01/21/18 – Outside the Comfort Zone in Ninevah

Outside the Comfort Zone in Ninevah

January 21, 2018
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Jonah 3:1-10; Mark 1:14-20
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


In this, the third Sunday of Epiphany, our Old Testament, and Gospel readings highlight one particular type of “epiphany,” that is a call from God. Those called are Jonah called to be a prophet and four fishermen called to be Jesus’ disciples. As Christians, the Gospels and the Epistles assure us we all receive calls, but for different types of service, carried out in different ways according to our abilities. The tricky part is recognizing a call, discerning for what we are called to do, and then accepting the call and following through. Or, as Hamlet lamented: “There lies the rub.”

The book of Jonah is categorized as one of the books of the prophets. The biblical definition of a prophet is a person who speaks for God or speaks by divine inspiration for the benefit of the people of Israel.  Actually, Jonah was not a prophet, the author of the book of Jonah was a prophetic writer. The author chose to send his message to the Jewish exiles in Persia in the form of a satirical story. This prophetic writer was urging the exiles to remember they have been chosen not just to be blessed, but to be a blessing to others. The Abrahamic covenant stated that Abraham’s descendants were chosen to bring all peoples on earth to God.

The book of Jonah is a story, which was intended to be read or told in its entirety. Since I doubt you wanted to hear the entire story read, I will assume that most of you know the whole story and I will try to include as many important parts as I can for those who do not.

There are absurdity and humor in this story that would have been obvious to the audience of the day. The audience would have recognized the story of Jonah as a fictitious satire. Because it addresses human behavior and sin that is timeless it does have much to say to us today. The points are sharp enough to have burst the inflated egos of the Israelites then, and ours today.

The author chose the name of an obscure biblical figure of a bygone era to be the main character. If you look hard enough you will find Jonah’s name in 2 Kings (14:25) — Jonah ben Amittai, ben being the Hebrew word for “son of” just as in the opening of this story introducing Jonah. In this story about a fictional Jonah, Jonah represents Israel. This story was written about 200 years after the Assyrian Empire defeated Israel. The Assyrians were the Israelites’ bitter enemies, not only because of the invasion but also because the Assyrians had been cruel conquerors. Ninevah, being the capital city of the Assyrian Empire was representative of Israel’s archenemy of an earlier time. Ninevah was the last place an Israelite would want to go, yet in this story, God sent Jonah there. To rub more salt into the Israelites’ wounded pride, God tells Jonah up front that he is prepared to be merciful and compassionate by giving them the chance to repent.

This is the concept Christians know from Jesus’ assertion that we must love our enemies. That was as hard for Jonah as it is for us. Jonah doesn’t want his enemy off the hook. As the children of Israel believed themselves to be favored by God as God had promised, Jonah took that one step further and decided that divine judgment should follow human judgment – not the other way around. If he thought the people of Ninevah should be destroyed, so should God. Like a spoiled child who wants his parents to punish a brother or sister that annoys him, Jonah is angry at God for not rushing to punish the Ninevites.

To make the message of the story really obvious, the author sets up a ridiculously unrealistic juxtaposition between the Gentile sailors and Jonah and between the Ninevites and Jonah. While Jonah sleeps with careless disregard for the sailors fighting against the stormy seas, the sailors pray to their gods. When they admonish Jonah for doing nothing to help save them, He arrogantly announces he is a Hebrew who worships the one God who created the sea and dry land, a reference to the Genesis 1 creation story. When Jonah is revealed to be the one who has disobeyed God, he tells them he must be thrown overboard. But the Gentile sailors are compassionate and continue their struggle against the storm, not wanting to harm Jonah. When their own efforts fail, they submit their wills to God and throw Jonah overboard. The sea calms and they have an immediate conversion to faith in the one true God. These non-Jewish sailors suddenly become perfectly obedient Jews — the story tells that they prayed, they “offered sacrifices, and they made vows.”

After three days in the big fish’s belly, Jonah returns to Ninevah and reluctantly agrees to deliver God’s warning message that the city has 40 days to repent. The whole city and their king don’t wait one day, much less 40. They immediately perform the Jewish ritual of wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes as a sign of their repentance – pretty unlikely behavior for Assyrians! They even go to the ridiculous extreme of dressing up all of the animals in sackcloth. I have two pretty domesticated dogs living in my house, but sackcloth would last less than five seconds on their bodies. I doubt you could get a sackcloth even near a cat before he fled under the nearest piece of furniture —  or went on the offensive.

