Oh, For a Prophet Like Jonah!

Jonah in the SeaThis Sunday, the 3rd in Ordinary Time, we hear of the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus:

"Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news[i] of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1.14-15)

Then, like now, the good news is needed, and it must be announced in a voice that resonates the power of God. Jesus did it perfectly, but he wanted others to share the mission. And so this week too we return to the theme of vocation introduced last week with passages from I Samuel and John 1, this time in Mark’s words:

"As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. (Mark 1.16-20)

On our better days, I am sure we all pray for grace to be as quick and generous and fearless as these first disciples, as well as the unmentioned women too. But as I asked last week: what about others, those who might hesitate, disagree about where Jesus intends to lead them, run in the opposite direction? For God chooses stubborn people too, rebels who end up doing God’s work, despite themselves.

To illustrate this, we have the refreshingly contrary story of Jonah, that mysterious man who does not want to do God’s will, but does it marvelously despite himself. To understand the too short passage from the Book of Jonah (3.1-5, 10) we hear in church, however, we need to understand the whole book, which is really a short drama in four acts. In Act One, Jonah hears the voice of God — and runs the other way, for whatever reason, we cannot be sure — perhaps because he, a Jew, does not want to help the pagans in Nineveh? The account begins simply enough:

"Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1.1-3)

But a great storm at sea arises, and the ship is sinking. Jonah finally confesses to the sailors that the storm is sent by God to thwart his escape. He urges the men to throw him overboard, which they reluctantly do. He is a good man, not wanting the sailors to perish; perhaps he also wants to die and get it over with. Then surely God will leave him alone!

in the whaleImmediately the storm ends, and most famously, a great fish (henceforth, let us say “whale”) swallows Jonah. Somehow safely stored in the belly of the whale, in Act Two Jonah is alone on stage, and again he shows that even when he is rebelling, he is a good person who is intimately in touch with God. Here is part of his moving prayer:

"I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me... I went down to the land whose gates closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. (2.2-3, 6b-7)

At God's bidding, the kindly whale then ejects Jonah onto the beach. At the start of Act Three, he once more hears God’s voice. This time, perhaps stunned by the fact that he is still alive, Jonah finally does what he is asked to do. He goes to the great city of Nineveh, and manages to convert the entire city in a few days:

"The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. (3.1-5)

The king agrees, and mourning becomes the official policy of the city, for himself and even for the animals of Nineveh:

"When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. (3.6-8a)

What more could anyone ask?!

Jonah escapesThereupon God decides not to destroy the city:

"When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (3.1-10)

But the saga is not over. Act Four begins with Jonah now seeming once more to resent the power that had flowed through him, despite himself — as if he still wants to see Nineveh destroyed, or at least to die himself:

"But this conversion of Nineveh was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4.1-3)

The Lord chides him for his anger, but Jonah sulks in the desert heat. God then is gentle, but with a twist: he makes a shady bush for Jonah to rest under, and for this small kindness Jonah is very grateful. But the next morning God sends a large worm that kills the bush – and now Jonah is furious that the bush has withered and its shade been lost to him. Ever honest, once again he complains. But the Book of Jonah ends as God drives home one more lesson:

“Jonah, is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” “Yes, angry enough to die!”

“You care for a bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow, though it came into being in a night and perished in a night? Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals too?” (4.9-11)

God loves people and whales and small animals and worms too, for they too do God’s bidding. Would not God care for Jonah too?

Jonah under the bushWe don’t have Jonah’s response to God, since there is no Act Five — unless the Book of Jonah itself is Jonah’s response. That is, with brutal honesty he writes down the story of his own stubbornness, and of the stern but saving God who pursued him even when he refused to cooperate; a God whose mercy is greater than his justice, the Lord who got Jonah to do greater things than he ever wanted to do. Jonah's message: it is amazing that once upon a time, God spared Nineveh by means of my word; but it is amazing too, even now, that God did not give up on people like me, but has worked wonders through us no matter how hard we try to run away. God and I fought, God won, and so I became the instrument of God’s good news to people at the edge of doom. I was still stubborn and hard to please, but God never gave up on me. So too you, my reader, Jonah seems to be saying.

For every John and James, Peter and Andrew, there may be many more Jonahs among us, unexpectedly doing God’s will even when we think we cannot, will not: irritable, disgruntled, distrusting, and yet in the end amazing instruments of a love greater than ourselves. Pray then to be like Peter and the others — but if you have no such lofty hopes, pray simply to be like Jonah, saved and saving in the ups and downs of your own life, simply because God knows better than we do what we are capable of, the love we can show even when we are tempted to give up, run the other way.

(You can find an earlier, oral version of this homily in the OLOS parish mass for this weekend here.