

God relents and spares the city, and the story moves on to the high comedy of the fourth and final chapter. Jonah is angry, and throws a huge sulk, because God has not destroyed the city. Rather than rejoicing that his warning has been heeded, he is angry with God, because in his mind God has made him look like a fool. In fact, he tells God, that’s why he ran away in the first place: “I knew you would do this, I know you are a merciful God, and now you’ve made me look stupid!”  And so he sits down on a hill overlooking the city and sulks, waiting for God to rain down fire from heaven.

Clearly we are dealing with satire here. The book of Jonah is evidently making fun of a certain type of prophet, something like the televangelists of its day: so-called prophets who are more concerned with their own personal gratification than with the well-being of others; prophets who trade in wholesale condemnation of large groups of people as evil sinners, because it makes them feel better about themselves. A popular strategy, then as now. In fact, the period after the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile harboured an ugly streak of xenophobia. In the book of Ezra, for example, Israelites are commanded to divorce their foreign wives, in order to uphold a standard of ethnic purity. Ugly stuff. But the Biblical literature from this period also contains several protests against this xenophobia. The book of Ruth, which tells the story of King David’s foreign grandmother, is one. The book of Jonah is another, which rests on the conviction that the most effective weapon against tyrants and bullies is mockery. And I for one find it absolutely wonderful that it has a place in our sacred Scripture!

The issues that Jonah addresses are still with us; in fact, they are as current as ever. The city of Nineveh has long since fallen in ruins; but a new city grew up around it two thousand years ago, a city whose name will be familiar to you from the news: Nineveh is called Mosul today. Mosul, the centre of the Islamic State in Iraq. Clearly violence and destruction still has its grip on Nineveh; the need to repent is still there.

What is also still with us today is prophets like Jonah: prophets who look to build themselves up by demonizing others; prophets who mix religion and national identity in a fatal way, so that the war on terrorism has become a war on Islam, and Christianity has been coopted to serve the goal of Western power. Prophets who only want to call down fire from heaven upon their enemies; prophets who don’t want to know about God’s compassion and mercy; prophets who have forgotten that the people of Nineveh also are God’s beloved children.

The book of Jonah ends with the prophet sitting on a hillside waiting for Nineveh to be destroyed. His massive sulk has just been redoubled because the vine that had given him shade has just died, and he is apparently too stubborn to move out of the sun. To him, to the prophet who cares more about his personal comfort than the lives of thousands of those foreigners, God has the last word:

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.