Jonah doesn’t carry this message in his heart when he delivers God’s words to the people of Ninevah. For Jonah, the worst that could happen would be for the Ninevites to do what God wants. Jonah wouldn’t have made a very good evangelist either. He cannot bear the thought that his enemies might be capable of good and not only evil. That would make them too much like himself. He might have to have some empathy for them. Worse, yet, Jonah might have to look at himself to judge his own obedience to God and the purity of his own motives.

So, Jonah goes off to sulk and pout inside his own little booth. His actions speak more loudly than words to humanity and God. Jonah has put up his own defenses. ‘This is the little space that I made all by myself and you keep out of it because I don’t need you.’ This is the view of political isolationists, anti-immigrationists and economic and social elitists.

God then teaches Jonah a lesson about our dependence on God’s good gifts. God gives Jonah a bush to protect him from the heat of the sun and then allows a worm to eat it, so Jonah feels the uncomfortable heat once again. Jonah is so distraught over the demise of the bush he once again wishes he were dead. He would rather be dead than wrong. But, even more, important to Jonah, he would rather be dead than not superior to the Ninevites. To consider the possibility that there were good people, innocent people, maybe even people who are willing to change there would threaten Jonah’s worldview and his place of presumed privilege. Jonah would rather be dead than to be compassionate and merciful to the Ninevites.

This ideology lies at the heart of those that want to demonize the poor, the newest immigrants, and the non-white. One story of a poor person who could work but does not condemns all poor people. One case of welfare fraud demonizes welfare recipients, even though their numbers are minuscule in comparison to the number of individuals and corporations that hide their income, or exploit legal loopholes, to avoid paying taxes. Oh, we know Jonah very well! Jonah is the archetype privileged, self-centered, scape-goating, hypocrite. Jonah would rather suffer or die than have a Ninevite receive even a small, simple blessing.

Since this satirical story is meant to teach a moral lesson, justice and mercy prevail. A grumbling, unrepentant Jonah goes back to preach to the Ninevites and they respond with repentance and an affirmation of faith in God. God’s vision, in which all the world accepts God’s reign, scores a victory. Prejudice, selfishness, and oppressive judgment loses a round. The Ninevites, not Jonah, accept God’s call.

In our gospel reading from Mark, it is four fishermen that hear and accept God’s call through Jesus of Nazareth. As Mark will make clear, these fishermen did not fully understand their call. Yet, the point Mark tries to make is that there was something so compelling about Jesus’ invitation, that against all logic, these four fishermen left their businesses and their homes to follow Jesus. We have the misconception that a divine call makes everything clear and maps out our future. The bible absolutely refutes that notion.

If we knew the future there would be no faith, no discernment, and no risk. What does the faith of someone who claims to be Christian but puts more faith in secular leaders and social conventions, does not risk any earthly power, privilege or treasure, and only follows Jesus when it is safe and convenient look like?  Do we recognize it when we see it espoused by others? Probably. Do we recognize it when it is ours? Probably not. No, it isn’t Lent yet, but in this Epiphany season, we are urged to shine a light into darkness. The spotlight is now on Evangelical Christians who are models of this kind of hypocrisy and shallow faith. But, do we not risk the sins of Jonah when we fail to examine our own faith and practice?

If you think God is not calling you, you are not paying attention. Jonah saw God’s call as a curse rather than a blessing because his perspective was limited by his own ego. That was the corporate sin of Israel that led to their demise as a powerful nation. God had chosen Israel to be a light to the Gentiles. God had blessed Israel to be a blessing to others. But, Israel had turned her back on the poor and the powerless and exploited them to profit the wealthiest and most powerful. Ultimately, Israel chose to lose everything rather than share. The once mighty nation in the ancient world should serve as a cautionary take for our own country.

When Jesus called the four fishermen, they did not stop to calculate the profit-loss margin, they followed because Jesus was offering them a life with greater purpose than security and monetary acquisition. Somewhere in their minds, perhaps beneath their consciousness, they wanted to be able to say at the end of their days, something more than “He lived a comfortable life.” I believe that is why we are here today.

We may not hear God speaking to us in this hour, but being here prepares us to be attentive. May you leave here today with a more acute awareness that God is still speaking and has a call ready especially for you.

All power, honor and glory to our Triune God.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois